Another day, another skincare trend. But this one is more chill than you’d expect. Our experts explain how skin cycling works and how it may make your skincare routine smoother.

Skin cycling is a four-day skincare routine that involves cycling between exfoliants, retinol-based products, and moisturizers. This allows your skin to rest which, in theory, can improve skin health and reduce irritation from active ingredients or harsh exfoliants. But does it really work?

Here’s what board-certified derms say about skin cycling.

Like many online trends, skin cycling was popularized by TikTok, but this one has some merit worth exploring.

Melanie Palm, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon at Art of Skin MD explains that this four-night skincare routine alternates between using active ingredients and recovery — or “letting the skin rest.”

“Skin cycling is nothing new,” she says. “In fact, dermatologists have been recommending this sort of turnover and skincare routine for years.”

Palm explains that while the age of the patient, emerging skin conditions, time of year, and environmental factors all play a role in skin cycling, this routine generally entails these steps:

  • One night of exfoliation. This means using active ingredients like AHAs (glycolic or lactic acid) or BHAs (salicylic acid).
  • One night of retinoids. Think retinol (available over-the-counter or in prescription strength) or tretinoin or adapalene (both are prescriptions except for Differin adapalene gel which is budget-friendly and available OTC almost anywhere, including Amazon).
  • Two nights of “recovery” or rest. Palm says these nights typically feature hydrating and/or calming skincare products. “Steps like cleansing and moisturizing generally stay the same every night of this skin cycling schedule,” she adds.

Okay, but why try this routine?

Palm tells us skin cycling can be an effective way to maintain the health of your skin barrier as it prevents you from overusing certain active ingredients that can strip or irritate your skin.

No point in anything skincare related without benefits, right?

Palm explains that skin cycling can be beneficial for those who are unsure of which skincare products to use and when in that it provides structure to your skincare routine.

“It can also be helpful in preventing one from over-exfoliating or over-using skincare products with active ingredients, which can lead to irritation, inflammation, and a compromised skin barrier,” she says.

Plus, she adds, if you’re new to chemical exfoliants and/or retinoids, skin cycling can also be an effective way to introduce these ingredients into your skincare routine without drying out or irritating your skin.”

Skin cycling drawbacks

If this is far from your first rodeo, and you know you can tolerate AHAs, BHAs, and retinoids, Palm points out that skin cycling could delay optimal results — especially since you’re likely only using these active ingredients two times a week on the skin cycling schedule.

“Ideally, one should work up to tolerating retinoid use once a day or every other day for the best results,” she says.

Palm explains that because skin cycling offers recovery days, it can usually help to minimize side effects from using active ingredients.

“However, if you’re a newbie to AHAs, BHAs, and retinoids, it’s possible you can experience some dryness and irritation if you’re just incorporating them into your routine via skin cycling,” she says.

Palm tells us to remember that these active ingredients make your skin more photosensitive.

“It’s critical to be diligent about SPF application throughout the day,” she says.

Lastly, she mentions that patch testing a new skincare product is essential to avoid a possible allergic reaction. Simply apply a little of the product to a small area before applying it all over a larger skin area.

Stephanie Saxton-Daniels, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Westlake Dermatology in Dallas, reminds us that not all skincare products and regimens are suited for everyone.

She also tells us people with flares of skin disease or those who haven’t yet seen a board-certified dermatologist for their appropriate regimens and diagnoses may need to skip skin cycling.

AKA, always see a good derm if you can before building out your routine, especially if you have any concerns that need addressing.

Palm adds that those who are pregnant or nursing should avoid using retinoids, which are a step in the skin cycling routine. “If you have eczema, rosacea, or a skin allergy, AHAs/BHAs, and retinoids can also further irritate your skin,” Palm says.

“Consult with a board-certified dermatologist if you’re unsure on how to introduce new skincare products or active ingredients into your routine,” she adds.

How soon do you see results from skin cycling?

Palm says if you’re utilizing the skin cycling method to slowly incorporate retinoids or AHAs/BHAs into your routine, you should be able to increase the frequency of utilizing these active ingredients after one month.

As we mentioned above, Palm says it’s ideal to work up to using retinoids once a day or every other day. “I recommend using chemical exfoliants up to two times weekly,” she says.

What is an example skin cycling routine?

Palm offers a handy skin cycling schedule below:

  • Night 1: Exfoliate. Remove makeup, cleanse, exfoliate with salicylic acid, and moisturize with hyaluronic acid and ceramides.
  • Night 2: Retinoids. Remove makeup, cleanse, apply tretinoin, and moisturize with hyaluronic acid and ceramides.
  • Nights 3 and 4: Recover. Remove makeup, cleanse, and apply a serum with niacinamide, peptides, or growth factor. Then moisturize with hyaluronic acid and ceramides.

Palm says that each morning of this skin cycling schedule, you’ll want to do the following steps:

  1. Cleanse
  2. Apply a vitamin C serum
  3. Moisturize
  4. Protect your skin with a broad-spectrum SPF of 30 or above

Are there any risks?

Assuming you’re using products you’re not allergic to and ones that your skin can tolerate, Palm says skin cycling is generally considered safe for most skin types.

Again, she notes that if you’re pregnant, nursing, or have a specific skin condition, you’ll want to consult your dermatologist to determine whether certain AHAs, BHAs, or retinoids are right for you right now.

Skin cycling is a simple way to let your skin get a breather in between steps or possibly avoid irritation.

It includes one night of exfoliation, followed by one night of retinoids or retinol (your preference), then two back-to-back nights of rest.

This can benefit those who have a tough time tolerating the spicy experience that active ingredients are known for.

But for those who are used to actives and can tolerate them more regularly, it may not benefit you to incorporate rest days. But no one knows your skin better than your derm, so see one if you can.