It may be a viral TikTok trend, but the idea of skin cycling has been around for a while. Allowing your skin rest periods from some products might be a good way to avoid drying out from harsh ingredients. But there are other types of skin care that need to remain in our daily rotation in order to work effectively. We asked dermatologists all about skin cycling and how to apply it to your own skin-care routine.
What Is Skin Cycling?
The term skin cycling was coined by New York dermatologist Whiteny Bowe, MD. Plenty of procedures and treatments require “downtime,” either clinical or social. Clinical downtime refers to the amount of time a patient needs for wound healing or a period where they are non-functional.
You can think of skin cycling as working that necessary clinical downtime into your routine. When using products that exfoliate or cause potential irritation, the idea is to limit them to a specific day in the week. The viral version of this trend breaks down a week into nights where you exfoliate, nights where you use serums, etc.
The problem is that only some of our skin care is designed to be used this way, and there isn’t much evidence to suggest you need to isolate these treatments from each other so strictly.
Dermatologists Have Always Cycled Some Ingredients
According to Denver dermatologist Joel L. Cohen, MD, the idea of reserving some treatments for certain days a week, while resting others, has been common in dermatology for decades. “In the 1990s, to limit risks of topical steroid adverse effects like atrophy, some physicians at UCSF recommended topical steroids on the weekends, while other topical agents during the week,” Dr. Cohen explains. “This is still common with patients with psoriasis and eczema.”
New York dermatologist Doris Day, MD explains another reason a dermatologist might cycle products is because some medical conditions can become resistant to treatment. “We’ve known for a very long time that with acne, eczema, psoriasis, when we use products for those, after a period of time, they seem to be less effective,” Dr. Day says. “So, we have to rotate the treatments to get the benefits.”
You’ll also find cycling in aesthetic treatments. “Many of us aesthetic dermatologist’s also ‘cycle’ procedures,” Dr. Cohen explains. “We have patients reserve about five days or so once a year at least for a downtime procedure like the hybrid fractional HALO, while doing quarterly no-downtime procedures like the BBL Hero ‘Forever Young Protocol’ every few months.”
Products You Shouldn’t Cycle
Products like cleansers and moisturizers are recommended for daily use because of their benefits for the skin. Taking a day or two off cleansing won’t end the world, but you’re certainly not getting any benefits from it.
“Studies have proven the benefits of using active ingredients every day,” New York dermatologist Dennis Gross, MD says. “Instead, cycle with stronger boosted products that are designed to be used once or twice per week while staying on your daily regimen. I call this skin boosting instead of skin cycling.”
The idea here is to remain consistent with things like cleansing and using “boosters” sparingly to provide bursts of treatment without constantly overwhelming the skin with highly concentrated products. “This is very different than using what should be a daily product only several times a week, which ultimately makes it sub optimal,” Dr. Gross explains. “Do not sacrifice the benefits of these tried-and-true ingredients.”
Products and treatments meant to be used daily will be marked as such, and if they are a good fit for your skin, you should use them as recommended. The same can be said for most of those boosters, which (like many face masks) are often recommended for use only once or twice weekly.
“Add in ‘skin boosters’ like masks, retinol peels, brightening masks, stronger acid peels, steaming treatments, etc., essentially anything with a higher percentage of actives that is designed to be used once or twice (or even several times) per week,” Dr. Gross explains.
Should You Cycle Retinol?
Retinol is one of the biggest contenders for skin cycling, as it can often cause irritation. Dr. Day explains that retinol does big work to clean house, but that overuse can cause more problems than you started with.
“When you use something like a retinol, it is providing the resources so your skin feels as if it can build collagen and do all these housekeeping things that it doesn’t normally have time for,” Dr. Day says. “If you have abundance all the time, you can run into problems with that. You can run out of the abundance resources that your skin really needs to continue to repair. “
This is when you run into irritated, inflamed skin. To combat this, many dermatologists do recommend a cycling schedule. “To minimize the irritation that some people get with topical retinoids (like tretinoin/RetinA) and retinols, we dermatologists have been recommending many patients (especially those with dry skin or in mountain climates that lack humidity) avoid nightly use of these topical retinoids,” Dr. Cohen explains. “Instead, we have them use every other night or every third night, alternating with effective moisturizers that often contain antioxidants and barrier repairs that help the skin as well.”
That said, there isn’t any evidence yet for what that schedule should look like. Dermatologists and patients mostly must rely on trial and error to determine how often products like retinol should be used. “It may be, and we don’t know the answer, that rotating retinol or vitamin A might be better,” Dr. Day says. “But do you want to rotate it three days a week, or five days a week, or use it for three months and then take a month off? We just don’t know. “
Additionally, if your skin is sensitive to retinol, you may me better off with a different active ingredient altogether. “One of my mottos is that red skin is a red flag,” Dr. Gross says. “If you are seeing redness or irritation from a product like a retinol, stop using it. I don’t recommend resuming use of the product a few days later. Instead, move on to a different product that isn’t irritating and stay on it daily. You will see better results.”
Is Skin Cycling Necessary?
You should be using products as they are recommended to be used, or as directed by a dermatologist. The labels on products like exfoliators and face masks will note how often they suggest usage for results, and many times that is once or twice a week. But daily products can severely lessen their effectiveness if not used regularly.
“You really need a daily and consistent regimen to get the maximum benefits of your skin-care routine,” Dr. Gross says. “If you are seeing irritation from a product, look for one that is less potent or is formulated with a cocktail of soothing ingredients to reduce redness.”
Right now, there isn’t any evidence that these once or twice weekly treatments need to be isolated from each other. You probably won’t ruin your exfoliation if you use a hydrating mask on the same day. “There are things like steroids that you want to be super careful of,” Dr. Day says. “But everything else, you might have some increased benefit from it if you cycle it, but if you don’t, you’ll be okay.”
Ultimately, you can think of skin cycling as extra credit for your skin. “It’s an advanced thing for people who are super motivated, but it’s not an essential thing, where if you’re not doing it, you’re hurting yourself,” Dr. Day says. “It’s advanced coursework for extra credit.”