With so many different types of beauty products in existence, you could have a robust skin care routine and still not know what each step is actually doing for your complexion. Some products are easier to understand, of course — moisturizers are meant to hydrate. But if you’ve ever asked yourself, “Um, what is toner?” allow Bustle to clear things up.
It’s worth noting that the first iteration of facial toners was a lot different than the targeted treatments you see today. “In the past, they were meant to balance your pH and tended to be more alcohol-based,” says Dr. Dhaval G. Bhanusali, M.D., a New York City-based dermatologist and CEO at Health Digital. Usually, these astringents would wind up making your skin feel tight and dry, he explains. Now, face cleanser formulas are predominately pH-balanced, which renders the original toner obsolete, says Dr. Loretta Ciraldo M.D., FAAD, a Miami-based board-certified dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta skin care. (As a refresher, your skin can become dry, irritated, or experience breakouts if its pH balance is off.)
The modern toner is a multi-tasking product meant to do a laundry list of things including cleanse, balance, refresh, moisturize, and gently exfoliate the skin, according to Dr. Shuting Hu, cosmetic chemist and co-founder of skin care brand Acaderma. These are the toners that can boost a healthy glow.
Read on for a guide on facial toners, including how to pick the right one for your skin type.
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What Is A Toner?
A toner is a liquid-based beauty product with a watery consistency. Think of it as an elixir that does everything the rest of your skin care routine does, but in a small and less potent package (since it’s water-based). Most facial toners have at least one purpose — you’ll find some that help keep pores clear, others that hydrate, formulas that exfoliate, and more, says Hu.
Within your routine, a toner is meant to be used after washing your face and before any serums or creams. “Toners should be used right after your cleanser to help remove any remaining impurities on the skin and prep your face for the rest of your routine,” says Hu. Just note that even though a toner may slough off residue your cleanser missed, it’s not a replacement for face wash.
Toners also increase the efficacy of the rest of your skin care products. Hu points to common toner ingredients like hyaluronic acid or glycerin that help your skin better absorb the following serums and/or moisturizers — think of them as a clearing liquid that preps your complexion to receive nutrients.
That said, toners happen to be a divisive beauty product category, mainly because they’re not completely necessary. “It’s a matter of preference,” says Ciraldo. But they do offer a unique perk to those looking to try a new ingredient. “Sometimes it’s used as a way to introduce an active ingredient in a more subtle way,” she explains. “For example, people who may want to use an alpha-hydroxy acid but are concerned that it may irritate them can start with a low concentration AHA toner, or a toner that combines multiple fruit acids, to see if their skin tolerates this type of ingredient.”
Like any other product, picking the best toner for you comes down to your skin type and goals. Generally speaking, however, there are some standard ingredients that target different issues. Something to note: If you’re using actives in your toner — like chemical exfoliants — watch if you’re using the same ingredients in other parts of your routine. “If the concentration of exfoliants is low in each, you may use both,” says Ciraldo. “But if you’ve got a 5% or higher AHA serum or exfoliating scrub, I don’t recommend adding an exfoliating toner.” Over-exfoliation is no fun, so be cautious to avoid that irritation.
Whatever toner you pick, the experts advise easing it into your routine by using it a few times a week before moving to daily use. Below, a guide to finding the right one for your skin.
Toners For Acne-Prone Skin
If you tend to get breakouts, look for AHAs and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) in a toner — examples include glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and lactic acid. The same applies to oily skin types, says Ciraldo. Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Hadley King adds that AHAs work by penetrating deep into the pores to remove excess oil (which leads to breakouts). Another perk? These chemical exfoliants can help minimize the appearance of your pores, she says.
Toners For Dry Skin
Hydrating toners can help your skin retain moisture. If this is what you’re looking for, Ciraldo and Hu recommend those that contain ingredients like hyaluronic acid, snow mushroom, aloe vera, and rosewater.
Toners For Inflamed Skin
If your skin is inflamed, you should look for something that is going to reduce irritation and strengthen your epidermis. “Ingredients like witch hazel, tea tree oil, and green tea are common since they calm and soothe any irritation happening on the skin, especially for acne-prone individuals,” Hu explains. Ciraldo adds that another helpful ingredient is oat extract, which is an MVP for calming complexions.
If your skin sensitivity is more related to a compromised barrier, reach for a pre- and probiotic-filled product. “Prebiotics and probiotics can help to balance the skin’s microbiome which is an incredibly delicate system of the skin,” Hu says. Basically, these two classes of ingredients harness the good bacteria on your skin to balance your pH and help build your barrier back up, she explains.
Toners For Brightening
Chemical exfoliants are also superheroes for brightening dark spots — especially glycolic acid, as dermatologist Dr. Deirdre Hooper, M.D. previously told Bustle. Lemon and licorice root extract can both help, too, leaving you with a more glowing, even complexion.
Ciganovic, P. (2019). Glycerolic Licorice Extracts as Active Cosmeceutical Ingredients: Extraction Optimization, Chemical Characterization, and Biological Activity. Antioxidants. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6826613/
Kornhauser, A. (2010). Applications of Hydroxy Acids: Classification, Mechanisms, and Photoactivity. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3047947/
Tang, S. (2018). Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids On The Skin. Molecules. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6017965/
Dr. Dhaval G. Bhanusali, M.D., a Manhattan-based dermatologist and CEO at Health Digital
Dr. Hadley King, M.D., NYC-based board-certified dermatologist
Dr. Shuting Hu, cosmetic chemist and co-founder of Acaderma