All Your Questions About Using A Face Toner Answered

A facial toner is a clever addition to your skincare arsenal and the right way to infuse your complexion with more good-for-skin compounds.

Having a 10-step skincare routine is nothing to bat an eye at, and at a closer look, toner has already shaken its reputation of being an unnecessary step. Toners might not be a life-changing product (as a retinol serum or sunscreen is), but they can be a perfect in-between step to balance skin and improve its condition overall. Even though they used to have a bad rep since they were mostly loaded with serious amounts of alcohol (astringent toners), today, the skincare world is experiencing a surge of different types of toners that address every possible skin concern. Touted as the right way to elevate any beauty routine, toner provides numerous benefits as long as the formula is in harmony with your complexion’s needs. So, what exactly does a toner do? And how can you integrate it into your routine? These are all questions we’d love to help you answer in this article, so keep reading.

What is facial toner?

Toner is a skincare product in a liquid (or gel-like) form that plays quite a few roles in improving skin condition. Above all, a face toner removes impurities and debris stuck in pores after cleansing, allowing the actives you apply post-toner to penetrate more effectively in the skin. Depending on the ingredients in the formula, a face toner can provide anti-aging, brightening, soothing, and sebum-balancing benefits. 

Toner vs. astringent

Both toners and astringents have liquid-based formulas and are meant to clear the skin, but they are not the same. Astringents are more aggressive than toners and usually contain high concentrations of alcohol and actives such as salicylic acid and willow bark, which dry out the skin. On the other hand, toners are gentler and more skin-friendly, and they usually contain nourishing, hydrating, and soothing ingredients. Astringents address people with oily and acne-prone skin as they work to dry out the oil and tighten pores (though we don’t recommend them). Toners, on the flip side, are suitable for everyone since they come in a variety of formulas.

What does face toner do?

A face toner clears any trace of makeup, impurities, and gunk left behind by the cleanser and prepares the complexion for the products you’re applying after. Also, because toner leaves the skin damp upon application, it increases the penetration of the serum and moisturizer you follow with — damp skin is more permeable than dry skin. 

Based on the ingredients in the formula, a toner can target a wide array of concerns, and the benefits range from protecting the skin to relieving tight and dry skin, clearing pores, and helping regulate sebum. 

Depending on the formula, here is what a toner can do to the skin:

  • Removes impurities 
  • Increases skin penetration
  • Hydrates and soothes
  • Exfoliates
  • Brightens
  • Balances skin’s pH
  • Adds a layer of protection
  • Reduces excess sebum
  • Hinders breakouts apparition
  • Refreshes skin

Balances skin pH

A pH-balancing toner mimics the skin’s natural pH (not too alkaline, not too acidic) to maintain the protective barrier function integer. Everybody can use a toner that aims to calibrate the skin’s pH — when the pH is off balance, it can create an environment where harmful bacteria thrive easily and may cause inflammation and irritation. A toner that aims to regulate the skin’s pH has a gentle formula that skips drying alcohol (isopropyl, alcohol denat, benzyl alcohol, and ethanol), mineral oil, parabens, and synthetic fragrances. Instead, a pH-balancing toner loads soothing actives, such as hyaluronic acid and niacinamide, and antioxidant-rich ingredients, like coenzyme Q10, vitamin E, and chamomile.

Exfoliates

Some toners exfoliate and dissolve dead cells on the skin’s surface to help unclog pores and clear the complexion. The ingredients you’ll find in exfoliating toners are usually alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids that lift away sebum, gunk, and other impurities from the pores, leaving skin smooth and clearer. A usually exfoliating toner also packs hydrating ingredients such as glycerin and squalane to prevent the skin from drying out. While most people can use them, exfoliating toners mostly address people with oily and breakout-prone skin and people who struggle with large pores and hyperpigmentation. 

Brightens

A toner can also help brighten the skin and give it a radiant look and rich glow over time. They usually focus on actives that interact with pigment-producing cells, such as vitamin C, niacinamide, licorice extract, kojic acid, and resveratrol. Some brightening toners also contain chemical acids (think lactic and glycolic acid) to dislodge old and pigmented cells so that fresh, brighter ones replace them. This type of toner is best for addressing dark spots and other forms of skin discoloration and is preferred especially by acne sufferers and people with an uneven tone who want to tackle aging signs, a dull appearance, and sun damage.

Controls sebum

Some toners are also specially made to soak up the excess sebum without stripping skin, and they’re great for people with oily and combination skin. These are formulated with oil-controlling ingredients such as salicylic acid, witch hazel, niacinamide, and alpha-hydroxy acids.

Hydrates 

A hydrating toner is a perfect product to have at hand when your skin feels dry, tight, and uncomfortable. Aside from skipping any possible drying ingredient, a toner that aims to hydrate usually features compounds that replenish moisture, such as hyaluronic acid, coconut water, panthenol, aloe vera, glycerin, and amino acids. Hydrating toners are great for comforting the skin and restoring and soothing it, so basically, everybody can use them. However, if your skin is prone to acne or oily, you want to ensure the formula is free of ingredients that may clog pores, so look out for the non-comedogenic label.

How to use a toner

This is how you integrate a toner into your skincare regimen:

  • Cleanse
  • Apply toner
  • Use serum
  • Layer moisturizer
  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen (in AM)

Most toners can be used by soaking a cotton ball in the liquid and delicately sweeping it across the face. Other toners feature a spray bottle and can be spritzed over the face for a quick pick-me-up moment. 

Apply the toner as the second step in your routine, right after washing your face and before serum and moisturizer. Generally, toners can be used twice daily, except for those that pack high amounts of exfoliating acids (they’re only intended for night use). And this goes without saying: read the instructions for each product and follow them accordingly.

The takeaway

Even though toners don’t have a lot of clouts, they are a great addition to your skincare arsenal. Toner clears away impurities, delivers an extra layer of moisture, and acts as a carrier for the rest of your skincare steps. The key to getting the most out of your toner is to pick one that targets your skin’s needs and dodge the ones that pack stripping alcohol, artificial fragrances, synthetic dyes, and sensitizing essential oils.

You’re now eager to purchase toner, aren’t you? Here are some of our favorite toners to check out

Who wrote this?
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu is the founder and editor-in-chief of Women's Concepts. She has over 5 years of experience working in the beauty editorial industry and dermatological research and was an acne sufferer for over a decade. Ana is now an IAO and CPD-accredited skincare consultant keen to teach others about the importance of a consistent routine. She covers a wide range of topics in skincare—from buzzy ingredients to anti-aging and acne advice. She holds a BA in Sociology and Political Sciences from the National School of Political and Administrative Studies. Find her on LinkedIn or Instagram.
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