Toner has always been a confusing step in an otherwise fairly self-explanatory skincare routine—what does it actually do? We're told it's meant to balance, hydrate, and prepare skin for the next product, but it seems like the majority of toners I've used over the years have ended up hurting my skin.
Still, I'm determined to find the right toner for my skin. I'm curious how it is that some toners are hydrating while others can leave the skin feeling dry and irritated. Is there a particular ingredient that causes a toner to yield dryness? To get some answers, I reached out to Sarah Lee and Christine Chang, co-founders of Glow Recipe, as well as Karen Ballou, CEO and founder of Immunocologie. Keep reading for everything you need to know about toners.
What Is a Toner?
Normal skin pH is around 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, plus it hydrates and balances pH levels."
"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 locks in moisture. Liquids are a great way to quickly and effectively infuse hydration into the skin, as they penetrate the skin efficiently."
Alcohol and Toners
"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 provide a refreshing or cooling after-feel, and even aid with ingredient penetration. However, if alcohol is high on an 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.
Alcohol can cause serious disruptions to the sebaceous glands, and how they produce oils is important to your skin's balance.
"Alcohol can strip 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 in actuality, your skin needs oil. 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 after using a toner with alcohol, while those with oily skin may see an increase in sebum oil as their skin tries to make up for the imbalance."
Also, 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. Alcohol has a few "secret" names, which allows it to go undetected in ingredient lists. 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.
Ingredients to Look For
"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."
As a replacement for alcohol-based toners, Ballou recommends looking for toners with a strong mineral base—specific ingredients like chamomile, ginseng, or peppermint are especially great for oily skin.
Best pH-Balancing Toners
This detoxifying, mineral-rich toner is in mist form, making it sanitary, convenient, and the ideal travel companion.
Made with powerful acids that work to fight breakouts, this exfoliating toner rids dullness and flakes with a single swipe.
Made with CoQ10 meant to encourage collagen production and powerful botanicals meant to balance the skin, this refreshing toner offers a noticeable difference in complexion.
Prakash C, Bhargava P, Tiwari S, Majumdar B, Bhargava RK. Skin surface pH in acne vulgaris: insights from an observational study and review of the literature. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2017;10(7):33-39.