Skin Cycling 101: Everything You Need To Know

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Social media – driven skincare trends come and go (remember slugging?), but skin cycling, made popular over TikTok, where the hashtag has accrued over 3 billion views, is one that industry professionals say should actually be practiced! So let’s take a closer look.

What is skin cycling?

Skin cycling is best thought of as a a methodology for how products should be applied. Primarily, it seeks to inform how to apply the heavy hitting night time products: retinols, and acids. Most of our focus on skincare products, from beauty editor reviews to social media posts, is relegated to individual scope, the truth is that these products have to work together in real life routines. And skin cycling helps make sure we’re using the power players in ways that deliver the best results without damaging our skin.

What do I need?

Most of us already have all the products to skin cycle. Here’s the core:

  • a retinol
  • an acid
  • a moisturizer, ideally fragrance-free

Okay, now how do I do it?

You will break your evening routine into a 4-night system. 

  • Night 1: Exfoliation. This is where you’ll focus your night time routine on being exfoliation-heavy with acids to really slough off dead skin cells, and resurface the complexion. It enforces cell turnover, and ensures products are able to penetrate the skin well. Too much though, and you damage the skin barrier, upset pH, and generally sensitize and weaken your skin.
  • Night 2: Retinol. These stimulate cell turnover, and are generally known to be anti-aging heroes. Yet the more powerful they are, the more likely they are to irritate your skin. This is why we want to use them in a controlled manner. Too often, and you’ll knock your skin out of balance and overly-irritate it. But when used in the right measure, you’ll reap benefits such as reduced fine lines and wrinkles, and firmer skin.
  • Night 3 and 4: Moisturizer. We’ll skip the power players on the last two nights, and instead opt for a moisturizer to restore and replenish the skin, giving it proper time to bounce back. Think of this in terms of working out as your ‘rest days’ where your skin is allowed to take a breather. On these nights we really want to focus on restoring the barrier, and keeping inflammation at bay. It’s totally fine to apply a hydration serum, or face oil.

    * Note: obviously all skins differ, and products are different too. While this is a general schedule, you may differ how you split the evenings, e.g. maybe instead of an acid and retinol night back to back, you’ll intersperse the two with rest nights, etc. depending on what your skin can handle, and the products you’re using.

    Additionally, although it seems exfoliation and retinol should be the sole step on their respective nights, it is still expected that you would follow through with completing the rest of your routine, including a moisturizer even on those nights. The main takeaway is that we’re really trying to monitor the frequency of use of the particular active products (exfoliators/retinol) rather than the products we use daily (cleansers/moisturizers). So, with this, just remember to not stop your routine at the exfoliator or retinol, and finish all the way through!

What products do you recommend?

Moisturizer: Augustinus Badar The Cream

As much as we feel like a broken record for continuing to recommend the Augustinus Bader moisturizer, it really is that good that we’d be remiss to not recommend it. The clinical formulation evidence shows this moisturizer has a healthy mix of omegas, ceramides, and virtually all the good, anti-inflammatory, skin-soothing fats that support the skin barrier and bring the skin peace. Our co-founder, Kelsey says “It’s honestly the best traditional moisturizer I have ever used and I can consistently count on it to give me solid results. I don’t ever feel like I hit a plateau with The Cream like I do with other products. If my skin is ever sensitized I will simplify my routine and only use this to help calm inflammation and redness.” And isn’t that the whole point of a moisturizer during skin cycling?

Moisturizer: Skin by Anthos Aloe Quench Moisturizer

For a less pricey option, we happily recommend the $27 jar of Skin by Anthos Aloe Quench Moisturizer, a delicious cream that features pure aloe, squalane, and glycerin which are all known to calm and soothe the skin. This cream is sure to calm sensitized and redness prone skin, and we think it’s the perfect pairing to any retinol or acid intensive routine.

Acid: Moon Juice Acid Potion

One of our favorite acids, and definitely on the top of our lists when it comes to results. This 25% acid formula with both Alpha Hydroxy Acids and Beta Hydroxy Acids is serious business. And while the addition of adaptogens like mushrooms will give this a gentler-than-you’d-imagine feel, a powerful acid like this is exactly what skin cycling is for.

Acid: PSA Heroine Mandelic & Licorice Superfood Glow Toner

Looking for some newness to your acid routine? 2023 is supposedly the year of mandelic acid. It’s gentler, yet is said to do more than just exfoliate. This plant-derived acid clears, smoothes, and brightens the skin all at the same time. Plus, there’s superfoods, brightening licorice, and a host of other noteworthy actives that make this $35 bottle of acid toner an absolute value.

Retinol: La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment

This is a prescription strength retinol that uses the same active form of retinol as Differin (adapalene), in the same concentration. Not only is it undeniably effective as a retinol treatment, at $30, it’s a wonderful value for what otherwise would cost hundreds without insurance (this is available without insurance!). If you’re looking for clinical performance, it doesn’t get much better.

Retinol: African Botanics Retinal Night Cream

If you prefer your retinol on the luxe side with a little more moiusturizing than the standard serum, African Botanic’s Retinal Night Cream is a high performance option that uses retinaldehyde, an encapsulated bio-active, antioxidant-rich form of Vitamin A that boosts collagen, and increases cell turnover. Additionally, this richly formulated cream has anti-wrinkle marine stimulators, peptides, hyaluronic acid, and a host of other incredible actives making it ultra-strength retinol that delivers a whole lot more for those who don’t want to miss out.

Retinol: Shani Darden Retinol Reform

For those seeking something ultra high-impact, Shani Darden’s Retinol Reform is where to go. Not only does it contain retinol, but it’s also paired with lactic acid, making this serum a two-for-one. We know presenting an acid and retinol in one might sound like overage for the skin cycling system, but this could be a good pick for those who want the least amount of products with the most payoff as you’ll just need this one product for nights 1 and 2. Plus, the before and afters on this serum are just incredible.

Final Thoughts on Skin Cycling

Skin cycling isn’t actually a new concept. We’ve been figuring out how to cycle products in and out from our regimen. However, what this trend does is it finally puts something on paper about the rudimentary guidelines of how products can be used together. While we know more is not always better, and that powerful products also can irritate skin, skin cycling can be a resource in taming the power to work better for us.

If your skin is prone to sensitivity, or even if you’re just looking to see if your routine can be more structured for better results, give this a try!

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