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What Toner Does For Your Skin, From Derms + Best Products To Shop

Some skin care products are fairly self-explanatory—take makeup remover, face wash, and moisturizer, for example. You can pretty much put two and two together to figure out the basic gist of their function. However more ambiguous steps can make skin care a bit more confusing.

One prime example: toner. While you may jump to the conclusion that toner is designed to even out skin tone, it's actually much more complex. Here, find out exactly what toner does, how to pick the best one for your skin type, and a few cult favorites to browse.

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What is a facial toner?

"Toners can have many different functions depending on their active ingredients," board-certified dermatologist Rebecca Marcus, M.D., FAAD, tells mbg. Think of the word toner as an umbrella term encompassing many different, more targeted formulas.

"Traditionally, toners have been used to remove excess makeup residue and dirt after cleansing," Marcus explains. "Toners may be formulated with ingredients that serve to soothe, calm, exfoliate, or fight acne, for example," she continues.

That said, putting a hard label on the term toner doesn't exactly make sense in the vast world of modern skin care. However, if you'd like a basic definition, just know that toner typically comes in a liquid form and that you can apply it with your hands or a cotton round (opt for reusable rounds to keep your routine eco-friendly). From there, each toner can have a few basic functions.

What facial toners do for the skin.

Again, the exact function of toners varies depending on the formula. Here, find a few of the most popular benefits:

  • Balances pH: "Toners that are intended to balance pH most often lower the pH of the skin," Marcus explains. See, when your skin's pH is off, you're more likely to develop dry, sensitive skin and inflammatory skin conditions like acne. Plus, your skin's pH contributes to a healthy skin microbiome. Some toners even include pre- and postbiotics to feed that microbiome even more.
  • Exfoliates & purifies: You can also opt for an exfoliating toner with AHAs or BHAs, if you really want to break down buildup. "By helping to eliminate buildup and residue, using a toner can help to prime the skin for the next step in a routine and may help to enhance the penetration of subsequent products," board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, M.D., FAAD, explains. 
  • Hydrates: Finally, some toners solely add a cushion of hydration. Everyone can benefit from focusing on moisture, which is why you can find a plethora of hydrating, antioxidant-rich mists and tonics.
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Do you really need one in your routine?

If you want to add a toner to your routine, there are plenty of grade-A products that will certainly benefit your skin. However, it's not the most important skin care product out there. (Surely not as vital as a nightly cleanse or daily SPF.) In fact, some experts deem it wholly unnecessary.

So, if you don't have the time or the budget to incorporate this step, don't stress about it. Many of the ingredients found in toners are included in other serums and moisturizers you may already have in your lineup.

If you're going to prioritize your skin care products, definitely pick SPF, cleanser, moisturizer, exfoliants, and retinol over toner. It's an extra step, sure, but it can be beneficial should you want to explore it.

Toner vs. astringent vs. essence.

Here's where things get a bit tricky: Some products labeled as "toner" are technically more of an astringent or an essence. At the end of the day, it's all up to marketing. But here's the actual difference, according to experts:

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Astringents

Astringents help soak up excess oil production and remove impurities that may have been left behind even after cleansing. Essentially, you can consider them extra-purifying toners, and they're great for those with oily or acne-prone skin. "Be careful not to overdo it, though, as astringent toners often contain alcohol and can be overly drying and disruptive to the skin barrier," Marcus warns.

Witch hazel is a popular choice because of its ability to gently balance the skin and regulate sebum production. Again, if you opt for witch hazel toner, look for an alcohol-free formula. You can read all about astringents versus toners here.

Essences

"Essences are designed to soothe irritation and help boost hydration," Garshick says. "They may also contain higher concentrations of active ingredients such as antioxidants and may help enhance penetration of subsequent products," she continues.

Essences will generally include ingredients like glycerin, aloe vera, hyaluronic acid, etc. For those with dry skin, an essence will provide a much-needed boost of hydration.

PSA: "While some people prefer one or the other, they can also be used in the same routine–first a toner and then an essence," Garshick says. Some people even apply multiple layers of an essence (called the "seven skin method") for an extra burst of hydration.

One important caveat:

If you apply a toner of any kind, your skin will be damp for a few moments. If you follow up with a hyaluronic acid serum or moisturizer, this will help those products hydrate the skin even more since humectants love a damp surface. However, it's important to let your skin dry before applying heavy-duty actives like retinol, which should always be applied to clean, dry skin. 

Shop these toners:

Renee Rouleau

Elderberry Soothing Toner 

$39
Renee Rouleau Elderberry Soothing Toner

Versed

Weekend Glow Daily Brightening Toner

$18
Versed Weekend Glow Toner

Peach & Lily

Wild Dew Treatment Essence

$39
Peach & Lily Wild Dew Treatment Essence

The takeaway. 

If you thought toners simply helped even out skin tone, you're not alone. However, now you know that this skin care step is quite complex, and there's a variety of options to choose from for your skin type and concerns. Generally, astringents can help balance oil production and remove impurities, while essences help boost hydration. If you want more clean toners to shop, check out this shopping guide for 13 different options.

Hannah Frye
Hannah Frye
mbg Assistant Beauty Editor

Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more. She previously interned for Almost 30, a top-rated health and wellness podcast. In her current role, Hannah reports on the latest beauty trends, holistic skincare approaches, must-have makeup products, and inclusivity in the beauty industry. She currently lives in New York City.