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All the beauty gurus out there blessed with sensitive skin, I'm right there with you. I'm still dealing with unsightly dark spots from using strong alcohol-based toners with other harsh ingredients that left my face itchy, inflamed, and stressed out. Not cute. I wouldn't wish that on anyone. So, to save ourselves from future skin agony, we should be cautious about the toners in our beauty arsenal.
Since there's a bit of confusion surrounding what toner actually does and whether it's a necessary step in your skincare routine, let's get the latter out of the way first: Yes, it can have real benefits. Now onto the product search. When specifically looking for gentle toners for your skin, which could be acne-prone or oil-prone, look for soothing ingredients that'll balance out your skin's pH level, like rose water, jojoba oil, and other vitamins. To help, though, we tapped top dermatologists to share their all-time favorite toners for sensitive skin.
Keep reading for the best toners for sensitive skin.
"Paula's Choice Skin Recovery Enriched Calming Toner is great for dry and sensitive skin," explains William Kwan, MD. "It contains antioxidants and niacinamide to help with fine lines and wrinkles. It can also help even out skin color on different skin tones."
"Dickinson's Enhanced Witch Hazel Hydrating Toner gently hydrates and nourishes skin with hyaluronic acid and vitamin E as it cleanses, tones, and refreshes skin," explains Marina Peredo of Schweiger Dermatology Group. "Because it is alcohol-free, it is best for sensitive skin, it helps maintain its natural balance as it gently removes impurities and reconditions the skin. Skin feels hydrated and clean without tightness, for soft and healthy-looking skin."
New York-based Dendy Engelman, MD, is also a fan. "Toners containing alcohols or witch hazel remove excess oil from the skin and can actually help prevent breakouts for those with acne-prone skin," she says. "I like Dickinson's Enhanced Witch Hazel Hydrating Toner. Witch hazel has natural astringent properties, which can help to remove excess sebum from the skin and reduce inflammation of pimples. This toner is alcohol-free and formulated with hyaluronic acid and vitamin E to nourish and hydrate even sensitive skin.
"While toners were previously drying as an astringent to the skin, nowadays, formulations are much more elegant and thoughtful," says Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, of New York's Downtown Dermatology. "I do recommend to all my patients, whether they are acne-prone or dry and sensitive skin, to avoid alcohol-based toners altogether. I view toners as an additional step to the cleansing process since the water aspect to it can enhance the penetration of other ingredients. Ingredients that can be beneficial for sensitive skin are moisturizing ingredients like glycerin, antioxidants like vitamin C, and anti-inflammatory ingredients."
Jojoba oil is a natural oil produced from the seed of the Chinensis plant, a drought-resistant shrub native to southern Arizona, California, and Mexico. It mimics natural sebum and conditions and seals moisture in the skin without clogging pores or exacerbating acne.
"The Knours. Double Duty Mist is much more sophisticated than most toners," explains Sloan Kettering's Anthony M. Rossi, MD. "It contains squalene and jojoba oils to help trap and retain moisture. It is gentle enough to use when the skin is inflamed, which is different from other 'traditional toners.' Having the variety in this toner as well for when you need more moisturizing oils is great to adapt to changing skin needs."
This affordable toner is a beauty staple, but it's also especially great for sensitive skin, thanks to soothing ingredients like aloe vera and the brand's proprietary witch hazel extract. There are also different scents to choose from, including lavender, cucumber, and rose petal.
Aloe vera is a master at calming, soothing, and hydrating, so it makes total sense that this classic toner is on our list for sensitive skin. Plus, its formula is alcohol- and fragrance-free, so it's extra gentle.
Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring polysaccharide found in the human body. It acts as a cushioning and lubrication agent for our joints, nerves, hair, skin, and eyes. When used in skincare, it acts as a moisture binder, which means that it will attach itself to the water in the cells (while also attracting and holding water from the air) making them plump.
When you hear the words oat milk, you may think of what you added to your iced coffee this morning. But it's also an ingredient in this First Aid Beauty toner, which harnesses the power of oats (the formula also includes wild oats and colloidal oatmeal) to soothe the skin ASAP. From there, propolis extract (a derivative of honey) and hyaluronic acid provide a calming, hydrating boost. A bonus? This product is also gluten- and cruelty-free.
"The Kiehl's Calendula Herbal Extract Toner cleanses and refreshes all skin types, including oily," explains dermatologic surgeon Michelle Henry, MD. "But the plant-based, soothing ingredients make it gentle enough for even the most sensitive skin types."
"La Roche Posay Effaclar Toner is perfect for my patients who are often sensitive but oily and possibly acne-prone," says Kwan. "This contains salicylic acid, which can mildly exfoliate and help with discoloration and congestion on oily skin. This does contain alcohol, so be cautious if it feels too drying."
"Proactiv Revitalizing Toner is an alcohol-free toner and contains botanical extracts that gently exfoliates which is great for sensitive skin," says cosmetic dermatologist Cindy Yoon-Soo Bae, MD.
"Toners with glycerin and hyaluronic acid can help hydrate the skin and prevent dryness. I like Sulwahsoo Essential Balancing Water, which has a watery gel-like texture," explains Engelman. "Toners are essential in the K-beauty routine; Koreans look to it to provide hydration and balance the pH of the skin."
"The best toner for sensitive skin is the ZO Skin Health Calming Toner," says plastic surgeon Z. Paul Lorenc, MD, FACS. "It acts as an anti-irritant and contains a blend of conditioners that help soothe and hydrate the skin."
"First of all, all toners are not the same," says Francesca Fusco of Wexler Dermatology. "Our grandmothers used witch hazel, which is good in a pinch. But now, there are a variety of toners that contain skin-nourishing ingredients that can nourish, treat conditions, and be part of a great skin layering regimen. For example, the Environ Youth EssentiA Vita-Peptide Toner contains peptides, which improve skin tone and elasticity. This layers well with other products and can be used year-round without drying out the skin. It's also great for sun-damaged skin."