Toner has always been a confusing step in an otherwise fairly self-explanatory skincare routine—what does it do? I know it's meant to balance, hydrate, and prepare your skin for the next product, but it seems like the majority of toners I've used over the years have hurt my skin.
Still, I'm determined to find the right toner for me. I'm curious about why some toners are hydrating and others leave your skin dry and irritated. Is there a particular ingredient that causes a toner to yield dryness? I reached out to Sarah Lee and Christine Chang, the co-founders of Glow Recipe, as well as Karen Ballou, the CEO and founder of Immunocologie, for their take on it all. They had a lot of surprising and interesting insights.
Keep reading for everything you need to know about your toner.
What does a toner actually do?
"The optimal pH level for skin hovers around a 5.5—if the pH is too far off-balance, this can create an environment where it's easier for harmful bacteria to thrive. A toner helps to recalibrate this pH so that skin is calmed and balanced after cleansing," Lee and Chang say. "We love ID.AZ Dermastic Essential Toner ($34) because it's alcohol- and oil-free, and it hydrates and balances pH levels in skin."
"U.S.-made and Korean toners serve different purposes," they continue. "Many U.S.-made toners are used as an astringent to help remove any left-over residue, dirt, oil or makeup that is left on the skin after cleansing. In Korea, the double-cleansing method is the norm, which eliminates the need for astringent or a second step. Instead, it's the first leave-on step of liquid hydration that treats the skin. We use toners religiously in our daily routines as the first liquid step of hydration—and no later than a minute after cleansing so that the toner helps to lock in moisture.
Liquids are a great way to quickly and effectively infuse hydration into the skin, as they penetrate the skin efficiently."
What ingredient can make a toner too drying?
"Alcohol is used in skincare for various reasons, including to provide antiseptic and antibacterial qualities, which is why it's often found in toner. Used in small amounts in a well-formulated product, it can help to provide a refreshing or cooling after-feel or to aid with ingredient penetration. However, if alcohol is high on the ingredient list (ingredients are listed in descending order of concentration), the product may have a risk of drying out or irritating the skin," Lee and Chang explain.
"It strips the skin of the natural lipids it needs to support the hydro-lipid barrier, one of the skin's main immune functions," adds Ballou. "Most people use an alcohol-based toner to get rid of oils, but your skin needs oils. Alcohol can cause serious disruptions to the sebaceous glands, and how they produce oils is important to your skin's balance. For example, those with sensitive skin may see an exacerbation of dryness, or those with oily skin may see an increase in sebum oil as their skin tries to make up for the imbalance."
How can you tell if alcohol is in your product?
Alcohol has a few "secret" names, which allows it to go unnoticed in your products' ingredients list. Look for words like ethanol, denatured alcohol, ethyl alcohol, methanol, benzyl alcohol, and isopropyl alcohol—they all mean alcohol, and they may be hurting your skin.
"What's not in your toner is just as important as what is—we prefer to avoid formulas with alcohols, parabens, synthetic dyes, and mineral oils," Lee and Chang say. "Glow Recipe's most popular toner, which sold out countless times earlier this year, is the bouncy, fermented, aloe-packed Whamisa Organic Flowers Essence Toner ($40)."
What ingredients should you look for instead?
"We love vitamin-rich botanicals like artichoke, antioxidant-rich ingredients like camellia and fermented rice, soothing and hydrating ingredients like aloe and hyaluronic acid, and anti-aging ingredients like niacinamide and peptides," Lee and Chang say. "We've even seen essence-like toners with beads of vitamin E suspended inside for an extra burst of nourishment."
Ballou adds, "look for toners with a strong mineral base, specific ingredients like chamomile, ginseng, or peppermint for oily skin, which is a great replacement for alcohol-based toners."
Next up: seven crazy-awesome toner hacks every woman should know.