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

Your day-by-day breakdown.

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If you’re an avid scroller on BeautyTok, you’ve definitely heard about skin cycling. The skin care method has been gaining popularity on TikTok and beyond thanks, in part, to New York-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe, M.D. If you aren’t well-versed in the beauty practice, however, here’s the deal: Skin cycling is a four-night serum-alternating regimen during which you’d use a chemical exfoliant one night, retinol the next, and then give your complexion two nights to recover by laying off the actives and instead reaching for soothing, hydrating ingredients that nourish the skin barrier. Simple enough. But if you’ve got breakout-prone skin, you may be wondering how to tweak the skin cycling method for acne.

According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a typical acne treatment combines a slew of different ingredients in order to get the best outcome. “This allows you to address as many of the acne-contributing factors as possible in the same regimen,” he tells Bustle. The issue? Some of the best breakout-fighting ingredients aren’t compatible with each other, Zeichner explains, and some can cause irritation when used together. “Cycling products is an effective way of getting the benefits of different ingredients while minimizing irritation.”

Some key components of the classic skin cycling method are beneficial for acneic complexions, too. Exfoliation and retinol are important tools in the fight against acne, so if you’ve already gotten into traditional skin cycling, then you could already be on your way to a blemish-free glow. Still, skin cycling for acne requires a couple of key tweaks and considerations — read on for the derm-approved intel.

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How To Create A Skin Cycling Routine For Acne

Along with retinol and chemical exfoliants (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 to treat red, angry pimples,” says Zeichner. “It works by lowering the levels of acne-causing bacteria and reducing skin inflammation.” Here’s the catch, though: Benzoyl peroxide and retinol are both strong actives that aren’t compatible, Zeichner explains.

While retinol and BP can be used within the same routine, they shouldn’t be layered on top of one another because benzoyl peroxide will oxidize and inactivate most retinoids. Also, because BP is known to cause dryness and irritation, experts also tend to caution against using it with exfoliants. Hang in, though: There’s a way to work in all the good stuff, promise.

It’s also worth noting that, because it’s such a rockstar at treating acne, you may want to introduce retinol more frequently to your skin cycling regimen, and so board-certified dermatologist and BioRepublic advisor Dr. Marisa Garshick, M.D. suggests eliminating one of the recovery nights. Now, for the three-day breakdown.

Day & Night One:

In the morning, reach for benzoyl peroxide. As Zeichner notes, BP is notorious for bleaching fabrics (ahem, your clothes) and even your hairline, so, if that’s a concern, opt for a wash with benzoyl peroxide versus a leave-on treatment.

At night, slather on an exfoliating alpha or beta hydroxy acid. “Exfoliating helps to eliminate the buildup of dead skin cells,” Garshick notes. Acne-causing dirt, oil, and bacteria can get trapped by the congestion of dead skin, BTW. For the job, look for products with glycolic or lactic acid, which will work to improve post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation caused by blemishes. Garshick also recommends the BHA salicylic acid, which helps to unclog pores and control oil production.

Day & Night Two

On the second day, repeat your morning routine with benzoyl peroxide, and at night, instead of an exfoliant, reach for retinol. Pro tip: You don’t want to use retinoids in the morning because UV light can inactivate them, Zeichner explains. As for which retinol formula to choose? According to Garshick, if you’re new to it, look for serums that also contain soothing ingredients like squalane or ceramides to counterbalance any potential irritation. Once your skin is well-adjusted, you can up the ante with stronger formulas.

Day & Night Three

At this point in your skin cycling routine, you’ll want to give your skin a break from the actives. Instead, introduce calming, moisture-packed products that nourish and fortify the skin barrier. “This is extremely important for your skin to reset,” Garshick says. “Over-exfoliating and using powerful actives every night can be very irritating for the skin. By helping to repair the skin barrier and soothe the skin [in between your active ingredient nights], it prevents the skin from becoming irritated or sensitized.” For the soothing job, look for ingredients like vitamin E, hyaluronic acid, squalane, glycerin, cica, and chamomile extract, to name some examples. And remember, when dealing with acne-prone skin, it’s important to choose products that are non-comedogenic, aka they won’t clog your pores, says Garshick.

What To Know About Acne & Skin Cycling

If you’re dealing with moderate to severe acne, Garshick says that skin cycling may not be the best method for you. That’s because treating especially 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 in order to acclimate to new actives. “It is important to avoid over-exfoliating or drying out the skin too much, so the concept of skin cycling, or introducing products into a routine slowly to minimize irritation or the disruption of the skin barrier, is helpful in the management of acne,” Garshick says. Still, for tougher cases, a visit to your dermatologist is never a bad idea.

Studies referenced:

Del Rosso, J. (2010). Absence of 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, M.B. (2021). Benzoyl Peroxide. StatPearls.

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

Tolleson, W. H. (2005). Photodecomposition and Phototoxicity of Natural Retinoids. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2(1), 147-155.


Dr. Marisa Garshick, M.D., BioRepublic advisor and board-certified dermatologist at Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery.

Dr. Joshua Zeichner, M.D., New York-based board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic & clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital

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