Skin cycling & skin flooding – new names for old concepts!

Posted by Natasha Dauncey on

If you spend any time on social media you may have spotted both these terms cropping up a lot recently. As with most things on social media, they are often presented as new, trending approaches, but in reality, many of us have been doing them for a while (especially if you follow a skin barrier-first approach) and just haven’t bothered to label them! And whilst most of the skincare trends we see on social media are gimmicky (and in some cases, downright stupid!), these two are actually sound!

So, what are skin cycling and skin flooding all about? Let’s take a look at each of these.

Skin cycling – this is simply the principle of rotating your skincare actives across different days and allowing “rest days” (where you could try skin flooding – more on that in a bit!) without any exfoliating acids or retinoids, in order to minimise any stress on your skin barrier and avoid irritation. And as you know, Apothaka puts the skin barrier at the very heart of skincare, so this is something I’ve been advising for some time, and it’s also the main reason why my range focusses on supportive essentials for the skin (gentle cleansing plus hydrating and nourishing products to support use of skincare actives). I’ve been a long-time advocate of having “rest days” in any routine which allow for a key focus on skin hydration and replenishment – and this is something that becomes even more important if you have sensitive skin and / or ageing skin (peri-menopause and onwards), as the skin barrier is more susceptible to being compromised and ageing skin typically craves more hydration. Where I feel things have become a little too prescriptive is around what the cycle should look like. If you read various posts or articles about this topic, many suggest a 4-day cycle (e.g. acid on day 1, retinoid on day 2, rest days 3 and 4, then start the cycle again). In reality, the cycle you follow should be dictated by your individual skin’s needs – not a TikTok trend! I can’t stress enough the importance of getting to understand your own skin and its changing needs, as once you do this, you’ll be able to create the best routine for yourself. Of course, when you’re starting out and things feel overwhelming, it can be easier to just follow a set routine. The problem with this is that when it isn’t working (your skin starts to feel dry or irritated), people may just continue to stick with the routine, believing that it’s the only approach.

I’ve tweaked my routine (or cycle) a lot over the last 5 years or so as I’ve got to understand my skin better, but also to account for changing weather (which can impact how our skin feels), and the fact that my skin has aged (I’m nearing 47) and become more dehydrated as a result. I’ve adjusted my strength of retinoid used, the frequency I apply them and how much I exfoliate (or should I say, how little I exfoliate!). Here’s my current (night) routine:

Day 1 – stronger retinoid

Day 2 – rest day (hydration)

Day 3 – weaker retinoid

Day 4 – weaker retinoid

Day 5 – rest day (hydration)

Day 6 – stronger retinoid

Day 7 – rest day (hydration)

I’m not sharing this to suggest you follow it, but to show you how different my “cycle” may look from someone else’s. And if you look at my old blog post on using retinoids, you’ll see that it’s different from that too. You may also notice I alternate between stronger (tretinoin) and gentler retinoids (retinal), which is something I’ve been really enjoying over the last few months. Being peri-menopausal, I’ve noticed my skin doesn’t tolerate prescription strength retinoids as well as it used to, and rather than “pushing through”, I’ve incorporated a weaker retinoid a couple of days a week which is working really well for me to maintain the great results I’ve had with tretinoin. The other thing you’ll notice is that I rarely exfoliate – generally my skin doesn’t need it (because hydrated skin exfoliates itself through its natural process), though I may do 1 night of gentle exfoliation every few weeks if I feel my skin looks a little dull.

Skin flooding – this is the principle of layering lots of hydrating products to “flood” the skin with hydration. Think hydrating essences/toners, hydrating serums etc which drench the skin in lightweight layers of hydration. Again, this is not a new concept by any means – I’ve simply referred to it as a focus on hydration! As someone with dehydrated skin which is also prone to comedonal acne, I have always had to avoid heavy / lipid-rich products (those with a lot of waxes / butters or heavy oils) as they tend to clog my pores. Instead, I’ve found my skin responds much better to a few layers of light hydration and by layering a few products I find my skin stays hydrated for longer too. Again, where things have become a little too prescriptive is how much time to allow between layers, which products to use for layering and how many layers to apply. This will obviously depend on how much hydration your skin needs! With regards to how long to leave between layers, I’m not aware of any clinical studies that have looked at this – I’ve always applied layers quickly and not waited in between steps. The ONLY exception to this is to make sure your skin has fully dried down before applying sunscreen. Sunscreen needs to form an even layer to be fully protective and this can only happen on dry skin so be careful about “overloading” your skin in the morning routine – try to keep quantities of hydrating products applied fairly minimal.

Here’s my current approach (day and night):

(NB. My retinoid at night would slot in before or after moisturiser, depending on how my skin is feeling day to day).

I may adjust the above depending on time of year and I typically apply more hydrating layers at night. In hotter weather (when my skin is less dehydrated and can be a little more oily) I tend to only do 1 layer of essence and use less moisturiser in the morning (sunscreen alone may even be enough on some days). But the general idea I want to get across is, my routine isn’t fixed. The broad principles of it may remain the same, but I tweak it according to how my skin feels.

Things to bear in mind with skin flooding – hopefully I’ve conveyed the importance of flexibility in your routines to fit your skin’s own needs, but there are some general rules of thumb you should be aware of when it comes to product choice:

  • Be mindful of the type of toner / essence you’re using for skin flooding. You want to choose a hydrating product (i.e. avoid exfoliating toners and serums for skin flooding). Look for ingredients like glycerin, propanediol, hyaluronic acid, and other components of your skin’s own Natural Moisturising Factor (amino acids, urea, sodium PCA, sodium lactate, sugars like fructose and inositol), panthenol and even lactic acid – which functions as a humectant (hydrator) in low concentrations and higher pH. It’s no surprise that you’ll find all these ingredients in my hydrators / moisturisers like skin quenching essence, barrier support serum and skin quenching moisturiser!
  • Formulation is key – you may find some products work better for you than others, despite having the same key ingredients. This is because overall formulation (including supporting ingredients) is just as important (sometimes more important) than the key ingredients included. For example, you may find a hydrating essence (which is typically a little more viscous than a hydrating toner / mist) provides more sustained hydration as essences (like my skin quenching essence) often contain additional ingredients that form a film on your skin, reducing the evaporation of hydrating ingredients
  • Don’t apply large quantities of hydrating toners / serums to your skin at once. Your skin isn’t a sponge so there’s a limit to how much will sink into the surface layer of your skin. You may also find you experience pilling (product rolling over / flaking) if you apply too much of your hydrating products. If using my products, then follow the instructions for each product on the label.
  • The efficacy of skin flooding will be dictated by the rest of your routine i.e. ensure skin barrier health is at the heart of your routine through:
    • sensible use of actives (just enough to target your concerns without overly stressing your skin) and allowing rest days for your skin to recover
    • gentle cleansing (cleansing is the most disruptive thing we do to our skin, though we have to do it so keep it gentle!)
    • regular use of sunscreen and antioxidants to protect your skin from free radical damage
  • As mentioned above, ensure you apply sunscreen to your skin only once all the hydrating products/moisturiser have fully dried down – so an even film can form. You can go heavier with “skin flooding” at night when your skin has time to repair and recover

If you’re using skincare actives and haven’t got your basic, supportive essentials right, then it’s never to late to start! Apothaka is here to support your skincare journey (and your skin barrier 😉). Check out my face care range here

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