It took Lauren Feiler, a stay-at-home mom in Dallas, five years to reach “skin-care nirvana,” a state that, according to Feiler, is characterized by skin that looks filtered or airbrushed without makeup (or a filter).
It has been a journey. After her son was born in 2017, Feiler, 34, was applying up to 12 products a day, including a placenta serum (made with biomimetic placenta, not human or animal placenta) and a $155 mask, at the suggestion of her facialist, to feel like her pre-baby self. Two and a half years later, the breakouts started; the biomimetic placenta went in the trash, along with the rest of her routine, save for cleanser and moisturizer.
Eventually, Feiler incorporated prescription-strength retinol and exfoliating peel pads with seven kinds of acid, rotating between the two every other night. There was some improvement, but Feiler still wasn’t bowled over with the texture of her skin.
Eight weeks ago, Feiler took up “skin cycling,” a skin-care routine trending online that seemed legitimate, at least compared with the libido gummies and collagen powders she bought because she saw them on TikTok.
The concept: a four-day cycle that alternates between the use of active ingredients and “nights off.” On Night 1, cyclers apply a chemical exfoliant; on Night 2, a retinoid; and on Night 3 and Night 4, a moisturizer. Cleansing is always the first step.
“My skin is so soft, it’s like a baby’s butt,” Feiler said. “I haven’t been able to get that texture in a long time.”
People are adopting routines similar to Feiler’s, and TikTok videos with the hashtag #skincycling are popular.
But dermatologists have been recommending routines with minimal products that promote the rotation of active ingredients for decades, albeit with their own spin and product recommendations. What was missing was a catchy name and a viral platform.
You Need a Catchy Name
“People were learning about an ingredient, getting excited about it and then just adding it to their evening routine,” said Dr. Whitney Bowe, the dermatologist in New York who coined the term “skin cycling.” She has been promoting the method across her social media channels for more than a year, offering product recommendations (from her own line, Dr. Whitney Bowe Beauty, and other brands) and tips based on skin types and budget, but only recently did the approach gain traction online.
Bowe described the philosophy as “an undoing” of sorts, or a response to the skin care excess of the pandemic, which, for many, created “real issues” with the skin barrier.
The approach is consistent with advice she gives patients, which is not to exfoliate too many times a week or mix too many ingredients on the same night. On any given day, cyclers use no more than three products before bed and only one containing active ingredients.
Bowe outlines a few ground rules as well: The cycle must be performed at night (exfoliants and retinoids make skin light sensitive and should be used before bed) and in a specific order (exfoliating on Night 1 prepares the skin for the retinoid to penetrate more effectively on Night 2).
Many dermatologists agree that skin cycling is a good approach because it can be adapted to different skin types, ages, lifestyles and budgets. At its core, the rotation and balancing of active ingredients and moisturizer help keep the skin barrier intact. Also, anything that promotes skin care in moderation is good.
“It’s the way I practice — it just didn’t have a name,” said Dr. Rosemarie Ingleton, a dermatologist in New York. “What we’re trying to do is not pile on every single active product you get your hands on and do it every night. You’re never going to get results that are worthwhile — you’re going to get irritation.”
Ingleton’s skin care brand, Rose Ingleton MD, sells four serums that each target a specific concern: hyperpigmentation, breakouts, hydration and texture. She said that patients and customers can cycle by using a different serum each night — or use the same serum every day — but they should never be used together.
Even those who consider themselves skinimalists (skin care minimalists) can over-exfoliate or pile on too many active ingredients at once, leading to irritation, including dry or inflamed skin.
This was the case for Kelly Abbott, a 33-year-old lawyer in Seattle who used Bowe’s four-day cycle as a framework.
Abbott started skin cycling because her skin was irritated from retinoid use every other day, but about one month in, her facialist told her to take just one recovery night. Together, they created a new four-day cycle: exfoliate, night off, retinol, night off and repeat. Abbott said that her skin became less red and appeared healthier.
Luisa Parra, a 25-year-old nanny in Washington, is also doing modified cycling.
For two months, Parra has been on a three-day cycle, which Bowe recommends for acne-prone skin. After a month of exfoliating, applying a retinoid and taking one recovery night, Parra said that her acne “basically stopped.”
Anyone Can Do This
“At the essence of it — going gently on your products and alternating days or nights — the dermatology community is all saying the same thing but going about it in different ways,” said Dr. Adeline Kikam, a dermatologist in Florida and owner of Skinclusive Dermatology, which plans to open in Fort Lauderdale this year.
Kikam prefers a five-night cycle. Hesitant about recommending back-to-back active ingredients, she urges people to take an extra recovery night between exfoliation and retinol nights.
Dermatologists also like that skin cycling is brand and price agnostic.
For example, Feiler prefers Dr. Dennis Gross exfoliating pads, which cost $88 for a 30-day supply, while Parra sticks to a $14.99 Neutrogena exfoliant. For moisturizer, Bowe suggests CeraVe healing ointment, about $10, or Glossier After Baume, $28, as budget-friendly alternatives to the $95 moisturizer from her own line.
Bowe said almost everyone can skin cycle, even those who have never used a retinoid. Routines are easy to modify for sensitive skin (add a third recovery night) or those who are pregnant or breastfeeding (swap the retinoid for bakuchiol, peptides or another alternative with similar effects to a retinoid).
For anyone new to active ingredients, Bowe recommended an exfoliation night followed by three nights of recovery for two to three weeks before adding a retinoid. People with really sensitive skin could make a retinoid “sandwich” on Night 2 by applying a retinoid between a base and top layer of moisturizer.
Those who want to take it to a more advanced level, Bowe said, can drop a recovery night or add a second (or third) retinoid night, and the most advanced cyclers can bump up the retinoid strength or switch from over-the-counter to a prescription version.
Still, not all dermatologists are completely sold.
“The best thing you can do to protect your skin barrier is not destroy it in the first place,” said Dr. Ranella Hirsch, a dermatologist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
She supports anything that promotes skin care in moderation but has a more conservative stance on active ingredients than Bowe. Hirsch tells patients not to chemically exfoliate if they’re already using a retinoid regularly.
“The approach I generally recommend is to slowly titrate one product at a time so that you are helping your barrier adapt, without the need to destroy it and repair on the regular,” Hirsch said, likening the skin barrier to a door that keeps things in and out. “Barrier ‘repair’ should be the regrettable exception, not the rule.”
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