TikTok Fact Check: Does Skin Cycling Actually Work? We Asked the Experts

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It’s no secret that TikTok is where we find the coolest (and weirdest) beauty trends. But with so many grand claims being made on the platform, it’s important to be a little skeptical, which is why we’ve already asked the experts if glycolic acid can soothe dry feet, if sea moss can clear up acne or if calamine lotion is a good makeup primer. Thankfully, #BeautyTok hasn’t steered us in the wrong direction yet, but a new skincare trend making waves on the platform—skin cycling—inspired us to do our due diligence and reach out to the pros once again. We tapped a few derms to see if skin cycling actually works—and spoiler alert, you might want to switch up your skincare routine soon. 

Meet the Experts:

TikTok Fact Check: Is Calamine Lotion a Good Makeup Primer? Here's What a Dermatologist and a Makeup Artist Had to Say 

What is Skin Cycling?

Skin cycling is a four-night routine that includes exfoliation, retinoids and recovery nights. This skincare regimen focuses on alternating active ingredients (i.e. exfoliating acids and retinoids) to balance and protect your skin out throughout the week. “Skin cycling is a ‘less is more’ approach,” says Dr. Bowe. “Rather than adding more products on top of one another, the order encourages you to use products in a strategic way to complement one another and set you up for success, while dialing down unnecessary irritation.” The ultimate goal of skin cycling? Your glowiest, softest complexion yet.

Why Is Skin Cycling So Popular?

There may be a bunch of skincare trends out there, but this one was started by an actual professional. Dr. Whitney Bowe, a board-certified dermatologist, coined the term skin cycling after seeing patients over-exfoliating, layering ingredients incorrectly and using way too many products in their routine. She sought to create a simple routine everyone can follow: “The beauty of skin cycling is that you can adjust your cycling schedule to meet your skin where it is,” explains Dr. Bowe. “I’ve gotten feedback from people around the world that one of the reasons skin cycling is so helpful [to them] is that it’s so organized and reduces stress and confusion surrounding self-care and skincare.” And let’s not forget, her viral video and the hashtag #skincycling has more than three billion views combined, so safe to say this trend is definitely worth a shot. 

OK, So Does Skin Cycling Actually Work?

As the routine’s creator, it’s no surprise Dr. Bowe approves of skin cycling, but according to other derms we asked, her method is totally legit. There might not be any studies or research into skin cycling just yet, but trying a minimal skincare routine and alternating between active ingredients (i.e. acids, retinoids and exfoliants) doesn’t seem like a crazy concept to try out. “One of the main benefits of skin cycling is that it helps people to use their skincare products on a more consistent basis,” explains Dr. Brendan Camp, a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology. “One of the biggest hurdles of using skin care products is using them regularly and for extended periods to benefit from them.” Plus, this new schedule promises to balance your skin and limit yourself from overdoing it, what’s the harm in that? 

What Are the Steps of Skin Cycling?

As mentioned, skin cycling is pretty simple to follow. Remember: exfoliation, retinoids, recovery and repeat. For a more detailed breakdown, check out your new regimen below:

Night One: Exfoliation

Exfoliation helps remove any dead skin cells for a cleaner, smoother surface. The technique also brightens your skin, minimizes scarring and fights acne. But when it comes to exfoliating, some tend to overdo it , so exfoliating once every cycle can reduce irritation and dryness. Once you clean your face, Dr. Bowe recommends using a chemical exfoliant over a physical one (as it can be too harsh for sensitive skin) before putting on a gentle moisturizer. To find the best exfoliant for your skin, the derms we spoke to prefer ingredients like salicylic acid, glycolic acid and lactic acid. 

Dermatologists’ Recommendations: Dr. Whitney Bowe Exfoliation Night Resurfacing + Brightening Serum ($79); Kate Somerville Exfolikate Intensive Exfoliating Treatment ($98); Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment ($122); SkinCeuticals C+ AHA ($138)

Night Two: Retinoid

Retinoids are derived from vitamin A that can treat and improve the skin. But overuse of retinoids can also cause irritation, dryness and/or redness. Once you cleanse your face, apply a pea-size amount to your skin before moving on to your moisturizer. Tip: Dr. Bowe suggests prepping the most sensitive areas (aka eye area, smile lines, neck and chin) with moisturizer prior to applying the retinol to protect and avoid irritation. 

To find the best retinoid for you, Dr. Sarah Boyce Sawyer, a board-certified dermatologist at Dermatology & Laser of Alabama, says pay close attention to the concentration and type (aka retinol versus tretinoin) based on your skin sensitivity. “Beginners should start with a low concentration of retinol,” she stresses. “As your skin becomes used to the ingredient, you can opt for products with a higher concentration of retinol.” 

Dermatologists’ Recommendations: Skinceutical Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream ($80); Kiehl’s Retinol Fast Release Wrinkle-Reducing Night Serum ($80); Dermalogica Overnight Retinol Repair ($92)

Nights Three & Four: Recovery

These two nights give your skin time to breathe. “On recovery nights, you want to focus on nourishing your skin microbiome and repairing your skin barrier, so think hydration and moisture,” says Dr. Bowe. Avoid active ingredients and look for nourishing ones like hyaluronic acid, squalene and glycerin instead. Clean your face before applying the hydrating product (i.e. face mask, serum and/or face oil) and finishing off your routine with a moisturizer. 

Dermatologists’ Recommendations: La Roche Posay Toleraine Double Repair Face Moisturizer ($20); Avène Cicalfate + Restorative Protective Cream ($28); Aēsop Parsley Seed Antioxidant Facial Hydrating Cream ($77)

Can All Skin Types Try Skin Cycling?

Absolutely. While skin cycling is great option for sensitive skin, other skin types can add this method to their routine as well. “Skin cycling on a four-day cycle may be too light or rigorous for your skin, but you can adjust the cycle based on your skin type,” explains Dr. Sawyer. If you have acne-prone or oily skin, Dr. Bowe suggests removing a recovery night and increasing your retinoid amount, in a process she calls Advanced Skin Cycling. But if you have very sensitive skin or you’re an active ingredient newbie, Dr. Bowe recommends adding more recovery nights instead, which is known as Gentle Skin Cycling (one exfoliation night and three recovery nights). Simply put: There’s a way to make the method work for everyone.

Bottom Line: 

Skin cycling is a great way to stick to a skincare routine at night and give your skin time to tolerate products (especially ones with high active ingredients). On that note, all the experts emphasize starting out slow and being patient. Some may see results after two full cycles but don’t be discouraged if you don’t see results right away. Everyone’s skin is different, so practice consistency for the best outcome.

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Associate Editor, Ultimate Fangirl, Aspiring Beauty Guru

Chelsea Candelario is an Associate Editor at PureWow. She has been covering beauty, culture, fashion and entertainment for over a decade. You'll find her searching the internet...