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‘Skin Cycling’: A TikTok Sensation That Changed My Skin

Welcome to Beauty In A Tik, where each week we put TikTok's viral beauty hacks and innovative trends to the test.
When it comes to skincare, there's a lot of questionable information on TikTok. Recently, though, we've gleaned some incredibly helpful advice.
This month, TikTok has turned our attention to a beauty trend called, 'skin cycling', a four-part nightly skincare routine proven to help with uneven skin texture and breakouts. Before we go any further, both of these things are very common and entirely normal. That said, acne can not only be quite painful but research proves that it has a detrimental effect on confidence and self-esteem. Whether you choose to embrace or treat your skin is, of course, your prerogative.

What is skin cycling?

Dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe is credited for introducing the concept of skin cycling to TikTok, but other skin-care enthusiasts, like Michelle Zoltan and Riley Bond, agree that it's legit. It's simple: after cleansing and patting your skin dry, you either exfoliate, apply retinol, or lather on moisturizer, depending on where you are in the four-night cycle.
@drwhitneybowe Skin cycling for beginners: how to get started. And how to layer with Bowe Glowe #skincycling #thatboweglow #dermatologist #skintok ♬ original sound - Dr. Whitney Bowe
Night one consists of applying an exfoliating product to the skin, an exfoliating acid like glycoliclactic, or salicylic acid. Dr. Bowe recommends a leave-on product (like a peel pad), which she says will be most effective. Then, simply follow with your moisturizer.
On night two (again, after cleansing and patting your skin dry), choose a retinol product. This could be in the form of a serum, moisturizer, or oil, and Dr. Bowe suggests a pea-sized amount for the entire face. If you're a retinol novice, you might want to apply a little moisturizer underneath your eyes, at the corners of your mouth, and the sides of your nose first, to protect these sensitive areas of skin from irritation.
Nights three and four involve cleansing, patting your skin dry and following with a very simple and gentle moisturizer. Nothing more. This step — extended over two nights — is important as it gives your skin time to heal and ready itself for the next application of exfoliating acids followed by retinol (which can cause issues like soreness and flaky skin if you accidentally overdo it).

What are the benefits of skin cycling?

Skin cycling caught my attention not just because it has amassed an enormous 3.5 billion views on TikTok and has dermatologist backing, but because it's the ultimate routine for someone struggling with hormonal-skin issues. Throughout the summer, my face has been peppered with little red spots, whiteheads and blackheads. The prescription-strength retinol I've been using for the best part of three months has worked to some extent, but it's the little under-the-skin bumps (known as closed comedones) that bother me the most. Mainly because I pick at them, which leads to hyperpigmentation. I wondered, could skin cycling help me out?
Before I did anything, I asked Dr. Dev Patel, aesthetic doctor, dermatology expert and founder of Perfect Skin Solutions, for his take on the routine. He says it has its merits. "Primarily, this strategy should prevent overzealous skin-care users from excessive exfoliating, which can lead to dry and irritated skin due to an impaired skin barrier," says Dr. Patel. "It essentially simplifies things, as it can be confusing when one has multiple products on the bathroom shelf."

"This strategy should prevent overzealous skin-care users from excessive exfoliating ... It essentially simplifies things, as it can be confusing when one has multiple products on the bathroom shelf."

Dr. Dev Patel
Sky Clinic's Dr. Salome Dharamshi, an aesthetic doctor and skincare expert, explains that those who are acne-prone or have dull and pigmented skin will see the greatest skin benefits from skin cycling. However, anyone could give it a go to freshen up their complexion (though it may be a good idea to consult your derm if you're very dry or very sensitive). Dr. Dharamshi says a skin cycling routine is an ideal way to introduce active ingredients to the skin, giving it time to absorb those ingredients and benefit from the healing cycle. "You're most likely to notice significant improvements in skin texture, including a reduction in pore size," adds Dr. Patel. "Those with oily or acne-prone skin and even pigmentation may also notice improved skin."

"You're most likely to notice significant improvements in skin texture, including a reduction in pore size."


How do you do skin cycling?

First of all, it pays to get your cleanser right. When using active ingredients, like acid exfoliators and retinol, I tend to opt for something uncomplicated, like Paula's Choice Defense Hydrating Gel-to-Cream Cleanser or CeraVe Hydrating Cream-to-Foam Cleanser.

Exfoliating night

Next, I picked up one of my favorite exfoliating products: The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution. I've used acid exfoliators like this one before, so my skin is used to them. If you're a beginner, I'd suggest something a lot gentler. Try Pixi Glow Tonic or Medik8 Press & Glow — both of which feature glycolic acid — swiped on with a cotton pad. Dr. Bowe says that a slight tingle is normal, but if it burns, rinse the product off immediately. I followed with a simple moisturizer that's fragrance-free and lightweight, yet substantially nourishing.
How do you know which exfoliating acid is right for you? "Glycolic acid is a traditional yet effective acid," says Dr. Patel, and arguably the most popular, but salicylic acid is also an excellent choice for those with acne-prone skin. You might like to try Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant. "Mandelic acid is a good all-rounder and useful for rosacea, too," says Dr. Patel, "while lactic acid is typically much gentler."

Retinol night

The next evening I reached for SLMD Retinol Serum, which I applied to clean, dry skin and then followed with the same simple moisturizer. Dr. Dharamshi says that if you have never used retinol, you should always start at a low strength (such as 0.3%) and increase the strength gradually to up to 1% — and only use it at night. R29 editors recommend La Roche-Posay Retinol B3 Serum or Selfless by Hyram Retinol and Rainbow Algae Repair Serum. If you're on a budget, The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion is a good option.

Recovery night (x2)

On nights three and four I cleansed, patted my skin dry and generously applied my simple moisturizer. [Editors Note: some good picks here would be: Augustinus Bader The Cream, CeraVe Moisturizing Cream, or Dr. Bowe's Bowe Glowe Microbiome Nourishing Cream.] Consistency is key when it comes to a routine like this. In fact, Dr. Patel says that it could take up to three months to see the results you want.

Does skin cycling really work?

@jacquelinekilikita Skin cycling is improving my acne 🙌🏼 inspired by @drwhitneybowe #skincycling #beautyinatik #skincare #skincarehacks ♬ So Much Happiness - Lux-Inspira
I've been skin cycling for just over two weeks now and while I'm still contending with skin texture and the odd cluster of whiteheads, my skin is in much better condition. It's smoother, more glowing, and I'm less tempted to pick. The spots on my cheeks have calmed down a lot, but I've noticed a tiny congregation of bumps on my chin. This is common when using a product like retinol, though, as it brings all the clogged pores to the surface (necessary for de-gunking them). I've seen the most difference in the hyperpigmentation left behind by breakouts; those red splotches are fading very nicely, thanks to the glycolic acid.
I have to note, skin cycling isn't really anything new. A similar skin-care routine was prescribed to me by consultant dermatologist Dr. Anjali Mahto some years ago when I visited her London clinic. The trio of gentle exfoliating acids, low-strength retinol, and a 'bland' moisturizer, as Dr. Mahto puts it, is a winning combination — and it has been for some time now. In other words, I trust it.

Are there any downsides to skin cycling?

Not really, says Dr. Patel. "Every single person is unique and I teach my patients to be adaptable in their approach." Dr. Patel says our skin fluctuates on a daily basis, influenced by diet, stress, sleep, menstrual cycle and more. "It is therefore important to know how to adjust your regime based on changes that may occur," which might include dialing up or down the percentage of your skin-care products, depending on how your skin is reacting.
Lastly, one thing that both experts featured in this article agree on is the need to apply a high-factor, broad-spectrum sunscreen during the daytime when using either exfoliating acids or retinol (and particularly when using both). These ingredients can make skin sensitive to sunlight so it pays to protect it at all costs — yes, even when it's cold and cloudy outside.
This story was originally published on Refinery29UK.
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