Skin care regimens are as personal as they are varied, but there are a few fundamental steps that remain the same. For one, you need to wash your face. And two, you need to hydrate skin. Everything in between? Well, that's where things get interesting. Case in point: toner.
What is toner?
The skin care step is somewhat controversial, considered optional by some yet downright essential to others. While toners are not mandatory per se, the right one can enhance the effects of your skin care regimen.
Toners come in many varieties: Some are designed to further purify the skin post-cleanse, others balance the skin's barrier, and still others add an extra cushion of moisture. (Also: Toners come with many names, as sometimes they're called essences and others simply mists. Don't be fooled, they're the same product category.) However, the universal thread for toners is that it acts as a prep step: It sets up your skin for the treatments that follow. This also helps us understand where they fall into a routine. They come after your cleanser—whether you single or double-cleanse—and are then followed up by serums, lotions, and oils.
If you decide to add in a toner, there are seemingly endless choices: meaning the right addition to your regimen really comes down to selecting the right active ingredients for your skin type. (This, of course, could be said of all skin care products.) Keeping your specific skin care goals in mind—be it hydration, exfoliation, brightening, or even barrier support—can help you decide what toner is most appropriate for you. "Some toners are humectants, which bind moisture to the skin. Others are enriched with vitamins and minerals. Some remove drying chlorines and minerals present in tap water," explains board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D.
What does toner do for the skin?
It purifies the skin.
Toner, applied using cotton rounds or an eco-friendly, reusable alternative, gives the face a once-over to remove any debris left lingering behind after cleansing. "Toners can remove any last traces of dirt, makeup, or impurities stuck in our pores after washing our face," explains holistic board-certified dermatologist Mamina Turegano, M.D. Still, they should never be used instead of cleansing.
And modern toners have the added bonus of purifying gently. Remember the drying, oil-stripping, alcohol-based toners of the past? Those days are gone. These are nondrying, water-based formulas that respect the integrity of the skin barrier and the natural protective oils while infusing purifying botanical extracts, like saponin flower1 or willow bark2, to help clear and refresh skin.
It balances skin.
Another critical function of your toner is to balance the skin's pH, which research notes is typically acidic at or below 53. Most soaps, on the other hand, are typically alkaline—as are other environmental aggressors, including pollution. Thus, toner helps return the skin to its proper baseline with its protective acid mantle intact. "After cleansing, due to the alkaline nature of soap, our skin's pH gets disturbed," says King. "When this happens, your skin needs to work overtime, but using toner helps to restore this balance quickly."
Having a balanced pH is important because, as Turegano explains, "That slightly acidic state serves almost like a protective shield to various invaders like unwanted bacteria or other microbes and contaminants." She goes on to explain that our skin's slightly acidic nature is integral to maintaining the skin's microbiome—the balance of prebiotics and probiotics on the outermost layer of our skin. (Research shows this to be true, too: For your skin's microflora to properly flourish, your skin's pH should hover around 5.) This acid mantle is essentially like an immune system for the skin, so it is critical to keep it healthy. Maintaining proper pH also ensures that our skin cells are functioning at their optimal levels.
It boosts hydration.
"Unlike the old-school, alcohol-based toners that could be quite drying to the skin, these days they are more often hydrating formulations," explains King. (Yes, even the more "purifying" options are still quite hydrating.) These options are infused with humectants, oils, and other emollients in order to preserve—and promote—the skin's moisture levels. Aloe, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and ceramides are some of the hydrating ingredients found in toners that help to hydrate the skin and keep it quenched.
It improves product absorption.
Turegano explains that toners can help promote the absorption and efficacy of the products that follow it in your skin care regimen. It does so by removing any dirt, grime, or debris that might pose an obstacle to thorough absorption. Secondly, returning the skin to its natural pH optimizes the skin barrier's function, thus enabling it to function efficiently. "[This means the skin] can absorb products more effectively and efficiently, while keeping the bad stuff out," she concludes.
What ingredients should you look for?
OK, the general rule of thumb is: No alcohol-based toners. Opting for water-based toners helps to ensure that you are not stripping away the skin's protective sebum. But after that, you should think about your overall skin goals and how a toner might fit into those.
- If you have dull skin: Find options featuring willow bark, fruit enzymes, and antioxidants to brighten and encourage cell turnover.
- If you have easily inflamed skin: Look for formulas featuring prebiotics, probiotics, and ceramides, which all aid with added barrier support.
- If you have dry skin: These types should look for hydrating additives such as hyaluronic acid, aloe, rosewater, or glycerin.
- If you have redness: Soothe chronic redness with chamomile, aloe, lavender, cucumber, calendula, mint, green tea, or eucalyptus.
- If you have acne-prone skin: These can benefit from salicylic acid, alpha-hydroxy acids (i.e., glycolic, lactic, citric, and mandelic acid), tea tree oil, and witch hazel.
- Don't know where to turn? You can never go wrong with a simple, anti-inflammatory pick like rosewater.
The bottom line.
Whether a toner is right for you comes down to your skin care needs and how open you are to adding an additional step. However, if you are willing to give the product a try, you just might be surprised at how it can amplify your other skin care products.
Jessica Ourisman is a therapist-turned-freelance writer covering topics related to beauty, fashion, and wellness. She has a master's degree in social work from Columbia University and bylines that include Brit Co., TheThirty, PopSugar, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, Cosmopolitan AU, FabFitFun, Glam.com, and more. She is the founder of the blog, Beauty-Stoned, and currently lives in Paris, France, with her two miniature schnauzers.