What is the skin cycle? This is what happened when I tried it

CThe ring for my skin has been a journey. After dealing with an acne-prone complexion as a teenager, I spent much of my 20s relying on YouTube education and 12-step regimens that involved layering products and mixing acids and vitamins that didn’t have to mix. But thanks to TikTok’s famous new “skin cycling” method, after years of trying my hardest, I’ve finally struck the right balance.

Keep scrolling to find out what makes the process so great, and learn exactly what happened when I tried it for myself.

What is the skin cycle?

“Skin cycling is a deliberate and strategic approach to skin care that involves cycling your skin care routine at night to get results while minimizing irritation,” explains Whitney Bowe, MD, dermatologist certified by the board that invented the skin cycle method.

The approach uses a four-night cycle: on the first night, you exfoliate; on night two, you use a retinoid; and on nights three and four, you allow your skin to recover. Then, you start the process all over again. The idea is that by dividing up your assets, you give your skin a chance to reap its individual benefits while also giving it plenty of time to recover and reset. “Your muscles need recovery days, your mind needs recovery days, so it makes sense that your skin benefits from recovery days, too,” says Dr. Bowe.

Given the amount of conflicting information out there about the best way to apply ingredients, this simple approach makes it easy for people to use different actives correctly without sensitizing their complexion (which can happen if you use too many harsh ingredients at once). “Particularly on social media, the answers are all over the place, and we’re seeing angry, irritated skin as a result,” says Dr. Bowe. “Instead of adding more products on top of each other, the skin cycle encourages you to strategically use products to complement each other.”

According to Dr. Bowe, it only takes two cycles, or eight days, to see results. “You can expect to see a healthier glow, and your skin will feel more hydrated and smoother overall,” he says, adding that things will get even better over time. “If you keep up with the skin cycle, in the next few months you will really see that transformation, when fine lines, wrinkles, breakouts and dark spots can start to improve.”

@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

Is skin cycling for everyone?

The Skin Cycle is great for any skin type, but because it includes “rest” days, it can be especially helpful for those with sensitive skin. “Skin Cycling is particularly beneficial if you are new to using exfoliating serums, retinoids, have sensitive skin, or have a skin condition like rosacea,” says Dr. Bowe.

What happened when I tried the skin cycle?

Night 1: exfoliation

Traditionally, exfoliation was something I only did when my face felt stuffy or my makeup didn’t fit. Now, a few weeks into the skin cycle, it’s non-negotiable.
“Reach for chemical exfoliators instead of harsh physical exfoliators,” says Dr. Bowe. “This type of peel gives your skin an immediate glow, but it also sets you up to make the most of night two, the night of retinoids.” He also recommends choosing an exfoliant that has a mix of acids rather than a single highly concentrated acid, as they work more effectively, and suggests avoiding formulas that include olive oil and essential oils. I’ve been using Summer Fridays Soft Reset AHA Exfoliating Solution ($56), as it includes a blend of lactic acid, niacinamide, and glycolic acid, but Paula’s Choice and Sunday Riley also offer excellent exfoliating options that fit Dr. Bowe.

“In addition to your exfoliating product, you want to apply a fragrance-free moisturizer that specifically rebalances the skin’s microbiome and repairs the skin barrier,” says Dr. Bowe. “You don’t want to use a product that is too heavy or greasy because that can push the exfoliating acid into the skin and create unnecessary irritation.”

Night 2: Retinoids

“Retinoids are one of the most powerful ingredients to include in your skin cycling routine, but if you use them too often or combine them with other potentially irritating ingredients, you won’t get optimal results,” shares Dr. Bowe. Guilty.

I have been using a dermatologist-prescribed tretinoin, a topical retinoid that cleanses pores and diminishes the appearance of fine lines, discoloration, and uneven texture, for about a year. Initially, it worked wonders, but eventually, my skin started to stabilize and I wasn’t seeing the same kind of results. After just four rounds of the skin cycle (in which my retinoid use has been limited to once every four days), my skin looks noticeably more hydrated, radiant, and smooth.

If you have sensitive skin, Dr. Bowe suggests applying a moisturizer before your retinoid, particularly around the eyes, the corners of the nose, and the mouth, to act as a buffer. And no matter what skin type you have, apply a barrier-boosting moisturizer over your retinoid to ensure your complexion stays adequately hydrated.

Nights 3 and 4: recovery

Recovery nights were the hardest for me because I was so used to using active products as part of my evening routine. “Give your skin a chance to recover and focus on nourishing your skin’s microbiome and repairing your skin barrier,” shares Dr. Bowe.

Knowing the importance of hydration and moisturizing for recovery night, Dr. Bowe formulated her own repair cream, Bowe Glowe, which has been clinically tested to confirm that it can help repair the skin barrier in just one hour, although also recommends the following. If her skin needs even more moisture, she suggests using a light oil like Indie Lee Squalane Face Oil.


Over the past month, I’ve completed several rounds of the four-day skin cycle method, and my skin has thanked me. With a brighter, smoother complexion, I have found myself using less foundation and letting my natural skin shine through. I have also noticed that the fine lines on my forehead have become less visible, and slight amounts of rosacea on my cheeks have also diminished. Initially, I found it difficult to limit my products, especially if I was only using tretinoin once every four days. But now, it’s second nature and I feel more informed about the role and purpose of each product in the cycle. The skin cycle has been the best thing I’ve done for my complexion in a long time, and especially if your skin has stagnated, I encourage you to try it yourself. You can thank me (but especially Dr. Bowe) later.

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