Think of toners as the “cherry on top” of your skincare vanity countertop. They help to balance your skin’s pH levels, remove any remaining dirt or makeup after cleansing, and prep your complexion for the rest of your routine. Plus, they leave your face feeling refreshed and revitalized.
Believe it or not, these beauty items have been around for centuries.
In ancient times, they were made with natural ingredients like vinegar and rosewater. But today, they come in all shapes and sizes, from hydrating toners to exfoliating and purifying ones. And let’s not forget the alcohol-based astringent toners of the past that have now evolved into more gentle formulations that offer a range of benefits.
So from the vast options available, which ones are really beneficial for you? Here’s a brief overview of the different types of toners and how to choose one that’s in harmony with your skin’s needs. With our expert guide, you’ll be able to select the perfect formula for you and feel more confident when adding a toner to your beauty routine.
Types of toners
No matter what your skin woes are or what skincare goals you have, there’s a toner that can help you out, literally. Based on what they do on the skin, the different types of toners include:
- Hydrating Toners: They quickly quench the skin’s thirst by delivering hydration while removing impurities from the surface. They’re water-based, are usually lightweight and pack humectants like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and aloe vera, that soothe dryness and revitalize the skin without leaving it feeling tight. Hydrating toners are suitable for everyone but work best on dry, dehydrated skin.
- Exfoliating Toners: This type of toner uses exfoliating agents like glycolic and salicylic acids and fruit enzymes to shed off dead cells and other impurities from the top layer of the skin. Compared to potent chemical exfoliators, exfoliating toners are gentle enough for daily use and perfect for surface-level exfoliation that results in deep cleansing and skin renewal. They’re effective for giving dull skin a boost of radiance, unclogging pores, smoothing rough and uneven texture, reducing sebum and fading blemishes.
- pH-balancing Toners: Most facial toners fall into this category. They’re formulated at a neutral pH of 5-7 to help balance the skin’s natural pH level (around 5), which is often disrupted by harsh cleansers, environmental factors, and other products. When the pH level is balanced, the skin can better retain moisture, resist bacteria and other harmful microorganisms, and maintain a healthy barrier function. These toners typically contain ingredients that are mildly acidic, such as chemical acids, witch hazel, tea tree oil, rose water, and apple cider vinegar, to help restore the acid mantle and recalibrate the skin’s pH.
- Brightening Toners: Some toners are specifically designed to promote bright and luminous skin. These are usually made with glycolic acid, vitamin C, licorice root extract, niacinamide, and other botanical extracts that have inhibiting effects on the pigment that darkens the skin. They’re best for addressing uneven tone, dark spots, post-acne marks, and sun-damaged skin.
- Purifying Toners: They remove excess oil production and cleanse the pores more profoundly than other types of toners and are also more effective at relieving redness and soothing the skin. These usually contain ingredients that have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, like tea tree oil, witch hazel, zinc, and allantoin, as well as actives that penetrate deep into the pores to dissolve bacteria and sebum, like salicylic acid. Purifying toners are often preferred by people with oily skin prone to acne.
- Astringent Toners: Astringent toners were known as harsh products with high amounts of alcohol used to dry up excess oil and reduce skin greasiness. But now they come in more diverse, alcohol-free formulas that use natural astringents like witch hazel and willow bark that are gentler and less drying on the skin.
How to pick the best toner for your skin
When selecting a toner, keep in mind the other products in your skincare routine, particularly your cleanser. The reason for this is that you don’t want to use a cleanser and toner that have the same function or ingredients since they’re unlikely to provide additional benefits. On the contrary, doing so can overtax your skin and even damage and dehydrate it. For example, if you use an exfoliating cleanser that contains chemical acids, you should not follow up with an exfoliating toner to avoid stripping away too much moisture. However, if you choose a toner that focuses on soothing and hydrating the skin, it can be a beneficial addition to your routine, particularly if your cleanser is exfoliating.
Here’s what types of toners work best for different types of skin.
Oily skin folks need toners that control sebum production and detoxify the pores without stripping moisture, as that could drive the sebaceous glands to produce more oil. In other words, balance is key.
Exfoliating and purifying toners are the MVPs for regulating excess oil, unclogging pores, and preventing blackheads—common concerns of oily skin. So look out for products made with glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids. For plant-derived formulas, look out for toners infused with witch hazel or willow bark extract. Keep in mind that these ingredients are usually drying, so ideally, choose a toner that also includes humectants like hyaluronic acid, glycerin and panthenol to offset the dryness.
Last but not least, look for the non-comedogenic label, which means the product doesn’t clog the pores and cause breakouts.
Related: 10 Salicylic Acid Toners To Balance Oily Skin
If your skin is dry and tight, head towards hydrating toners packed with calming and replenishing ingredients. This goes for mature skin as well. Equally important is to avoid formulas with high concentrations of alcohol and fragrances, as both can further dehydrate your skin.
Toners formulated with amino acids, cholesterol, and ceramides, are great picks to relieve dryness and tightness. Also, squalane, hyaluronic acid, trehalose, and glycerin work incredibly well to provide moisture and hydration, while ingredients like bisabolol and allantoin go a long way in calming and balancing. They’re all goodies for dry skin.
Related: Use These Hyaluronic Acid Toners To Hike Up Skin Hydration
If your skin is sensitive, it means that the protective barrier is not functioning properly, which also means that your skin will be more susceptible to whatever you put on it. That said, avoid toners that feature drying alcohols, fragrances, salicylic acid, or harsh astringents. Instead, nourish your skin with a calming formula that aids in balancing the pH levels and strengthening the protective barrier.
Nature-derived ingredients, such as Centella asiatica, aloe vera, rosemary, colloidal oatmeal, green tea, and fermented rice, are your best bet. They’re gentle as they can be and work great in calming skin sensitivities.
Choosing the right toner for acne-prone skin is a delicate task. You don’t want to make things worse by picking a product that will only aggravate your already-sensitive skin. So say goodbye to formulas that contain alcohol and fragrances, as these can cause dryness and irritation.
Instead, for effective toning against acne foes, opt for products made with salicylic acid to reduce breakouts and tea tree oil to kill acne-causing bacteria. Along these, the toner should include hydrating agents like glycerin and sodium hyaluronate, which combat the dryness associated with acne treatments. Also, calming ingredients like green tea and chamomile can help ease inflammation and soothe redness caused by breakouts. Moreover, niacinamide is a great acne-fighter because it shrinks pores and regulates sebum, which leads to fewer pimples.
Brightening toners made with vitamin C, licorice extract, niacinamide, green tea, or exfoliating acids are a no-brainer if you’re struggling with hyperpigmented skin with dark spots. They work by acting on the pigment that darkens the skin tone, helping brighten uneven and dull skin and ease off blemishes and freckles. P.S.: Here are some of our favorite vitamin C toners to keep your face glowing all day long.
How to use toners
- Apply the toner on dry skin after cleansing and before treatment.
- Soak a cotton pad with the toning solution until it feels damp, and gently spread the product over your face and neck. Avoid the eye area.
- Follow up with your treatment of choice and moisturizer while the skin is still damp from the toner. Don’t forget to use SPF during the day.
- For a cooling feeling, use a misted toner after you’ve layered all your products.
You ask, we answer
- Are toners really necessary?
No, toning is not necessary to maintain your skin healthy, but it can provide additional benefits that can improve its appearance. Toners work great when used post-cleansing to remove persisting sebum and waterproof makeup residue. Some also work to add extra hydration, while others brighten and smooth texture. Whether or not you use a toner is mostly a matter of preference.
- How often should I use toner?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to how often you should use toner. It depends on your skin and the type of toner you're using. If you have oily skin, you might benefit from using a toner twice a day, morning and night, to help control excess oil production and keep your pores clean. On the other hand, if you have dry or sensitive skin, using a toner too frequently can strip too much moisture.
- Can toner be used as a substitute for a cleanser?
While toners can help remove some impurities and residue from the skin, they're not a substitute for a cleanser. Cleansers are specifically designed to remove dirt, oil, and makeup, while toners are meant to balance the skin's pH levels and provide additional nourishment. Using toner alone will not thoroughly cleanse the skin, and it's likely to leave some residue behind.
- What's the difference between a toner and an astringent?
Toners and astringents are used to remove leftovers the cleanser didn't wash away. The difference between them is that toners are more gentle and can be used by everyone, while astringents usually contain higher amounts of alcohol that dry out the skin, which is why we're not a big fan of the latter.
- What's the difference between a toner and a facial mist?
Toners and facial mists have two different roles. Toners provide extra cleansing and are usually the second step in a skincare routine, while facial mists work to set makeup and refresh the complexion and are used as the last step of the routine.