Is your skin new to actives? If so, it probably looks a bit angry and sensitive to touch. When we first venture into retinol – a proven over-the-counter treatment for acne and wrinkles – it can be very easy to toe the fine line between ‘just right’ and a damaged skin barrier. Don’t give up just yet. There’s an extremely helpful nighttime routine out there for skincare rookies, created by US-based dermatologist Dr Whitney Bowe.
What is skin cycling?
Called the skin cycling method, the beauty trend took off earlier this year in 2022 – the hashtag has since racked up 123.3 million views on TikTok. Dr Bowe’s routine is simple and straightforward: over the course of four nights, you’ll be able to exfoliate and use actives, without experiencing irritation. The key is to let your skin recover from actives for two nights, before repeating the cycle again.
“Dermatologists have been recommending a similar skincare routine from the very beginning. Skin cycling is good practice for someone who’s starting out with active products or for those who don’t have a skincare routine yet,” Dr Aashim Singh Kukreja, a specialist dermatologist with Medcare Medical Centre in Dubai, told Gulf News.
“When a patient has acne – with all other causes ruled out – we prescribe retinol, and they’re always told to start slow or else they can end up with hypersensitive skin. Allow your skin to heal in between actives so that it gets used to the ingredient and builds tolerance.”
Which products are used for skin cycling?
Here’s a breakdown of Dr Bowe’s four-night routine, as described by Dr Kukreja: On the first night, focus on exfoliating the skin with either glycolic or salicylic acid; the second night is dedicated to retinoid or retinol, which are active derivatives of vitamin A; and the third and fourth nights are a time of rest and recuperation for the skin, with no actives or exfoliants involved, save for your trusty moisturiser. Finally, on the fifth night, we cycle back and repeat.
If Dr Kukreja were to tweak the trend, she says to avoid exfoliating twice a week, unless you have oily-prone skin. “Exfoliation with acids is only recommended once a week, not more. If your skin is too oily, then you could do it twice. And, when choosing between the stronger retinoid and lighter retinol, the latter is better for beginners,” she added.
Remember, with skin cycling, you’re just adding and subtracting key products from your existing routine. It’s important to follow up with a hydrating moisturiser that works for your skin. Below, we’ve picked out the products for you, recommended by Dr Kukreja. Get a Prime membership for next-day, free delivery on some of these.
Night 1: Exfoliation
1. Best Exfoliant: Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Lotion
The Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Lotion by Paula’s Choice is the internet’s favourite and our expert’s pick. This exfoliant is “very effective in the way it works by drying out the skin, which is typical of salicylic acid”, says Dr Kukreja. Coming in a 100ml bottle, the product has a light lotion texture that exfoliates dead skin, shrinks pores and removes blackheads. It contains calming emollients, like liquorice and oat extract, to prevent flaking and redness. Reviewers have noticed how gentle the lotion formula is on their skin, compared to other alternatives. Anyone with normal, dry, combination and acne-prone skin can use the BHA lotion.
2. Best Exfoliant with Multiple Acids: Eucerin DermoPurifyer Skin Renewal Treatment Serum, 40ml
Another option is the Eucerin DermoPurifyer Skin Renewal serum, recommends Dr Kukreja. Its sole target is to reduce the appearance of pimples, pustules and papules, while fading acne marks. The key ingredient is a 10 per cent Hydroxy Complex, which is a triple combo of peeling agents: glycolic acid, salicylic acid and polyhydroxy acid. All work hard to remove dead skin cells, so that your actives can be applied to a fresh slate the following night. Eucerin promises results after just one week of use.
3. Best Glycolic Acid Exfoliant: Vichy Liftactiv Specialist Glyco-C Night Peel Ampoules (10-Pack)
If you’re looking for a product with just glycolic acid, check out Vichy Laboratories’ Glyco-C ampoules. There are 10 in a box, each containing 10 per cent of glycolic acid complex and vitamin CG. This combination diminishes dark sports and brightens the skin, mostly working as an exfoliating treatment for anti-ageing. It seals the moisture in, using hyaluronic acid. Dr Kukreja recommends application once or twice a week.
Pro tip: Dr Kukreja advises against facial oils as moisturisers on exfoliation nights. Instead, use a simple formula with ceramides and hyaluronic acid, or better yet, a product that contains oatmeal and vitamin E.
Night 2: Retinol
4. Best Retinoid: Acne Treatment Differin Gel with 0.1% Adapalene, 30g
Differin is a household name when it comes to acne breakouts. It’s perhaps the most recognised form of a topical retinoid. Dr Kukreja suggests Differin for acne-prone skin, and its active ingredient adapalene is present in its lowest concentration at 0.1 per cent. This amount is ideal for those just starting out. The gel has a water-based formula that’s oil-, alcohol- and fragrance-free; plus, it doesn’t clog pores.
5. Best Retinol: La Roche Posay Redermic Retinol Intensive Anti-Aging Concentrate, 30ml
Since retinol tends to be less harsh than retinoid, try the La Roche-Posay Redermic cream. This formula specifically targets anti-ageing, says Dr Kukreja, by reducing age spots and deep wrinkles, and smoothening out the complexion. Enriched with thermal spring water, the fluid texture melts into the skin quickly, so much so that it can even be used as a make-up base. Its retinol complex includes progressive release retinol, which releases the active gradually to help build tolerance.
6. Best Budget Retinol: CeraVe Retinol Serum, 1oz
A more affordable retinol is this TikTok-favourite CeraVe serum that’s completely scent-free and rubs in remarkably well. The lightweight gel is formulated with liquorice root, which lightens dark spots, and niacinamide for calming the skin, along with three essential ceramides that help maintain the skin’s natural barrier. Over time, the product will reveal a smoother, more even-toned face. Reviewers say the formula doesn’t dry the skin out, given it feels and looks a lot like your regular moisturiser.
Pro tip: Dr Kukreja suggests the ‘sandwich method’ of application for sensitive skin. Before you apply the active product, use a moisturiser before and after. Make sure the retinol or retinoid is just a pea-sized amount for the entire face.
Night 3 and 4: Recovery
7. Best Moisturiser: La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturiser
On recovery nights, a lot of your focus is going to be on retaining the skin barrier with hydrating moisturisers. For those with sensitive skin, Dr Kukreja picks the La Roche-Posay Toleriane line. The Double Repair face moisturiser is formulated with Ceramide-3, niacinamide and glycerine for locking in moisture and fading any skin discolouration. This lightweight cream is suitable for all skin types, as it’s fragrance-free and non-comedogenic. You’re guaranteed hydrated skin for up to 48 hours.
8. Best Budget Moisturiser: CeraVe Moisturizing Cream, 19oz
TikTok’s go-to budget-friendly moisturiser for recovery night is CeraVe’s tub of moisturising cream. It’s rich, velvety and fast-absorbing, without leaving any greasy residue behind. As with all CeraVe products, the moisturiser contains three essential ceramides and is completely safe for eczema-prone skin. Its simple, fragrance-free formula also features hyaluronic acid for retaining moisture. The best part is that it can be used as a face, hand and body cream, daily, so you’re getting more value for your buck.
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