Astringent vs Toner: How (and When) to Use Each

Two dermatologists weigh in on choosing the right post-cleanse step.

Updated 11/26/19

@laneige_us

Whether your skincare routine involves multiple products, steps, and layers, or if you’re more of the wash-SPF-and-go type, you’ve likely, at the very least, heard of astringent and toner. Both utilized as staples in many skincare regimens, the two are often confused for each other, but realistically, they are actually quite different. In the astringent vs toner debate, the best choice will vary from person to person, and will largely depend on your skin type, skin concerns, and your skincare goals. 

To help you figure out what may be the right product for you, we reached out to two dermatologists to find out the differences and similarities between astringent and toner, along with the most effective ways to use each.

Meet the Expert

  • Dr. Ava Shamban is a board certified dermatologist, as well as the founder of Ava MD and Skin Five.
  • Dr. Michele Farber is a board certified dermatologist for Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC. She specializes in general, cosmetic, and procedural dermatology, as well as skin cancer treatment.

What Is Toner?

Toners are skincare products that are typically similar to the consistency of water, used to nourish and replenish skin as a second step after cleansing. Originally, toners were created to remove excess oil from the skin to help treat acne. But in 2019, most toners are alcohol-free and work to soothe, brighten, and remove any excess debris you might have missed during cleansing. Some formulas claim to help your skin better-absorb serums and moisturizers that you apply post-tone (these are usually marketed as essences), while others intend to return your skin to a normal pH level (an off-balance pH can cause acne and even premature aging).

  • Water-based product used as a second step after cleansing
  • Removes debris your cleanser might have missed
  • Replenishes, nourishes, and brightens the skin
  • Can help serums and moisturizers better penetrate the skin
  • Most formulas are alcohol-free

What Is Astringent?

Like toners, astringents are a water-based product used as a second step after cleansing to remove debris your cleanser might have missed (or residue from your face wash itself). However, like the toners of the past, astringents are specifically formulated to remove excess oil from the skin and typically contain alcohol to achieve this goal.

  • Water-based product used as a second step after cleansing
  • Removes debris your cleanser might have missed
  • Removes excess oil from the skin
  • Usually contains alcohol

How Is Toner Different Than Astringent?

“In general, both toners and astringents are designed to manage key issues at the skin surface, such as oiliness and irritation,” says Dr. Shamban. Toners and astringents are also both applied as a second step post-cleanse (although you shouldn't apply both astringent and toner). “Each product would be used after a traditional cleanser but before the advanced treatment step in your routine,” Dr. Shamban adds. 

While toners and astringents do have a couple of things in common, fundamentally, they are quite different. Generally, astringents offer a drying effect to the skin, which may be best left for treating acne-prone complexions. “Astringents are typically alcohol-based liquids created to help dry out excess oil, reduce acne, and cleanse the skin,” says Dr. Farber. “They can be drying, however, and if used in the wrong setting, can make skin more irritated or flare up sensitive skin.” 

Toners, on the other hand, can offer the same surface-level cleaning effect, but with a bit of a gentler, restorative touch thanks to their, largely, water-based formulas. “Toners by and large remove excess traces of oil, makeup, perspiration and debris, which includes the top layer of dead skin cells. They often contain hydrating ingredients, making them less drying and harsh than astringents,” Dr. Farber explains. Common hydrators found in toners include rose water, flower essence, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin. 

Which One Is Right For You?

Very rarely would a dermatologist recommend using toner and astringent. Depending on your skin type and needs, one or the other is best suited for you.

Sensitive, Dry, Mature, or Normal Skin

Toner. When it comes to sensitive, normal, dry, or mature skin types, toner is the way to go for its gentle properties and reduced risk of irritation. “Generally, toner is a milder, gentler product,” says Dr. Shamban. “The toners of today also often contain glycolics or glycerins, which help keep water in the skin cells and soothe the skin while limiting the overproduction of sebum.”

Her top toners right now? “The Instytutum Glow Toner delivers what it promises. What makes it exceptionally effective is it provides a light exfoliation and surface refining combined with pore tightening and a hydrating effect,” she says. 

Additionally, the cult classic, Biologique Recherche Lotion P50, is another fave, as is The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Lotion, which Dr. Shamban explains is a great choice for just about any skin type as it’s free from alcohol and sulfates, and is known for leaving skin looking healthy and even.

resurfacing glow toner
Instytutum Resurfacing Glow Toner $55
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biologique recherche lotion p50
Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 1970 $67
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the ordinary glycolic acid toning solution
The Ordinary Glycolic Acid Toning Solution $9
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Oily, Combination, and Acne-Prone Skin

Astringent. “Astringent is more drying than toner, so it’s better for oily or acne prone skin if it’s included in a routine,” says Dr. Farber. While some are weary of alcohol, it can be beneficial when added to some skincare routines for its ability to clean the skin’s surface and rid the skin of bacteria. If you’re looking to enjoy the benefits of an astringent but worry about overdrying, you can seek out an alcohol-free astringent. Witch hazel is a natural astringent that is known for being gentle on the skin, as are apple cider vinegar, green tea, and other ingredients rich in tannin, a naturally-occurring astringent. 

neutrogena clear pore oil eliminating astringent
Neutrogena Clear Pore Oil-Eliminating Astringent $7
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clean and clear deep cleaning astringent
Clean & Clear Deep Cleaning Astringent $6
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Sea Breeze Astringent $4
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Dermatologist-Approved Application Tips

The safest way to implement either product into your routine is to add it to your skincare regimen either morning or evening, but not both (at least to start). Some toners and astringents include chemical exfoliants which can cause sunlight sensitivity, like glycolic acid or benzoyl peroxide. Products that feature ingredients like these should be applied at night, followed by SPF in the morning for added protection. Both toners and astringents are usually applied as a second step after cleansing, by pouring a small amount onto a cotton pad and either swiping it across or dabbing it onto the skin. If your toner or astringent is packaged as a mist, spray, or gel, apply it to clean skin and allow it to dry and sink in for a minute before following up with the next step in your skincare routine. 

Take a note from our Editorial Director, Elspeth Velten and apply your toner or astringent directly to your skin from your hands. This reduces cotton pad use so you can self-care more sustainably.

To get the best results from your toner or astringent, you’ll need to keep two things in mind: the order and frequency in which you apply your product. Either should be applied after you cleanse and before you move on to your additional skincare steps. “For most patients, a toner, especially one with a hydrating or moisture-binding effect, can be used daily in the form of a liquid, serum or essence after cleansing to ensure that the entire layer is prepared to receive the next level treatment products. For the most part, you can not overuse your toner,” says Dr. Shamban. “You can overdo astringents, because they can reduce the acid mantle and disrupt the pH balance, as well as induce more oil production due to over-drying, so monitoring usage and resulting skin effects is important.” 

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