Chemical Exfoliants

Why Skin Cycling is Actually Good for Your Skin + 4 Common Pitfalls

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With all the ingredients in the market and beauty trends on social media, how can we build a consistent skincare routine? It can be hard to get a steady regimen but we all want glowing, glass-like skin!

Even if some of the products we use can be a bit irritating, like chemical exfoliants and retinoids, there is still a way to use them steadily!

Grab a FREE printable skin cycling calendar!

Not sure what chemical exfoliants are?
Check out this blog post.

This is how the social media skincare trend “skin cycling” has gone viral. But what is skin cycling? How can I incorporate it into my skincare routine? Who would it benefit the most? Continue reading to learn more.

In this article I will discuss:

How & why to cycle your skincare products

What is skin cycling?

Skin cycling is a term that was coined by Dr. Whitney Bowe, a board-certified dermatologist.

It is a skincare method that is based on a 4-day skincare cycle to achieve maximum efficacy with minimal irritation.

The concept behind it is not new, dermatologists have always been saying to not overdo it with active ingredients as these ingredients take time and multiple applications to get your skin used to them.

Dermatologists always recommend applying these ingredients every third night and using a gentle ingredient in between until your skin can tolerate strong topicals every night.

The goal of retinoids is to help clarify your skin.

skincare routine - moisturizing under eyes
Photo by MART

It is basically keeping your morning skincare routine consistent while rotating the possibly irritating ingredients at night, mixed with a period of recovery and rest (AKA lots of hydrating and moisturizing ingredients).

The recovery and rest period can be subjective and personalized according to each person’s own skin type and routine. However, it is very helpful for people with sensitive skin since the skin has time to recover and regenerate after using the active ingredients.

Skin cycling schedule

AM routine stays the same, and PM skin cycling routine looks like this:

Night 1: exfoliate

Night 2: retinol

Night 3: recovery

Night 4: recovery


retinoid night - skin cycling
Photo by Ron

This schedule is suitable for all skin types but you may need to tweak the cycle up or down according to your own optimal skincare routine.

For example, if you have overly sensitive and dry skin or rosacea, your skin might not tolerate the exfoliants and retinoids, therefore, you may want to cut down on these ingredients or add a third recovery night.

On the other hand, if you have oily or acne-prone skin, you may need to dial up the frequency of exfoliants and retinoids or reduce the recovery nights to one night instead of two.

Benefits of skin cycling

There are many benefits that come from adding this method to your regimen. The most important one is that your skin builds tolerance to active ingredients.

Chemical exfoliants and retinoids can cause skin sensitivity, irritation, and dehydration. By cycling them throughout the week, you help bring out the benefits of the ingredients in your skincare routine without irritating and dehydrating your skin.

Chemical ingredients can:

  • brighten skin tone
  • bring radiance to the skin
  • boost collagen production

Recovery days are key to allowing your skin barrier to repair fully.

woman doing her skincare routine - skin cycling
Photo by Andrea

Chemical exfoliants get rid of any dead skin cells and will give you an immediate glow, this will increase the effectiveness of using retinoids the next night, it’s like working on a new sheet of skin.

How can I incorporate skin cycling into my skincare regimen?

Night 1: exfoliation

  1. Double-cleansing: LANEIGE – Cream Skin Milk Oil Cleanser and COSRX – Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser
  2. Use chemical exfoliants (acids) on clean, dry skin: The Ordinary – Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution or The Ordinary – Salicylic Acid 2% Masque or SOME BY MI – AHA-BHA-PHA 30 Days Miracle Serum
  3. Apply a moisturizer: COSRX – Advanced Snail 92 All In One Cream or Dr. Jart+ – Ceramidin Cream

Night 2: retinol

  1. Double-cleanse your skin
  2. Optional if you have sensitive skin or are new to retinol: apply a thin layer of fragrance-free moisturizer under your eyes, smile-line area, and below the mouth, this dilutes down the strength of the retinoid and allows your skin to adjust (known as the sandwich technique)
  3. Apply a pea-sized amount of retinoid by dabbing it onto the face, chest, and neck: IOPE – Retinol Expert 0.1% or The Ordinary – Retinol 1% in Squalane
  4. Apply a rich moisturizing cream

Night 3 & 4: recovery

  1. Use a gentle cleanser (or double-cleanse)
  2. Pat dry but keep the skin damp
  3. Apply a powerful humectant: The Ordinary – Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 or Haruharu WONDER – Black Rice Hyaluronic Anti-wrinkle Serum
  4. Moisturize immediately: COSRX – Hyaluronic Acid Intensive Cream
  5. Optional: pat an oil on your skin
skincare beauty products
Photo by Karolina

Common pitfalls of skin cycling

  1. Sensitive and burning sensation on the eyelid area, around the mouth and nose, and neck

Solution: if you have sensitive skin, before using chemical exfoliants and retinoids, apply a thin layer of moisturizer on top of the sensitive areas to act as a barrier so that your skin can adjust, and avoid applying the active ingredients to those areas as well

  1. No improvement for oily acne-prone due to improper skin cycling

Solution: use a three-night cycle. Exfoliation night, retinoid night, recovery night, repeat. For exfoliation night, use a product with the ingredient salicylic acid. For the retinoid night, apply a higher percentage of retinol by seeing your dermatologist for a prescription strength product.

  1. Skin cycling for rosacea

Solution: for exfoliation night, use acids with a total concentration under 15%. For the retinoid night, use a gentle fragrance-free over-the-counter retinol or retinaldehyde. Add a third recovery night to make sure that your skin barrier has enough time to repair.

  1. Applying moisturizer immediately after the exfoliating product

Solution: you need to wait until the tingling sensation completely subsides before applying a moisturizer

The importance of maintaining an alternate skincare schedule

Skin cycling is a helpful concept when you want to have a consistent skincare routine in a busy and hectic schedule.

It is very useful for all skin types because you can tweak it as you like according to your skin type and tolerance. You get the best of both worlds, exfoliation, and hydration.

Even if you have sensitive skin, it does not mean that you can’t use really powerful chemical exfoliants and retinoids, it just means that you need to learn how to incorporate them properly into your skincare routine.

Of course, it goes without saying, SPF is absolutely crucial when using active ingredients in your skincare routine!

Will you start skin cycling? Let me know in the comments!

Let’s do this!

Chemical Exfoliants – How to Get Smooth Skin

This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission, at no cost to you, if you make a purchase through the link.

We all know that in order to achieve smooth and soft skin, we have to get rid of the dead skin cells that are blocking those new and healthy skin cells.

On average, a skin turnover cycle is 5-6 weeks. At the age of 21 it takes 14-21 days, and as we grow older, our skin cycle slows down.

Therefore, in order for us to speed up the process and get rid of more dead skin cells, we must exfoliate. Here, we will be looking into chemical exfoliation in details to explain what it is and how it works.

Chemical exfoliation may sound intimidating at first, however, it has become a very popular gentle treatment for achieving soft, smooth, and glowing skin.

Chemical exfoliants range from alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHA), to other chemical compounds such as mandelic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid.

These acids react with the outermost layer of the skin as soon as the product is applied.

Let’s dive into the details of chemical exfoliation.

What is chemical exfoliation?

Chemical exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells using acids that work by breaking down the “glue” that holds skin cells together. This loosens the bonds between the dead cells on the surface of your skin, making them easier to flake off.

People undergo this treatment to remove the outermost layer of dead skin cells from the surface of the skin to reveal newer, healthier skin, they are one way to help reduce acne or prevent it from forming in some cases.

If you have skin conditions like eczema or rosacea, then you might want to add chemical exfoliation to your skincare routine since chemical exfoliants have anti-inflammatory properties which can aid in healing these skin conditions.

The benefits of chemical exfoliants include:

  • Removing dead skin cells
  • Smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles
  • Brightening complexion
  • Reducing acne breakouts
  • Improving texture
  • Improving sun spots
  • Helping heal skin conditions

Chemical Exfoliation Vs. Physical Exfoliation

Chemical exfoliation uses products with skin-exfoliating chemicals to remove dead skin cells, whereas physical exfoliation uses physical products such as washcloths, face scrubs, or facial brushes to remove dead skin cells.

What are the different types of chemical exfoliation?

  1. AHA: Alpha Hydroxy Acids, this group of acids is extracted from fruits. Below are some of their characteristics:
    • Water-soluble
    • Works on the outermost layer of the skin
    • Hydrates the skin
    • Includes: glycolic acid, citric acid, malic acid, mandelic acid, and lactic acid
    • Facilitates collagen regeneration
    • Makes the skin sensitive to UV rays

  2. BHA: Beta Hydroxy Acids, this group of acids occurs naturally and is derived from plants.
    • Oil-soluble
    • Works to clean out the deeper layers of the skin
    • Includes salicylic acid
    • Helps with inflammation
    • Cleans out pores

  3. PHA: Polyhydroxy Acids are also plant acids that are similar to AHAs.
    • Because of their large structure, they do not penetrate the deeper layers of the skin and work on the outer layers
    • Gentler and less sensitizing
    • PHA may be a good alternative for people with sensitive skin
    • Anti-inflammatory properties
    • Includes gluconolactone and lactovionic acids

  4. LHA: Lipohydroxy Acid, derived from salicylic acid.
    • Oil-soluble
    • Works on deeper layers than BHAs
    • Less irritating because of its high levels of liposolubility (solubility in fat)

How to choose the best chemical exfoliant for your skin type

When it comes down to choosing the best chemical peel for your skin type, you need to consider a few factors.

The first is your skin type. You can take the skin type test and read more about skin types in my other article.

Different chemical peels work better on different types of skin. You should find out what your skin type is before deciding which peel you want to use.

The second factor is the strength of the peel that you want to use.

If you have sensitive or dry skin, then you will want to go with a weaker exfoliant that will not irritate or dry out your skin too much.

If you have oily or acne-prone skin, then you might be able to tolerate a stronger exfoliant more easily.

Which chemical exfoliant to choose from for your skin type

Dry skin

  • Use AHAs because they are hydrating and they exfoliate the outermost layer of the skin

Dry and sensitive skin

  • Low percentage of AHAs (5%)
  • Use PHA because it is less irritating

Acne-prone skin

  • Use BHAs, because they are oil-soluble, this makes it easier to get rid of excess sebum and oil in pores as well as dead skin cells

Acne-prone and sensitive skin

  • Use LHA, because it is less irritating and sinks slower into the skin

What to do before and after a chemical exfoliation session

In order for you to benefit properly from exfoliation, you must complete your full skincare routine.


Here is what to do and what not to do before (48 hours prior) chemical exfoliation:

  • Avoid exfoliating your skin
  • Do not undergo this treatment close to an important event
  • Lay off the anti-aging creams
  • Stay hydrated
  • Wear SPF and avoid unprotected sun exposure at least 4 weeks prior
Apply sunscreen
Photo by Tara Winstead from

Here are a few steps to care for your skin after exfoliating. Follow them to help your skin get the most benefits.

  • Hydrate your skin with glycerin to hold moisture in the skin
  • Wear sunscreen before you go out
  • Avoid exfoliating until your skin heals fully
  • Use soothing ingredients
  • Avoid saunas and steam rooms
Photo by ANTONI SHKRABA from

When does your skin need chemical exfoliants?

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Does my skin feel dehydrated?
  • Does my skin look dull?
  • Am I getting more breakouts?
  • Does my skin have an uneven tone?
  • Does my skin have more fine lines than usual?
  • Is my skin fully healed from the last session? (if applicable)

Frequently asked questions about chemical exfoliation

  1. How often can I use a chemical exfoliant?

It depends on your skin’s reactivity to the exfoliant, but as a general rule:

  • Oily skin: 3-4 times a week
  • Sensitive skin: once a week
  • Dry skin: 2-3 times a week
  • Mature skin: 2-3 times a week

Skincare products
Photo by Monstera from
  1. How long does it take until I see results?

This varies from one person to another. Some people see results in the same day, while others weeks. Staying consistent is really important if you want to see results.

  1. Can I use chemical exfoliants every day?

This depends on the product you are using and its concentration. Some people are able to use them daily, although you should always test the products on your own skin before committing and using a product daily.

  1. What happens if I over-exfoliate?

You will end up with patchy, dehydrated skin that is flaky due to the loss of the ability to retained and absorb moisture.


Adding a chemical exfoliant to your skincare routine is a must. 

Not only do you speed up your skin’s cell turnover cycle, but you also make way for the healthier, newer skin cells that will give you that smooth, soft look you’ve always wanted!

But remember, if you are new to chemical exfoliants, you might need to slowly introduce your skin to it first by exfoliating using products that have light exfoliating ingredients, and then taking it from there.

Woman having a chemical exfoliating session
Photo by Gustavo Fring from

Are you new to chemical exfoliants? Did you learn something new after reading this article?

Let me know in the comments section!

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