Ever spent a straight-week using some flashy-new product, only for your skin to look more gargoyle than glass? This letdown is common, and most often it’s NOT a reflection of your product’s quality, rather it's just how you’re using it! Just like going overboard on your favorite sugary cocktail, you can’t underestimate the aftermath of strong active ingredients. To avoid this beauty buzzkill, we use a technique called skin cycling: the practice of knowing when to roll out your high potency products versus when to take a break for recovery.
What is skin cycling?
Skin cycling is the skin care regimen designed to help you use heavy-hitting active ingredients that address your skin needs, but in a way that doesn't cause skin skin irritation while still delivering the results you crave.
“Particularly during the pandemic, people were experimenting with ingredient cocktails that were irritating and damaging their skin,” says Dr. Whitney Bowe, a New York-based certified dermatologist. “Instead of piling more products on top of each other, skin cycling encourages people to use products strategically so that they actually complement one another.” Essentially, we’re planning break periods for our skin, allowing our skin to recover periodically.
Traditional skin cycling versus non-traditional
With skin care being such an individual experience, it’s hard to create one single, cookie-cutter way to skin cycle. For this reason, we can explore our best-fit options by learning about two approaches: traditional and non-traditional skin cycling.
Traditional skin cycling
Traditionally, skin cycling starts with the harsher active ingredients before breaking with a mild cleanser and moisturizer. Here, we follow a four-night cycle: “The first is the exfoliation night, the second is a retinoid night, and the third and fourth are recovery nights, then you repeat the cycle,” explains Bowe.
The biggest problem with traditional skin cycling is it doesn’t allow for enough individual customization. Not only does this method dictate the duration of each cycle, but it also controls the overall pattern. So for example, what happens if you wanted to use a non-retinol antioxidant treatment like vitamin C, both in the morning and at night; OR not use any specialty products in the morning but layer two at night; OR apply a peel followed by a serum.
Non-traditional skin cycling
With non-traditional skin cycling, we start with our gentlest products (not the harshest), for as many days as we require to achieve a healthy starting point. Then gradually, we introduce more aggressive active ingredients, while testing out how well we tolerate them, suggests Dr. Michele Green, M.D, a New York-based board-certified dermatologist. By observing our responses to various products, we can build our own unique skin cycling plan - one that controls the duration and intensity of each cycle.
After all, we may need more than two recovery nights after using harsh retinoids or exfoliants. This flexibility is especially important when trying out a new serum, peel, or ampoule. Otherwise, if we develop a “bad skin day,” we can’t diagnose the cause of sensitivity and whether our products were responsible or other external factors like PMS, weather, illness, etc.
Soft and hard skin cycles
Using the non-traditional approach, we alternate between two types of cycles, hard and soft, for as much or little time as we like! Hard cycling is when we’re using harsher products, or even layering them (see acid layering for more), to personalize our treatment. Soft cycling, on the other hand, is when we’re returning to our mild products, like a simple cleanser and lotion, restoring our skin to prime condition.
Soft skin cycling
The goal with soft cycling is to achieve “ground-zero” healthy skin—meaning we’re using a few, bare-minimum products until the dermis is calm, clear, and oil-balanced.
Soft cycles include non-irritating products, such as dewy cleansers and hydrating sunscreens, explains Dr. Bowe. The logic here is that your skin should be in its most unreactive and resilient state to withstand the “beauty whiplash” of a heavier cycle phase. For this reason, we always begin with a slow cycle, and then gradually introduce stronger treatments, like retinol or lactic acid, for however many days in a row we need.
Once our soft cycle has restored our skin quality, we can tip-toe toward using peeling agents like alpha hydroxy acids, glycolic acid, or retinol.
But what if your skin hates retinol? No worries, you can still skin cycle by being aware of other options! Although retinol is touted as the MVP of skin polishers, there are gentler vegan options that also work to build collagen.
Nuria’s Defend Gentle Exfoliator, for example, is an industry-favorite. It combines the natural exfoliating power of lactic acid with the pore-declogging goodness of ginkgo. Using the traditional skin cycle method, you can use the Gentle Exfoliator on both night one and two, OR include it in the hard cycle of a non-traditional skin cycling regimen.
Skin cycling for our changing needs
There’s no locked, set-in-stone rule for when certain products will perform best. That’s why we tailor our hard and soft cycles to our dynamic skin needs: shifts in our surroundings, habits, hormones, and mood. These changing conditions leave our skin with different “cycle cravings.”
For example, perhaps we're in low-stress mode from shorter work hours, it's fall season (so no harsh sunlight), or we are sleeping better, therefore our skin can tolerate retinoids and we follow a traditional skin cycling regimen. But what happens if our diet is slacking, it’s summer, or we’ve been having relationship problems? In this case, our skin may be sluggish to self-repair—thus, a traditional skin cycle won’t save our inflamed, breakout-triggered skin, and a non-traditional skin cycling approach with longer soft cycles may be just what our skin needs.
Skin care is an individual experience that is impacted by mood changes, hormone changes, and the environment, and we can use skin cycling to adapt our beauty rituals and stay in the driver’s seat of our skin care.
About the author, Naomi Furgiuele
Naomi is the founder of Nuria and a self-professed nerd with a love for all things science and skin care. She’s had a hand in product development for some of the biggest global beauty brands in the business, gets some of her best ideas while out on a run, and loves her exfoliator almost as much as her awesome family.