She Created Skin Cycling on Tik Tok—And There’s More

11.30.2022 — Luiza Bargo

If you’re on TikTok and interested in beauty and skincare, chances are you have seen at least one video from Dr. Whitney Bowe–the dermatologist that has been making the rounds on FYPs everywhere talking about her skin cycling routine. But what is skin cycling, and how does it work? We spoke with Dr. Bowe to go a little more in depth on the science behind it, why it has become such a success, and what other steps she recommends to go alongside it.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background!

I completed my undergraduate pre-med studies at Yale and then earned a full tuition, merit-based scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. In addition to my medical studies, I completed one year at the Center for Clinical Epidemiology & Biostatistics so that I would have a deep understanding of scientific studies and evidence. I then completed my dermatology residency (research track) and started on the path that I find myself on today, as the Medical Director of Integrative Dermatology at Advanced Dermatology, P.C. I’ve been practicing dermatology for over a decade and there is never a dull moment! I’m an eternal student by nature, so I am always challenging myself and preconceived notions in my field. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and put in the work. Optimizing skin health is my passion.

You’ve gone viral on Tik Tok for talking about skin cycling, but what is skin cycling?

Skin Cycling is a strategic, results-driven method for cycling through your evening skincare products to minimize irritation, keeping skin barrier health as a key focus. The beauty of skin cycling is that you can personalize and modify it to meet your skin’s needs and your goals.

The Classic Skin Cycling routine, which went viral on social media, cycles key products in a specific way to give you optimal results. It has proven to be a really helpful framework, or blueprint, for so many people worldwide. It goes like this: 1. Exfoliation Night, 2. Retinoid Night, 3. Recovery Night, 4. Recovery Night, then you repeat the cycle. This order is important: it staggers how often you are using powerful, potentially irritating ingredients (i.e. exfoliating acids and retinoids), helping to protect your skin barrier. It also intentionally encourages you to use your exfoliating product the night before you use your retinoid, setting up your skin to better absorb it on night 2 of the cycle.

Here is a little bit more detail:

  • Night 1: EXFOLIATION – I opt for chemical exfoliating products over harsh physical scrubs. This type of exfoliation gives your skin an immediate glow but also preps you to get the most out of night 2, retinoid night.
  • Night 2: RETINOID – Retinoids are one of the powerful ingredients to include in your skin cycling routine. Many people struggle with irritation resulting from retinoids, so introducing them in this way, or using them in this way if you have sensitive, reactive skin, is game changing for many people because we follow with deliberate recovery nights. 
  • Nights 3 and 4: RECOVERY – HOLD OFF on the exfoliating acids and retinoids and give your skin a chance to recover. On recovery nights, you want to focus on nourishing your skin microbiome and repairing your skin barrier, so think hydration and moisture and avoid any irritating ingredients. 

Then REPEAT. This is traditional skin cycling, but this structure can be personalized based on individual needs.

Skin Cycling is a strategic, results-driven method for cycling through your evening skincare products to minimize irritation, keeping skin barrier health as a key focus.

— Dr. Whitney Bowe

Exfoliating serums and retinoids are powerful, highly effective products that I use in my skincare routine and recommend to my patients. However, they can be very irritating for many people if used too frequently. Irritated skin is not healthy, optimized skin. With Skin Cycling, you introduce these potentially irritating products in a strategic and methodical way.

This is particularly beneficial if you are new to using exfoliating serums or retinoids, or if you have sensitive skin or a skin condition like rosacea. While some people can build up to using retinol or exfoliating more frequently, in my experience, most of them benefit from spacing out these ingredients, especially initially. This is a helpful intro video about how to start a skin cycling routine.

@drwhitneybowe Skin cycling for beginners: how to get started. And how to layer with Bowe Glowe #skincycling #thatboweglow #dermatologist #skintok ♬ original sound – Dr. Whitney Bowe

And, if you have been skin cycling for a month and your skin is doing beautifully (you are not seeing irritation), you can consider Advanced Skin Cycling, which focuses on two things: dropping some recovery nights and adding more retinoid nights. I’ve also built out modifications for my patients with rosacea-prone skin, and oily skin, which I have shared over the past year on social media.

What are your favorite products for each step?

Cleanser: La Roche Posay Toleriane Gentle Hydrating Cleanser is milky and leaves my skin feeling hydrated and nourished, not stripped and tight.

Night 1: Exfoliation

Pro tip: Reach for chemical exfoliating products over harsh physical scrubs.

Our Exfoliation Night Resurfacing + Brightening Serum is a chemical exfoliator that delivers powerful, triple acid exfoliation thanks to AHA, BHA, PHA, without the irritation issues that tend to come with a serum of this level. Inside each bottle is a unique 12% blend of exfoliating acids and hydrating postbiotics that promotes skin cell turnover to renew radiance overnight so you wake up to brighter-looking, softer skin. With consistent use, you can expect skin to appear more firm, smooth plus tone to be more even-looking meaning the dark spots get brighter over time. It works beautifully on all skin tones and even sensitive skin—and yes, we did the clinical studies to back that up!


Exfoliation Night Resurfacing + Brightening Serum$79

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On top of your exfoliating product, you want to apply a fragrance free moisturizer that specifically rebalances the skin microbiome and repairs the skin barrier, but you don’t want to use a product that is too heavy or greasy because that can push the exfoliating acid into the skin and create unnecessary irritation.  

Your skin is especially vulnerable on exfoliation night after you slough away that dead layer of skin cells, so avoid any potentially irritating or inflammatory ingredients like essential oils, and be especially careful about avoiding products with ingredients that might damage the skin barrier, such as olive oil.

Night 2: Retinoid

Pro tip: Retinoids are one of the most powerful ingredients to include in your Skin Cycling routine, but they can be irritating, particularly if you are just beginning to use them or if you have sensitive skin. I share info on retinoid night for people with sensitive skin here.

If you have very sensitive skin, you might actually want to use your moisturizer first, especially in sensitive areas like around the eyes, and corners of the nose, mouth and neck. That acts as a buffer, allowing your skin to adapt to a lower concentration of your retinoid. Once you acclimate to it, you can apply the retinoid directly onto dry skin: retinoid first, then moisturizer.

Again, you want to apply a hydrating, barrier repair cream that doesn’t irritate the skin or drive the retinoid too deep. Applying heavy, occlusive products like vaseline or coconut oil can actually enhance penetration of the retinoid, creating unnecessary irritation. For that reason, I do not recommend slugging on retinoid night.  The same principles hold true for exfoliation night and retinoid night when it comes to what to layer on top of your active serum.

One of my favorite retinoid products (I have sensitive skin) is Dermalogica’s Overnight Retinol Repair. Another great option is Skinceuticals retinol 0.5. This is a potent, stable mid-strength retinol that is well formulated so it delivers results but can be irritating if used outside of a skin cycling routine, especially in people with sensitive skin or new to retinoids.

Nights 3 and 4: Recovery

Pro tip: Look for deeply hydrating and restorative ingredients including prebiotics, postbiotics, ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and squalane.


Bowe Glowe™ Microbiome Nourishing Cream$95

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The Bowe Glowe™ Microbiome Nourishing Cream was designed for every night of Skin Cycling. On exfoliation night, apply after any tingling sensation from the exfoliating serum subsides. It also optimizes retinoid night because it is an excellent buffer for sensitive skin (underneath the retinoid), but also the perfect layer to put on top.  It boosts hydration and repairs the barrier with nourishing ingredients without creating that heavy, occlusive effect that you want to make sure to avoid on retinoid nights.

Do you recommend it for any/all skin types? If not, are there any modifications people should make to adapt it for themselves?

The beauty of Skin Cycling is that it’s a flexible framework that can be personalized for different skin types. Here is a video covering this topic as well. If you are experiencing sensitivity and irritation, you can increase your recovery nights—I call this Gentle Skin Cycling. If you are seasoned and well-adjusted to your retinoid and want to dial up, you can omit one recovery night for a 3 night cycle—I call this Advanced Skin Cycling.

@drwhitneybowe #greenscreen #skincycling is is a FLEXIBLE framework that you can personalize to meet your skin where it is! #thatboweglow #dermatologist #retinol #tretinoin ♬ original sound – Dr. Whitney Bowe
  • Luiza Bargo is a Brazilian writer and graphic designer based in Texas. She loves discussing harm reduction in the beauty and wellness industry, sustainable fashion, and all things nerdy. Follow her on Instagram (@luizabargo) to keep up with her work.

Luiza Bargo
Luiza Bargo is a Brazilian writer and graphic designer based in Texas. She loves discussing harm reduction in the beauty and wellness industry, sustainable fashion, and all things nerdy. Follow her on Instagram (@luizabargo) to keep up with her work.