How To Create A Skin Cycling Routine For Acne, According To Derms

If you’re an avid scroller on BeautyTok, you’ve definitely heard of Skin Cycling. The skincare method has gained popularity on TikTok and beyond, thanks in part to New York-based dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe, MD. If you’re unfamiliar with beauty practice, here’s the deal: Skin Cycling is a four-day serum-alternative regimen where you use a chemical peel one night and retinol the next, then give your complexion two nights to recover, by shedding the active ingredients and instead reaching for soothing, moisturizing ingredients that nourish the skin barrier. Easy enough. But if you have blemish-prone skin, you might be wondering how to optimize skin cycling for acne.

According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, a typical acne treatment combines a number of different ingredients to achieve the best result. “That way you can target as many of the factors that contribute to acne as possible with the same regimen,” he tells Bustle. The matter? Some of the best breakout-fighting ingredients are incompatible with each other, Zeichner explains, and some can cause irritation when used together. “Cycling products are an effective way to reap the benefits of different ingredients while minimizing irritation.”

Some key components of the classic skin cycling method are also beneficial for acneic skin. Exfoliation and retinol are important tools in the fight against acne. So if you’ve already started traditional skin cycling, you could already be on your way to a flawless glow. Still, skin cycling for acne requires some important tweaks and considerations – read on for the derm-approved info.

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How to Create a Skin Cycling Routine for Acne

Along with retinol and chemical peels (alpha and beta hydroxy acids), benzoyl peroxide (BP) is another Gold Star ingredient used to treat acne. “Benzoyl peroxide is probably the most effective ingredient we have for treating red, angry pimples,” says Zeichner. “It works by lowering levels of acne-causing bacteria and reducing skin inflammation.” But here’s the rub: Benzoyl peroxide and retinol are both powerful drugs that aren’t compatible, explains Zeichner.

While retinol and BP can be used within the same routine, they should not be layered on top of each other as benzoyl peroxide oxidizes and inactivates most retinoids. Because BP is known to cause dryness and irritation, experts also tend to caution against using it with scrubs. But hold on: there’s a way to work in all the good stuff, I promise.

It’s also worth noting that since it’s such a rock star in treating acne, you’ll want to include retinol in your skin cycle regimen more often, and as such, board-certified dermatologist and BioRepublic consultant Dr. Marisa Garshick, MD, before eliminating one of the recoveries nights. Now to the three-day breakdown.

Day & Night One:

Reach for benzoyl peroxide in the morning. As Zeichner notes, BP is notorious for bleaching fabrics (er, your clothes) and even your hairline. So if you’re worried, opt for a benzoyl peroxide wash over a leave-on treatment.

Apply an exfoliating alpha or beta hydroxy acid at night. “Exfoliating helps remove the buildup of dead skin cells,” notes Garshick. Incidentally, acne-causing dirt, oil, and bacteria can get trapped by clogging dead skin. For the job, look for products with glycolic or lactic acid that improve post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation caused by blemishes. Garshick also recommends the BHA salicylic acid, which helps unclog pores and control oil production.

Day & Night Two

On the second day, repeat your morning routine with benzoyl peroxide and at night switch to retinol instead of an exfoliant. Pro tip: Retinoids shouldn’t be used in the morning because UV light can inactivate them, Zeichner explains. Which Retinol Formula to Choose? According to Garshick, if you’re new to it, you should look for serums that also contain soothing ingredients like squalane or ceramides to help offset any potential irritation. Once your skin is well adjusted, you can follow up with stronger formulas.

Day & Night Three

At this point in your skin cycling routine, you should give your skin a break from the active ingredients. Instead, use soothing, moisturizing products that nourish and strengthen the skin barrier. “This is extremely important to allow your skin to reset,” says Garshick. “Excessive exfoliation and using strong ingredients every night can be very irritating to the skin. By helping to repair the skin barrier and soothe the skin [in between your active ingredient nights], it prevents skin from becoming irritated or sensitized.” For soothing benefits, look for ingredients like vitamin E, hyaluronic acid, squalane, glycerin, cica and chamomile extract, to name a few. And remember, when dealing with acne-prone skin, it’s important to choose products that are non-comedogenic, meaning they won’t clog your pores, says Garshick.

What you should know about acne and skin cycling

If you’re dealing with moderate to severe acne, Garshick says skin cycling may not be the best method for you. That’s because treating particularly troublesome acne requires more consistency and fewer breaks, she notes. But if your acne is on the milder side, skin cycling may be just what your complexion needs to adjust to new active ingredients. “It’s important to avoid over-exfoliating or over-drying the skin, so the concept of the skin cycle, or slowly introducing products into a routine to minimize irritation or disruption of the skin barrier, is helpful when treating acne . ‘ says Garshick. Still, a visit to your dermatologist is never a bad idea for more difficult cases.

Referenced Studies:

Del Rosso, J (2010). No degradation of tretinoin when benzoyl peroxide is combined with an optimized formulation of tretinoin gel (0.05%). The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, 3(10), 26-28.

Martin, T & Goodman, MB (2021). benzoyl peroxide. StatPearls.

Rodan, K. (2016). Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Global Open, 4(12 supplement).

Tolleson, W. H. (2005). Photodegradation and phototoxicity of natural retinoids. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2(1), 147-155.


dr Marisa Garshick, MD, BioRepublic consultant and board-certified dermatologist at Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery.

dr Joshua Zeichner, MD, New York-based board-certified dermatologist and Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital

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