Cleanse, tone, moisturize—these three steps have been the basics of many skincare routines for decades. While the first and last steps are non-negotiable, is toning really necessary? What even is a toner? We reached out to the experts, who shared the pros and cons.
Meet the Expert
Keep scrolling to find out if toner is really necessary for skin.
What Is Skin Toner?
A toner is a water-based product meant to remove whatever's left of makeup, dirt, and oil after cleansing and before any serum or moisturizer. According to Hartman, toner also helps to close pores and can help brighten skin.
Different Types of Toners
According to Koestline, skin toners fall into two main categories: an astringent toner or a balancing toner. The latter is formulated to be gentle to, well, balance the skin's pH, hydrate, and soothe the skin. These types of toner work for all skin types, especially dry and sensitive skin and can be used twice daily after cleansing.
"Astringent toners are designed for more oily, combination, or acne-prone skin. A lot of them are exfoliating toners and are formulated with exfoliating acids like AHAs (glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid) and BHAs (salicylic acid)," she says, noting that a great exfoliating toner is formulated to gently exfoliate the skin without irritating or sensitizing the skin. However, as gentle as they are, you do not want to use an exfoliating toner daily. Once or twice a week should do it, unless you have dry skin, in which case, once a month. "That can cause a major imbalance in your skin's microbiome, disrupt your natural skin barrier, and make your skin dehydrated. All of that can lead to more pigmentation, sun damage, and inflammation."
If your skin is sensitive or tends to be on the dry side, consider opting for a balancing toner to try to avoid the irritation that comes with an exfoliating toner.
What Does Toner Do?
The basic function of toner is to prep skin for the serums and creams applied after. Depending upon its ingredients, it may also balance the skin's pH levels, restoring it to an acidic state, which can help in preventing acne. So, is toner necessary? Technically, no, but it is a nice addition to a skincare routine.
"In the winter, for example, when the weather is drier, it's nice to spritz a hydrosol onto your skin after cleansing then sealing that extra moisturize with a nice serum and moisturizer," says Koestline. "Those with acneic skin may also find a BHA + AHA toner to be very helpful in improving their skin texture faster. But aside from a gentle cleanser formulated without harsh surfactants, a moisturizer, and a mineral-based SPF, all the other steps of skincare, toner is not needed."
How to Use Toner
It's best to use toner when the skin is still a little damp so it absorbs better. Toner should be used immediately after cleansing the face in the morning before an antioxidant and sunscreen.
"One of the best ways to apply a toner is to pour some in a clean, dry hand, and then pat all around your face with your other hand. You can use a cotton pad or a microfiber reusable pad, but oftentimes a lot of the product is absorbed into the pad and it doesn’t transfer to the skin," says Hartman.
Do Toners Work for All Skin Types?
According to Hartman, yes, toners do work for all skin types. Those with dry skin should seek alcohol-free toners since alcohol is a drying ingredient that strips the skin of its natural oils. "Seek toners with glycerin, hyaluronic acid, rosewater, or aloe. These ingredients add moisture to the skin while balancing skin’s tone," he says. If you have oily skin, Hartman says to look for toners that contain hydroxy acids or sulfur because these ingredients clear pores, reduce oil production, and chemically exfoliate. "Calming ingredients like niacinamide, aloe vera, and vitamin C can help to reduce inflammation and ensure that the toner doesn’t dry the skin out too much," he adds.
In general, like any other skincare product, do a patch test on your arm before applying it all over your face to see how your skin reacts to the product.
Best Toner Products
Hartman recommends Versed Baby Cheeks Hydrating Milk Toner for severely dry skin. "The formulation containing coconut water and algae provides more hydration than most toners," he says. The bonus is that it also doubles as a cleanser and makeup remover.
Koestline's favorite go-to toner is Rose Hydrosol. "It's a perfect toner, astringent and anti-inflammatory agent with an added benefit of a beautiful smell," she says.
"I like AlumierMD Bright & Clear Solution, which contains lactic acid and vitamin C, to gently exfoliate environmental debris and improve skin texture. It works wells for oily skin," says Hartman.
Hartman is also a fan of Vichy Pureté Thermale Toner for being "an affordable, gentle toner that removes all the residue and none of the essential oil."
"Good Molecules Niacinamide Brightening Toner is alcohol-free, but packed with niacinamide to calm irritation and remove dead skin cells that make skin look dull," says Hartman.
Fenty Skin Fat Water Pore-Refining Toner Serum is a new cult favorite because it combines toner and serum to deliver a brightening and toning effect without stripping away too much oil.
Alternatives to Toners
Other products do similar jobs as toners. According to Hartman, an essence can offer similar benefits to a toner (you also use an essence after cleansing). "Like toners, essences can help further cleanse the skin and also deliver additional ingredients to benefit the skin," he says. Micellar water is formulated specifically as a second cleansing step to remove any residual makeup, dirt, or grime. Facial mists are also a simple way to refresh skin by hydrating in an instant. Often, these types of products are infused with moisturizing, nourishing ingredients just like toners.
The Final Takeaway
If you already use the above alternatives, you can probably skip toner—that is, unless you love a routine with all the steps, because skincare is actually so indulgent. In that case, carry on.
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