While there's nothing wrong with being skincare obsessed, haphazardly layering serum over active each night may cause chronic, low-grade inflammation. This can lead to increased sensitivity, break-outs, and might even accelerate the aging process. "As a dermatologist, I've treated thousands of patients for over a decade, and I find the biggest mistake people make when it comes to their skincare is neglecting to build in nights for their skin barrier to recover," New York-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe says. "People love their powerhouse products–like exfoliants and retinoids–and often believe more must be better. However, their skin often tells a different story when they come into the office with irritation and inflammation."
To address this issue, she developed a strategic method called "skin cycling." Dr. Bowe says the concept of cycling through skincare products at night had been evolving in her practice for a few years before she introduced it on social media. "The world of skincare was becoming needlessly complicated. After listening to my patients and examining how their skin was reacting to different routines, I saw the need to streamline their routine to optimize skin health," she says. "The truth is you only need a few products used in a very deliberate way to drive amazing results."
Since introducing the clever concept on her TikTok and Instagram, "skin cycling" has become a trending topic (it currently has over 15 million hashtag views). Ahead, Dr. Bowe breaks down everything you need to know about the viral skincare technique.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Whitney Bowe is an award-winning, board-certified dermatologist and scientist based in New York. She is also the founder of Dr. Whitney Bowe Beauty.
What Is Skin Cycling?
Dr. Bowe says that if you want to level up your skincare game, you need to balance your active and recovery nights, which is the idea behind skin cycling (yes, she coined the phrase). With this strategic method, you're setting up the actives in your products for success, driving the best results while minimizing irritation. She explains that it's a four-night schedule; exfoliation night, retinoid night, recovery night, recovery night, repeat.
The concept mirrors that of other cycling routines you're probably already practicing. "For example, if you're trying to build strength in a particular muscle group, say your leg muscles, you don't load those muscles every single day with heavy weights, that leads to injury, not strength," says Dr. Bowe. "You may focus on your upper body one day and your lower body the next, deliberately building in time for those muscle fibers to repair and grow stronger between sessions." The same holds for your skin. When you use exfoliating acids and retinoids every day, you're damaging your skin barrier.
The Four-Night Cycle
The Nighttime Routine
So what does this plan look like exactly? Dr. Bowe suggests using your power products at the beginning of the week. Night one is exfoliation night, but Dr. Bowe opts for chemical exfoliants over physical ones. She says a chemical exfoliating serum can give your skin an immediate glow and set the stage for the following night.
Night two is for retinoids, an essential step in anyone's skincare routine. Retinol needs to be cycled because if used too frequently or layered with other potentially irritating ingredients, you can end up with inflammation rather than the beautiful intended results.
Night three and four are recovery nights. Exfoliating acids and retinoids should be paused to give skin a chance to bounce back. On recovery nights, you want to focus on nourishing your skin microbiome and repairing your skin barrier (meaning, hydrate and moisturize). Dr. Bowe developed her Bowe Glowe Microbiome Nourishing Cream for all nights of skin cycling, but it is especially beneficial on recovery nights.
The Morning Routine
Unlike the nighttime routine, the morning lineup should be streamlined. Dr. Bowe suggests using a gentle cleanser, vitamin C serum, a barrier-protecting cream, and of course, SPF. She also promotes working on your skin from the inside out, having launched the Bowe Growe Pomegranate Microbiome Water-Enhancing Elixir to work synergistically with her Bowe Glowe Microbiome Nourishing Cream. She says to think of the elixir as the last "layer" of your morning routine, as one bottle has a diverse range of plant-based polyphenols.