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The Validity of Skin Cycling: Debunking or Confirming TikTok Hype

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Tired of being unsure about the legitimacy and safety of the health, beauty, and fitness trends that dominate your social media? TikTok True or False is here to provide you with the answers. With the help of experts and scientific research, each story aims to break down the latest viral “advice” circulating online, uncovering the truth behind these wellness fads. Say goodbye to uncertainty and discover what’s truly legitimate and what’s not.

If you’re an active TikTok user with even a slight interest in skincare, chances are you’ve come across the term “skin cycling.” This emerging trend focuses on rotating skincare products to provide a break from potent ingredients, and it’s causing quite a stir in the online world. The hashtag #skincycling has already amassed over 100 million views on TikTok, showcasing its popularity.

If you haven’t encountered skin cycling on your For You Page (FYP) yet, here’s what it entails: It follows a four-day cycle, where one night is dedicated to exfoliating the skin, another night is dedicated to applying a retinoid, and the remaining two nights are for rest, avoiding products with active ingredients. TikTok videos documenting skin-cycling journeys showcase users sharing their experiences, featuring before-and-after photos of healed acne scars, and revealing the products they incorporate into this process.

Take, for instance, TikTok user Riley Bond (@rileybond_), who embraced skin cycling and completely transformed her nighttime routine in her second week of giving this trend a try. This skin-care blogger shared a video, capturing her “exfoliation night” and providing a detailed overview of the products she utilizes. The video has now accumulated over 500,000 views. Similarly, another TikTok user, Michelle Zoltan (@michellezoltan), claimed that this routine has revolutionized her sensitive, acne-prone skin. Her video, boasting one million views and counting, serves as evidence of the potential benefits of skin cycling.

The majority of reviews and feedback on the app regarding this method are highly positive, with users reporting glowing results.

Though certain TikTokers, such as @myestytessa, aren’t enormous enthusiasts, exposing the reality that there is no universal solution for skincare.

What is skin rotation?

Skin rotation is a skin-care strategy coined by New York-based dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., who has a broad following on both Instagram and TikTok. Dr. Bowe defined skin rotation as a “deliberate, strategic method for rotating through your nightly skin-care products” in an August blog post. It’s a four-night rotation that goes as follows:

  • Night one is for sloughing off dead skin cells (Dr. Bowe recommends using a chemical exfoliant instead of a gritty scrub)
  • Night two is for applying retinoids
  • Night three is for rejuvenation and focusing on hydration and moisture
  • Night four is for rejuvenation and focusing on hydration and moisture
  • Repeat

Dr. Bowe refers to it as a “minimalistic” approach in her blog post. Rather than adding more and more products on top of each other, skin rotation revolves around using products strategically. In the “excessively complex” skin-care world, the routine helps simplify your process in an effective and effortless manner. Skin rotation also solves one common skin-care error: not giving enough time for the skin barrier to recover, she added in her post.

As for the detailed specifics, here’s what you need to know about skin rotation. First up, exfoliants work to eliminate the outer layers of the skin, preventing the accumulation of deceased skin cells. This process occurs naturally but slows down with age, which is why you might consider incorporating an exfoliating product into your routine, Shape previously reported. Exfoliating prepares the skin for other products to effectively penetrate, so it’s advisable to exfoliate before applying any other products. Exfoliants can be physical, meaning they contain a bead-like formulation, or chemical, involving acids that dissolve the chemical composition of dead skin cells, allowing them to rinse away.

Next is retinoids, a group of chemicals related to vitamin A that aid in increasing cell turnover, maintaining clear pores, and stimulating collagen production. The effectiveness of retinoid products varies depending on the brand and formula utilized. For instance, prescription retinoid products are typically more potent than over-the-counter retinol (a type of retinoid) alternatives. Furthermore, even among OTC products, some are more powerful than others, and the appropriate product for you depends on your specific skin type. (Learn more: Everything You Need to Know About Retinol and Its Skin-Care Benefits)

While exfoliants and retinoids are crucial, both can result in irritation. That’s why, for certain skin types, it’s essential to take a pause from them and concentrate on basic moisturization for one to two evenings before reintroducing these types of products — and commencing the cycle — once again.

Does skin rotation work?

“In general, in principle, this idea of skin rotation is essentially utilizing your actives and then taking breaks,” states board-certified dermatologist Michelle Henry, M.D., F.A.A.D., a Mohs surgeon trained at Harvard, clinical instructor at Weill-Cornell, and the founder of Skin & Aesthetic Surgery of Manhattan. “Your skin recuperates similarly to how you take a break when you exercise,” she adds.

This approach helps your skin adapt to specific products, explains Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research at the Department of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. “Rotating actives in your skincare routine, along with soothing products, allows the skin to acclimate to a routine without excessively burdening the skin barrier,” he continues. Thanks to that break, your skin “reaps the benefits of employing potent skincare [products] without compromising on tolerability.”

Despite its buzz on social media, there is limited scientific evidence regarding the actual effectiveness of skin rotation, meaning specific studies on this method have not been conducted. However, in clinical practice, the advantages are evident, says Dr. Henry.

Restricting exposure and frequency of potent active ingredients “can bring about transformative changes in skincare without the potential adverse side effects,” says Dr. Henry. Dermatologists have been incorporating the concept of rotating product usage for quite a while, but they haven’t labeled it as skin rotation, she notes.

“I think the way she [Dr. Bowe] defined [skin rotation] is excellent and will be effective for most individuals,” continues Dr. Henry. She has made the method “snackable,” adds Dr. Henry, noting that this makes it more accessible to all — skincare enthusiasts and beginners alike.

“It’s somewhat like training wheels,” says Dr. Henry. “It’s a good method to introduce something into your skincare routine and know that here are some best practices to minimize the risk of experiencing irritation, inflammation, or any negative repercussions or side effects.”

Is skin rotation safe?

For the majority of people, attempting skin rotation is safe, says Dr. Henry. And it’s especially ideal for skincare novices. “It can sometimes be overwhelming to grasp all the intricacies and details of product layering, and opting for a solid skin-cycle regimen can alleviate the initial hesitation.”

Dr. Bowe’s skin-rotation method provides a framework to start incorporating actives while figuring out how to use exfoliants and retinoids without provoking irritation. However, it’s important to remember that you’re not obligated to strictly adhere to the cycle schedule, says Dr. Henry.

Henry. Similar to numerous aspects of personal maintenance, skincare is personalized. Additionally, it is crucial to bear in mind that it is not a universal fit.

Your ideal skin-care routine relies on your specific skin type, texture, and requirements,” states Dr. Henry. “For some individuals, the ideal skin-care routine may only consist of hydrating serums and moisturizers. Conversely, for others, retinoids, exfoliants, peeling masks, and toners are essential.” If you wish to test the approach, she suggests maintaining the routine for a minimum of four weeks to determine if the “gentle” method can enhance your skin.

Although this is a reliable option for most people to try, if you have any open cuts, wounds, or a skin condition like eczema, it is best to avoid exfoliants and retinoids, Dr. Henry adds. Additionally, if you generally have more sensitive skin, she recommends starting with milder products. For example, instead of starting with acids, you can experiment with lower-concentration actives such as vitamin C and peptides.

Is skin cycling a valid method to incorporate active skin-care ingredients into your routine: true or false?

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According to experts, it appears that the skin-cycling method lives up to the hype on social media. In general, it is a beneficial routine to consider if you want to include active skin-care ingredients into your nightly regimen.

Remember, everyone’s skin is unique, and some individuals may require a personalized approach when using exfoliants and retinoids. The positive news is that you can adapt the skin-cycling technique to suit your needs.

“The advantage of the cycling concept is its adaptability to your preferences, depending on the length of break you require,” explains Dr. Henry. For instance, individuals with more sensitive skin may need longer than a two-day break between applications of active ingredients, while others may not require as much time. If you are unsure where to begin, you can consult with your dermatologist to determine the most suitable cycle for you.