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TREND ALERT: We are excited about TikTok's latest trend for skin cycling

In April 2021, Whitney Bowe, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City, alerted the world to a four-day skin-care regimen that took TikTok by storm. (No really, it went so viral, it inspired a similar trend for your hair.) That routine was called "skin cycling," and it’s exactly what it sounds like — a regimen that has users cycle through different active ingredients over four days. It had skin-care aficionados and novices alike re-examining each step of their lineup and jumping for joy about being able to add notoriously harsh exfoliators (e.g. retinol) into their routines with less risk for irritation.

Ahead, Dr. Bowe and dermatologists explain exactly how to start a skin cycling routine, including its steps and risks for those with sensitive skin.

@drnatashahenry Have you every heard about #skincycling This is a way to really organize and simplify your skincare routine. On night 1 you exfoliate Night 2 Retinol Night 3 Recovery Then repeat. You need to protect your #moisturebarrier and I believe this is a great way to do that especially for beginners. #skincaretipsforbeginners #drwhitneybowe #drnatashahenry #skincareroutine #skincare101 #skincaretips101 #skincaretips ♬ Rush - Ayra Starr

What is skin cycling?

Skin cycling is a regimen that alternates between using active ingredients and letting the skin rest. "It's a four-night cycling schedule: exfoliation night, retinoid night, recovery night, recovery night, repeat.” says Dr. Bowe, “You will get the most out of the active ingredients in your skin-care products while minimizing irritation by building in those needed recovery nights.”

Dr. Bowe set out to create a strategic routine that implemented all the benefits that come from using exfoliants and retinol, all while preventing inflammation and irritation of the skin with two complimentary nights dedicated to "recovery." That, and she wanted to simplify the oversaturated world of the skin-care market for her patients. “The world of skin care was becoming overly complicated, and upon listening to my patients and examining how their skin was reacting to different skin-care routines, I saw the need to streamline the skin-care routine of my patients to optimize their skin health.”

How does skin cycling work?

The concept of skin cycling allows for a balance between these two effective-yet-potentially-irritating ingredients. Alternating the use of exfoliant and retinol — and following them up with two nights of recovery — allows the skin time to build tolerance and reduces the potential of overdoing it.

Other dermatologists generally agree. As Connecticut-based board-certified dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD, says "Focusing on one active or process at a time allows for maximal results and minimal irritation. Although as time goes on, many can multitask by combining some of these steps. It often depends on comfort level and level of skin sensitivity."

But, as it goes for all skin care, you've got to consider your own specific skin type. "Starting low and going slow is great. It all depends on who you are, your skin type, and what the goal is you’re wanting to get out," Shari Marchbein, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, tells Allure. "This is a technique that allows you to build up." When it comes to her patients, she says every skin-care routine is (and should be) different. She ultimately stresses the importance of having a conversation with your dermatologist before incorporating certain products into your regimen.

If you're not ready to jump right into skin cycling, here's what Dr. Marchbein suggests: "I love the idea of alternating things, but a good skin-care routine comes with gentle cleansing twice a day, plus sunscreen and vitamin C in the morning. Once a week, Sunday night, I have patients do a chemical exfoliant." If a patient's skin can't tolerate once a week, she says she'll have them exfoliate once every two weeks.

@atlasofyouth Incorporating retinol into your skin cycling routine doesnt have to be scary! The COSRX retinol 0.1 cream is gentle and moisturizing so its perfect for beginners. And bonus tip: make sure to use sunscreen the day after retinol night! #COSRX #COSRXDermRD #COSRXDermSkincare #skincycling #retinolroutine #gentleretinol #skincare101 #skincaretips #skincyclingroutine ♬ Joyful - ProSounds

What does a skin cycling routine look like?

Night One: Exfoliate

To kickstart your skin cycling routine, Dr. Bowe recommends exfoliating the skin with a chemical exfoliant. In a video she previously shared on her Instagram, Dr. Bowe mentions that an at-home peel is gentle on the skin and provides an even degree of exfoliation. Exfoliants should always come into play after cleansing the skin – which should remain the first step — and should be followed by moisturizer, as Dr. Bowe recommends.

Not only does exfoliation rid the skin of dead cells, but it can improve skin texture and help other skin-care ingredients absorb effectively into the skin barrier. As Dr. Marchbein, MD, once told Allure, "Exfoliation, whether chemical or physical, is an important part of a skin-care routine because it helps maintain a dewy, hydrated glow, can even skin tone and texture, and can unclog pores."

Kseniya Kobets, MD, the director of cosmetic dermatology at Montefiore Einstein Advanced Care in Scarsdale, New York, says that if you have sensitive skin, you can still skin cycle, but you should approach exfoliation with caution. “Exfoliating with a physical exfoliant makes sensitive skin more at risk for irritation or allergic reaction, especially if you’re just starting out with getting exfoliants or retinoids,” she says.

Night Two: Apply retinol

The second night of Dr. Bowe's skin-cycling routine begins with cleansing, then a pea-sized amount of retinol, coated with a layer of moisturizer as the final step of your nighttime routine. “Retinoids are one of the powerful ingredients to include in your skin cycling routine.” Dr. Bowe says. However, if you try to use them too frequently, or layer them with other potentially irritating ingredients, you end up with inflammation rather than results, she adds.

"Retinol is one of the main forms of vitamin A," cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson previously told Allure. "It can help stimulate cell turnover as well as help stimulate collagen production." That means the reduced appearance of fine lines, dark spots, dark circles, and acne.

If you’re new to retinol, your skin cycling routine will need some adjustments. Retinol requires tolerance on your skin's part. For those who are just beginning to incorporate this active ingredient, Dr. Kobets has some advice: “Start by using it once a week on top of a moisturizer. Do so for a few weeks to a month, before introducing one extra night of retinoid per month, as tolerated.”

Nights Three and Four: Hydrate and repair

As for the final two nights of Dr. Bowe's skin-cycling routine, she emphasizes a full-on dedication to sole hydration and repair, which means no active ingredients are involved. It begins with washing the day away with a gentle cleanser or even partaking in some double cleansing. If you feel your skin is in need of an extra boost of hydration, a hyaluronic acid serum will do the trick, she says. Lastly comes your choice of moisturizer. An optional step four: pat a face oil onto your skin to seal the moisture in.

What are the risks of skin cycling?

Dr. Kobets says that those with sensitive and eczema-prone skin types simply won’t be able to tolerate two active ingredients in one week to start. If you fall into one of these categories, he suggests beginning your journey with just one active for a few weeks, then adding the second active once your skin has tolerated the first.

Adding any new ingredient to your routine can cause uncomfortable skin reactions, Dr. Kobets explains, but retinol, specifically can be particularly harsh. “Starting a retinoid, which works on sebaceous glands, can cause initial inflammation or irritation, or even [a] mild acne breakout,” she says. Purging, which is characterized by the appearance of red bumps or rashes, can also occur. Nazanin Saedi, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, says that purging can happen during the first eight days after introducing a new product or routine, but your skin will eventually adapt.

Should I try skin cycling?

The million-dollar question: Which skin types could best benefit from skin cycling? "Oily or combination skin could benefit from retinol and exfoliants," says Dr. Gohara. But for those who have more of a sensitive skin type, "ingredients such as retinol and chemical exfoliants can stoke the fire," she adds.

The hashtag #skincycling boasts 14.2 million views and counting for a reason — it allows skin-care newbies and veterans alike to have a schedule that's easy to maintain, all the while keeping things in control for those who tend to get too excited with active ingredients. But as Dr. Marchbein concludes, "Using good skin care is what is going to make the difference."

Knowing what ingredients will best suit you all depends on your specific skin type. Bring up the conversation with your dermatologist because every person's skin is uniquely different. Oh, and remember: If you do decide to incorporate an exfoliant and/or retinol into your routine, slow and steady wins the race. As Dr. Bowe likes to say, "When you try to push the workhorses (the exfoliating acids, the retinoids) by using them every single day, you might not even realize it but you’re damaging your skin barrier.”

You just have to listen to your skin, protect it with SPF, and always keep it hydrated — skin cycling or not.

This article originally appeared on ALLURE

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