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“I Tried Skin Cycling and Was Amazed at How Smooth and Glowing My Skin Looks Now”

The viral skin care routine really works!

It can seem like a full time job keeping track of the latest and greatest skin care hacks on popular social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. From slugging to skin flooding and more, you might even wonder if it’s worth the effort to wade through all that content. After all, so many beauty influencers tend to be in their 20s and 30s — and as we ladies in our 50s and above know — what works for younger skin, might not necessarily work for ours. Yet when it comes to the popular hack called skin cycling, it turns out that this craze is actually perfect for mature skin. Read on for all you need to know about this skin care routine and why you should give it a try!

What is skin cycling?

different skincare products and serums for skin cycling
Tanja Ivanova/Getty

So what is skin cycling, exactly, and why is it so great for women in their 50s and beyond? The term first went viral on TikTok in 2021, and was coined by dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., who practices in New York City and is founder of Whitney Bowe Beauty. In a nutshell, skin cycling is a four-day regimen that includes exfoliation on one night, using retinol on night two, followed by nights 3 and 4 of just using moisturizer.

The benefits of skin cycling

Fans on TikTok with mature skin, like beauty influencers Colette Van Paemel and Melissa Maultsby rave about the results they get from skin cycling (as shown in the videos below). It’s no wonder since this regimen is designed to help your skin maximize the benefits of face products with active ingredients with the least amount of irritation. 


These are the products I used when skincycling, you can use whatever products work for you but stick to the method and steps. #skincycling #skincyclingroutine #skincare #antiaging #pmskincare #skincaretips #thatboweglow #glowup #matureskin #matureskincare

♬ original sound – Melissa | MATURE BEAUTY 💄❤️

It’s customizable

Yet skin cycling is not a one-size-fits-all solution, lots of fans — like the TikTokers above — have learned to use it as more of a flexible framework. So they customize this routine with products that work best for them. “For example, if you are new to exfoliating acids or retinoids, it makes sense to begin with a gentle skin cycling regimen,” says Dr. Bowe. “As your skin becomes acclimated to these types of products, you can build in more retinoid nights over time.” 

It’s great for sensitive skin

“Skin cycling is excellent for mature skin which is often prone to sensitivity and irritation,” says Dr. Bowe. As we age, our skin’s production of natural oils and lipids like ceramides drop. And skin also produces less of its own natural hyaluronic acid needed to keep skin healthy and reduce wrinkles and fine lines.

“So as you get older you’ll notice your skin feels more dry and it’s more prone to dehydration and even irritation,” explains Dr. Bowe. “In fact, many women in their 50s who were once able to tolerate powerful active ingredients might find their skin responds much better to building in recovery nights as part of a skin cycling program as they get older.” The reason: The rotation and balancing of active ingredients and moisturizer help keep the skin barrier intact to prevent irritation.

Related: Repair Your Skin Barrier to Prevent Dryness, Redness and Breakouts

How to follow a skin cycling routine

skin cycling products

Skin cycling was created to do two main things. First, it prevents irritation, and secondly, it helps to get the most out of each one of your powerful active products. By active products or ‘actives,’ Dr. Bowe means items that contain active ingredients designed to treat a specific skin problem. Here are the three main “actives” she recommends using to get the most out of a skin cycling regimen: a chemical exfoliant, a retinol or retinoid serum for the evenings and a vitamin C serum for the mornings.

Here’s how she recommends you cycle through those products:

  • Each morning and evening: Cleanse skin, use a vitamin C serum and moisturize (in the am also add sunscreen after moisturizer)
  • Night 1: Exfoliate with a chemical exfoliant
  • Night 2: Apply a retinol product
  • Nights 3 & 4: Recovery using just a moisturizer

Morning skin cycling routine

The most important thing about morning skin cycling? Consistency. “Keep things consistent every single morning,” says Dr. Bowe. “The bare minimum requires cleansing, followed by a vitamin C serum, moisturizing, then applying sunscreen.”

Step 1: Cleanse skin

When it comes to cleansers, Dr. Bowe says you want to look for a gentle, creamy one that won’t leave skin feeling tight or dry. Two to try are Cetaphil Hydrating Foaming Cream Cleanser and Olay Total Effects Revitalizing Foaming Facial Cleanser.

Step 2: Apply a vitamin C serum
vitamin C serum
Iryna Veklich/Getty

Next up is a vitamin C serum, which Dr. Bowe says is “one of my must-have products, every single day. Vitamin C is a triple threat when it comes to optimizing your skin health. It brightens, firms and fights free radical damage that can lead to accelerated signs of skin aging.”

However, not all vitamin C serums are created equal. According to Dr. Bowe, if you’ve found that vitamin C serums irritate your skin, it is likely due to the formulation. The classic form of vitamin C that’s in many formulations is L-ascorbic acid. One of the biggest downsides is that it’s highly unstable. It’s formulated at a low pH (specifically less than 3.5) in order to make it more stable and able to penetrate into skin. “This low pH can sometimes result in stinging or irritation in my patients who have more mature skin,” says Dr. Bowe. “I usually recommend vitamin C derivatives, like THD ascorbate or 3-o-ethyl ascorbic, over L-ascorbic acid, for more mature, reactive skin.”

But if you’re new to vitamin C, want to increase the strength of your vitamin C or if you have sensitive skin, Dr. Bowe suggests doing a patch test on skin first. “Start using once a day in the morning,” she says. “Do this for a week before working your way up to twice a day, and layering with other skincare actives.” Our favorite vitamin C serum for skin cycling is Olay Vitamin C + Peptide 24 Serum. But if you’re a beginner, try CeraVe Vitamin C Serum with Hyaluronic Acid.

Step 3: Moisturize and slather on sunscreen

Top off the serum with your go-to moisturizer. Then, to protect skin from the sun and UV damage, using sunscreen is a must. Two SPFs that work well for mature skin are Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch SPF 70 and Bliss Block Star Sheer Liquid Daily Sunscreen SPF 50

Nighttime skin cycling routine

Like your morning skin care routine, your nighttime regime should also start with cleansing skin. Then from there, you’ll begin with night one of this 4-night schedule and Dr. Bowe notes to always seal in the treatment with moisturizer. Keep scrolling for more specifics on how to do skin cycling in the evening.

Skin cycling night 1: Exfoliate

“Not only does exfoliation give you an immediate glow, but it actually helps prep your skin to get the most out of night two,” says Dr. Bowe. Also key is the type of exfoliator you use. “I recommend chemical exfoliating products over harsh physical scrubs, those gritty scrubs you can feel between your fingers.” The reason? Exfoliating acids are more effective at removing dead skin cells than physical scrubs.

Physical scrubs simply remove the outermost layer of dead skin cells, essentially “buffing” or “polishing” skin. But a chemical exfoliator, like glycolic acid, can remove dead skin, brighten dark spots and stimulate collagen synthesis (to firm skin and smooth lines and wrinkles over time). After applying a chemical exfoliant, Dr. Bowe suggests waiting about 30 seconds to 1 minute before applying moisturizer. Note: If the product burns, wash it off immediately and try a different product. A tingling sensation, however, is okay.

woman using chemical exfoliant on face with cotton pad

If you’re trying a chemical exfoliant for the first time, Dr. Bowe suggests beginning with a gentle formulation. “In general, I advise my patients to start slowly,” she says. This can be done by starting with a lower concentration of a chemical exfoliant like one that’s 7%. Then, after 1-2 weeks, you can increase the strength to 10%+, she advises. Two chemical exfoliants we like are The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Exfoliating Toner and The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA 2% Exfoliating Serum.

Skin cycling night 2: Apply retinol

For night two, you’ll want to choose a retinol that won’t lead to skin irritation. “Retinoids are forms of vitamin A and are considered to be one of the most powerful ingredients in all of skincare,” says Dr. Bowe. Retinoids are known to have lots of great benefits like minimizing pores, smoothing skin texture and preventing breakouts. “Some can also actually help reverse signs of aging in the skin by brightening dark spots, firming and tightening skin, plus smoothing out lines and wrinkles.”

Use your retinol or retinoid product after washing the face. For beginners, we recommend Trader Joe’s Retinol Night Serum. And for seasoned pros, try The INKEY List SuperSolutions 1% Retinol Serum. “I’d say wait roughly 1 to 5 minutes after applying your retinoid before applying a nourishing moisturizer,” says Dr. Bowe. “It really depends on the formulation of the retinoid and how quickly it dries down and gets absorbed into the skin.” Keep in mind that when it comes to using any retinoid, it takes three to six months to see results, so consistency is key.

Types of retinol

Just as with vitamin C serums, not all retinoids are created equal. Here’s a breakdown of the different types, according to Dr. Bowe.

Retinoic acid

Also known as Tretinoin, this is the prescription strength retinoid you get from your dermatologist. Retinoic acid is the form that is biologically active and binds to the retinoid receptors in your skin, immediately going to work. In other words, it doesn’t have to go through any conversions to work on your skin. “The downside of retinoic acid is that not everyone can tolerate its strength,” says Dr. Bowe. “Some of my patients find it too irritating, and experience skin flaking or stinging a few days after using it.”


This is also referred to as retinaldehyde and it’s the most potent vitamin A you can get without a prescription. It’s thought to be 10 times more bioavailable than retinol (see below). This means it works faster and a lot less is needed to drive visible results. Why? It only needs to be converted one time to work on your skin. “Your skin has to convert retinol to retinal before it turns into retinoic acid,” says Dr. Bowe. “So your skin has to do less gymnastics if you choose retinal to address tone, texture, smoothing lines and wrinkles and firming skin over time.” Note: Retinal should be bright yellow — the color signifies the purity and potency of that ingredient.

woman using retinol on face


This is the retinoid most people are familiar with. “As mentioned, retinol needs to first be converted to retinal, and then get converted to retinoic acid to get to work in your skin,” says Dr. Bowe. “So, that’s three conversions, which means it takes a bit more time to see results than other forms.”  


This has to be converted three times for your skin to use it, making it the most gentle, but weakest retinoid — so it will take much longer to see results. 

Skin cycling nights 3 and 4: Recover

You might be tempted to try other active products during recovery nights, but if you’re a beginner, don’t! “On these nights, you want to avoid any exfoliating acids or retinoids — anything with potentially irritating ingredients,” says Dr. Bowe. “On recovery nights, you simply want to focus on nourishing your skin microbiome and repairing your skin barrier — think hydration and moisture.” So it’s best to look for a cream with ceramides, squalane and hyaluronic acid. For sensitive skin, look for a moisturizer that is also fragrance and essential oil free, which can be irritating.

mature woman putting moisturizer on face
Jose Miguel Sanchez/Getty

Just wash and pat dry your skin as you normally would, apply your moisturizer, then vitamin C serum, and you’re good to go. Some great moisturizers we recommend are Vanicream Daily Facial Moisturizer for Sensitive Skin or the Urban Skin RX Even Tone Barrier Repair Ceramide Cream.

And on night 5, begin the cycle all over again. To see Dr. Bowe talk through all of these steps, check out the below video.

My experience with skin cycling

Before I began my own foray into trying skin cycling, I asked Dr. Bowe if she had any specific advice. “The concept is very intuitive,” she explained. “Your muscles need recovery days, so it makes sense that your skin also benefits from recovery days.” As she explains it, when you are trying to build strength in a particular muscle group, say your leg muscles, you don’t just load those muscles every single day with heavy weights. That’s because this would lead to injury, not strength. 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 true for your skin as you acclimate to potent actives over time.”

The line-up of products I used for skin cycling + what I thought

In the past I’ve tried retinols, but my skin would react and end up looking like a tomato. I’d experience redness along with peeling skin. I was amazed that with this routine I was able to use a retinol product on a regular basis — with no issues. What’s more, after three weeks of consistently following the regimen, my skin felt so much softer and those horizontal lines across my forehead and my “11s” (those pesky lines between my brows) looked so much less pronounced. Plus, just as Dr. Bowe said, my skin glowed after the first night of using a glycolic acid exfoliant. 

The verdict? Yes, I would absolutely recommend trying this routine. The only thing I had to get used to was implementing a vitamin C serum. First off, I’d never tried one before, and secondly, I’m not used to patting rather than rubbing a product into my skin. However, I’m positive my previously dull-looking complexion becoming more even toned and brighter is due to using vitamin C twice a day. So when it comes to the skin cycling trend, call me a convert!

For more of anti-aging skin care trends to try, click through these stories:

Glass Skin Is the Viral Beauty Trend That’ll Leave You Glowing — Here’s How to Get It

Skincare’s Best-Kept Secret For Hydrated, Plump + Glowing Skin Instantly? Glycerin

The $9 Serum That Works Like Botox + More Viral Botox Dupes You Can Do From Home

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