A very quick glance at my TikTok will show that I do indeed like cat videos. But the topic dominating my algorithm? An endless stream of beauty hacks. If it's something that'll save me time and money, I'm here for it. In fact, it was during a late-night scroll sesh that I stumbled upon my now fave skincare trend – and it's one that's also science-based and dermatologist-approved. Enter: skin cycling.
There's a never-ending stream of viral trends out there, but many are, at best, highly debatable –looking at you, hand-whisked foundation and using lube as primer – and, at worst, verging on dangerous. But skin cycling is one that's generated over 3.5billion views on the platform for good reason and has been praised by experts, including celebrity aestheticians Shani Darden and Amber Rose Johnson. And it's going to get bigger. Beauty Pie's 2023 trends report saw a 26 % surge in searches around 'skin cycling. So, what's all the fuss about?
Skin cycling doesn't require a uni-level degree in chemistry. In simple terms, 'it's a way of strategically organising your skincare regime by cycling and planning your use of products', says skin specialist Tara Francis. 'It helps optimise the effectiveness of your products and reduces irritation often caused by active ingredients or not giving your skin enough time to recover between applications!
Dubbed the '5:2 diet for your face', skin cycling involves using actives two nights a week – this could include retinol or AHAs, as well as BHAs or PHAs. Pick your active according to your skin type and needs. On the third or fourth day called 'rest' day trade them in for barrier-boosting, hydrating ingredients. Then repeat.
Skin cycling streamlines your routine in a way that's effective and easy.
The term was coined by US dermatologist Whitney Bowe. The lightbulb moment came through Dr Bowe's work in a clinic. In a TikTok video, the New York-based skin expert explains, 'I've treated thousands of patients for over a decade as a dermatologist, and I find that one of the top mistakes people make when it comes to their skincare is that they don't build in nights for their skin barrier to recover. People were taking a kitchen-sink approach to their skincare, mixing and matching ingredients that simply don't play well together in the sandbox.
'There's also been a huge focus on ingredient-specific products, looking at the percentages of each active, with a "more is better" obsession.' she continues. According to Dr Bowe, this leads to an 'overly complicated' routine, and she often sees patients with irritation and red blotches as a result.
In contrast, skin cycling gives your routine a steady pace that's effective and easy to follow. And it makes you more 'thoughtful and deliberate', says Dr Bowe. 'Rather than adding more products on top of one another, it encourages you to use products in a strategic way to complement one another.'
Unlike the TikTok skin trends that cause conflicting debates, many dermatologists and skin experts agree with Dr Bowe. Aesthetic skin doctor Sophie Shotter tells Cosmopolitan: 'The main benefit is you can use active ingredients that you may be concerned about without risking overloading your skin and causing problems or flare-ups!'
Junior doctor and skincare content creator Kemi Fabusiwa adds, 'Active ingredients effectively speed up skin cell renewal, which can help to combat different skin concerns such as premature ageing, hyperpigmentation and acne, depending on which one you're using. The trouble is, when you're using these powerful ingredients every day, the cumulative drying and irritating side effects may outweigh the benefits and damage your barrier.'
This is where those trusty rest days come in. 'To counteract these effects, you can use hydrating barrier-friendly ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, polyglutamic acid and ceramides on the other nights.' she tells me.
These hydrating heroes all come with a range of benefits to keep your complexion healthy. 'Hyaluronic acid replenishes skin, improving its appearance and reducing the visibility of scarring and fine lines,' explains Dr Francis, 'while polyglutamic acid acts as a humectant, which means it's able to draw water from the atmosphere into our skin – and retain it.' She adds that ceramides occur naturally in our skin and that these fatty acids 'boost and strengthen the skin's protective barrier, protecting our complexion from environmental aggressors'.
Going skin deep
Despite the benefits, Dr Shotter warns that skin cycling shouldn't be a one-size-fits-all approach'. She stresses that it will come down to your skin type. 'For instance, having two days of rest from retinol might not be needed for someone with resilient skin that's used to using the ingredient,' she says. Those with sensitive skin have an already weakened skin barrier and may want to approach two days of actives with caution; extra rest days might be needed or a lower percentage of retinol used on your 'active' days, until your skin builds
up a tolerance. And regardless of skin type, make sure you follow up with SPF the following morning – especially after using actives.
Like most things, skin cycling requires commitment and consistency. 'Typically, after eight to 12 weeks, you should notice an improvement, and if you decide to stick with it, results will improve further,' says Dr Francis. 'Expect fewer breakouts and reduced visibility of fine lines, scarring and sun damage.'
'If you decide to stick with it, results will improve further.'
The majority of trends come and go – don't get me started on the razor-thin 90s brows. But skin cycling has the legs (or wheels?) to stick around. 'It has taken social media by storm because we're seeing real people get results,' says Nicola Moulton, editorial director at Beauty Pie. 'The good thing is that you choose the kind of active ingredient that's best suited to your skin type.'
Dr Fabusiwa adds that it 'allows us to treat our skin individualistically'. meaning it can be used as the basic framework of a regime no matter the circumstance. Basically, the premise will work in our routines forever, as long as 'you understand what different products achieve and also what your skin needs', adds Dr Shotter.
Keen to try? Follow our sample step-by-step guide...
Your skin cycling routine, sorted
Exfoliate with acids
Apply a leave-on serum or use a peel pad with AHAs, BHAs and/or PHAs to dissolve dulling dead skin cells, unclog pores a n d improve your skin texture.
Exfoliating preps your skin for the main event. This collagen-boosting superhero is every dermatologist's favourite ingredient for firming skin and smoothing fine lines.
Time to recover
Your face needs to rest. Slather on a gentle barrier-repair cream that includes hydrators, fatty acids and/or ceramides.
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