What is Skin Cycling? TikTok’s Viral Skincare Routine

 Woman closing eyes and using gentle face cleanser in her Tiktok skin cycling routine

The Skincare TikTok Trend that Questions Everything 

Skincare is an ever evolving conversation — and in the age of the internet, the ebb and flow of trends and products can feel overwhelming. Often rooted in collective viral movements, it’s not often a conversation on skincare feels concrete and considered. 

For those that view hashtags as a holy grail, #skincycling has become one of the most popular corners of the internet—with 75.5 million tags and counting. At the epicenter of the #skincycling movement sits Dr. Whitney Bowe, a NYC-based dermatologist. Her viewpoints resonate with Motif on the ideals that skincare need not be complicated — and streamlining processes makes for healthier skin and skincare habits. 

The amplification of reimagined skincare habits feels like a collective waving of the white flag of surrender to the abuse many of us put our skin through. While some viral internet movements can cause scrutiny, they also represent a bigger movement in thought. Skincare seems like an uphill battle — one where we have to continuously anticipate what our skin needs, while shifting products usage in response. When skin builds tolerance to specific formulations, we reach for strong and harsh products that are worthy of tangible results. 

“Pushing the skin into high gear is not homeostatic, meaning your skin is not able to normally function and be healthy.” — Dr. Indy Chabra, Motif Dermatologist

Motif is already a staunch supporter of the intrinsic brilliance of skin believing that the natural cycles of skin should be honored and elevated with science-based products that work alongside our rhythms. 

Years of misinformation have normalized habits of daily exfoliation, high doses of retinol, and the aggressive peeling of skin is a sign of skincare success. The rise of #skincycling calls for a critical reframing of the narrative of skincare — and what role rest can play in revitalizing biological processes and letting our skin self-regulate. 

Skin Barrier Breathwork — What is Skin Cycling?

Skin cycling is a routine that allows for products to do what they are designed to do…while letting the skin breathe and heal along the way. Looking to the mentality of rest and recovery in sports for building muscle strength and avoiding damage, skin cycling takes a step back from harsh daily exfoliating acids and retinols, instead implementing a rotating evening agenda. Much like how rest days between workouts allows muscles to replenish glycogen and avoid fatigue, allowing skin to rest helps rebuild the epidermis.

As a reminder, retinoids stimulate collagen production and skin cell surface alterations, which encourages firmer skin. Exfoliants additionally stimulate collagen production by loosening the physical bonds between dead skin cells so they can be sloughed away to reveal the new skin cells below. Both critical for maintaining a healthy skin barrier, these active ingredients are strong and should be used with intention. Overuse of either can leave skin dry and thin due to increased skin cell turnover rate and an adjustment period. Too much a good thing is a real concept for retinol and exfoliants— both can make the skin sensitive to contact dermatitis and susceptible to UV exposure. 

Skin cycling, at its most simple, creates space for potent active ingredients to fully function by differentiating work days and rest days. Note that this approach to skincare looks to the morning and evening use of gentle cleansers — like the Abundance Cleanser — as the anchor to this shifting regime. Evening is believed to be an optimal time due to the blend of rest and limited exposure of external irritants. 

Night 1: Retinoid Best known for encouraging cell turnover, retinoids are key in the cycle. A less is more approach works best — a small pea-sized amount will go far. Layer with moisturizer to lock it in. 

Night 2: Exfoliation — Create a blank canvas by clearing the pores and dead, dull skin. You’ll want to use chemical exfoliants such as lactic or glycolic acids to avoid harsh physical irritation found in products that require rubbing. Be sure to pat dry. Layer with a deeply hydrating moisturizer before bed. 

Nights 3 and 4*: Recover — The focus here is on restoring the skin barrier by nourishing it with hydration and nutrients. Deep hydration is critical for rest days. Look for products that are non-comedogenic and use ingredients like squalene and peptides.

*A typical skin cycling routine points to Nights 3 and 4 as recovery periods, but Motif dermatologist Dr. Indy Chabra encourages adding a recovery period between Nights 1 and 2. 

Even though skin cycling recommends separating exfoliation and retinoid use, the typical skin cycling routine still comprises both actives being used on consecutive nights. According to Dr. Indy Chabra, adding a period of rest between the two is the safer bet, “Give a gap between the exfoliation and retinoids too. Using too much of either, or using both at the same time can increase the penetration of your retinol — leading to a higher chance of irritation and damaged skin barrier.” 

Since both exfoliants and retinoids help to resurface the skin and stimulate collagen production (albeit working in different ways), many of us can avoid the unnecessary risks of redness, flaking, drying, sensitivity, and irritation by adding a rest day between the two. This also reduces the chance of developing additional complications, “an impaired skin barrier is also more prone to developing allergic contact dermatitis because the cells that recognize these foreign molecules are more exposed to chemicals. These risks are rare but can become significant if you continuously re-expose your skin to harsh actives over time.” 

Motif’s Musings 

With ample research, justification, and questioning of formulations at the core of Motif, we welcome streamlined and effective skincare practices. Routines like Skin Cycling set up consumers to prioritize ‘holy grail’ products that actually work — and allow for the actives to do their due diligence. Motif looks to the quality, potency and user interaction of products in addition to the actual ingredient. 

With the Abundance Plumping Phyto Ceramide Cleanser as our hero product, we welcome reframing every step of a skincare routine. The role of cleanser, especially, feels underappreciated. Often a quick process, effective cleansing is truly integral to ensuring additional products do their due diligence. Without a balanced and hydrating skin barrier, active ingredients in any form won’t function at their full potential. 

If anything, the popularity of Skin Cycling makes the case to come back to the body. Cyclical use of products, paired with radical rest, is a formula that can be applied beyond skincare. Skin health reflects collective lifestyle choices — ample sleep, a diet rich in nutrient-dense ingredients, movement. In our eyes, skincare is a process of encouraging abundance…and it seems like there’s a collective movement that feels the same. 

 

1. Messaraa, C.; Drevet, J.; Jameson, D.; Zuanazzi, G.; De Ponti, I. Can Performance and Gentleness Be Reconciled? A Skin Care Approach for Sensitive Skin. Cosmetics 2022, 9, 34. 

2. Mukherjee S, Date A, Patravale V, Korting HC, Roeder A, Weindl G. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. 2006;1(4):327-48. doi: 10.2147/ciia.2006.1.4.327. PMID: 18046911; PMCID: PMC2699641.

3. Gruber, James; Stojkoska, Venera;essaraa, C.; Riemer, Jed. Retinol has a Skin Dehydrating Effect that Can Be Improved by a Mixture of Water-Soluble Polysaccharides Can Performance and Gentleness Be Reconciled? A Skin Care Approach for Sensitive Skin. Cosmetics 2020, MDPI

Photo by Fleur Kaan

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