What Does Face Toner Do? We Asked the Experts

Liquid squeezed out of a bottle on a flat pink surface

Liz DeSousa for Byrdie

Ah, toner. While some deem it a useless, unnecessary part of a skincare routine, others swear by its skin-balancing effects. It's safe to say that in the ever-evolving world of beauty where innovative product launches are popping up left and right, toner has been a permanent fixture. It might not have as much clout as a cleanser or a retinol serum, but it's still touted by some as a make-or-break product that can significantly improve your skin. But while many may feel hydrated and clean afterward, the perpetual question of "what does toner actually do?" remains.

We asked several skin experts to weigh in on the importance of this water-based solution. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about skin toners.

What Is Face Toner?

"Toners are skincare products that have the consistency of water," explains dermatologist Joshua Zeichner. "Traditionally, they were used to remove excess oil from the skin and were especially useful for people who had acne. Those products contain high concentrations of alcohol and therefore were drying. Today's toners contain a variety of soothing, brightening, and anti-aging ingredients."

New York-based cosmetic dermatologist Sejal Shah agrees, adding that the new formulations of toners are completely different from their traditional counterparts. "Traditionally, a toner's function was to completely cleanse the skin, and often they were formulated to be very astringent to remove any traces of oil and debris," she explains. "While the newer generation of toners may still remove traces of debris, they're really meant to nourish and replenish the skin after cleansing and act as a primer for the rest of your skincare products."

What Are the Benefits of Face Toner?

We often hear that toners help balance the pH of the skin post-cleansing, but it turns out that that's not the only potential benefit.

  • Removes impurities: "Toner removes oil and traces of dirt, bacteria, and makeup," says board-certified dermatologist Debra Jaliman. "It also removes the dust, pollution, and impurities that can still be lingering after washing with a cleanser."
  • Improves efficacy of other products: According to Daphne Studio's master trainer and partner, Gunna Covert, toners "exfoliate, help balance the pH level of the skin, and even help other skincare products penetrate deeper into the skin."

Additionally, if your skin is lacking essentials vitamins and nutrients, a toner, depending upon its ingredients, may prove more beneficial for you than, say, someone with already healthy skin.

Is Face Toner Suitable for All Skin Types?

As with any new skincare product, you'll want to be mindful when adding toner to your morning and/or evening beauty routine. "Ensure that the toner is not overly drying or irritating your skin," says Shah. Also, when it comes to sensitive areas of the face (think: near the eyes or creases of nose), be wary of not overdoing it. And according to Covert, always, always watch out for alcohol on the ingredient label. "Be sure to use a toner that is appropriate for your skin type and stay away from alcohol in toners since they tend to dry out skin," she says.

That said, modern toners are often gentler and more adaptable to your skin's individual needs. Tammy Yaiser, vice president of product development at Algenist gives us the lowdown on the shift in ingredients. "Many toners of today skip the alcohol and combine advanced anti-aging ingredients with gentle, natural ingredients and botanicals that purify and balance the skin, provide hydration, treat, and soothe all at once," she explains.

For oily skin, opt for a toner that offers antibacterial and exfoliating properties meant to help absorb excess oil, remove dead skin cells, and prevent future breakouts.

How Do You Apply Toner?

Wondering how to use face toner? It's best applied by saturating a cotton ball or cotton round with the formula and gently blotting the skin. Not the cotton round type? Many toners are available in spray form, which can help minimize waste (bonus points) and make for convenient, easy application.

When Should You Apply Toner in Your Routine?

According to Yaiser, toner is best used as your first step after cleansing, as she says it helps rid the skin of any residual impurities and leaves the skin refreshed and perfectly prepped for your subsequent skincare routine. Any creams, serums, or treatments applied post-toning might penetrate deeper and reap its full potential.

How Often Should You Use Face Toner?

You shouldn't be afraid to make toner a permanent part of your routine, but it may take some trial and error. Shah explains, "The time and consistency of how often you use toner really depend on your skin type, skin concerns, and ingredients in the toner." She recommends taking it slow with harsher toners before you "build-up to daily or twice daily use." On the other hand, she says that "hydrating, calming, and soothing toners can generally be used twice a day."

Expert-Approved Toners for Every Skin Type

Below, find our favorite toners for all skin types.

Fresh Rose & Hyaluronic Acid Deep Hydration Toner
Fresh Rose & Hyaluronic Acid Deep Hydration Toner $45.00

Shah calls this a "soothing toner with both hydrating and toning ingredients."

Kiehl's Cucumber Herbal Alcohol-Free Toner
Kiehl's Cucumber Herbal Alcohol-Free Toner $22.00

"This is a very mild toner and good for sensitive skin," says Jaliman of this well-loved cucumber-based option.

Biologique Recherche Lotion P50
Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 $32.00

This is Covert's favorite for its ability to "exfoliate, purify, and regulate excess sebum all while speeding up the natural exfoliating process and regenerating the epidermis. Skin is balanced and hydrated after use with a visibly smoother and even skin tone," she raves.

Glossier Face Exfoliator and Skin Perfector
Glossier Face Exfoliator and Skin Perfector $24.00

Loved for its dead skin-sloughing properties, Shah says that this salicylic acid-based toner is great for acne-prone skin.

It Cosmetics Miracle Water Micellar Cleanser
It Cosmetics Miracle Water Micellar Cleanser $12.00

Miracle Water is great because it "contains a ferment complex that helps brighten and soothe the skin," says Zeichner. 

Lancome Tonique Confort Re-Hydrating Comforting Toner
Lancôme Tonique Confort Re-Hydrating Comforting Toner with Acacia Honey $35.00

For dry skin, Jaliman recommends this toner by Lancôme, which is chock-full of ultra-hydrating ingredients like glycerin and honey.

Neutrogena Alcohol-Free Toner
Neutrogena Alcohol-Free Toner $6.00

According to Zeichner, this is a great pick for oily-to-sensitive skin types, as it can help get rid of excess oil on the skin and offer balance to greasy complexions (we dig the low price point, too).

Caudalie Beauty Elixir 3.4 oz/ 100 mL
Caudalie Beauty Elixir $49.00

Shah says this power-packed toner is a gentle toner that contains both hydrating and soothing ingredients and astringent ingredients that have anti-aging and brightening properties. The result? Instantly refreshed skin.

SK-II Facial Treatment Essence 7.8 oz/ 230 mL
SK-II Facial Treatment Essence $235.00

Zeichner recommends this massively popular essence because of the "active ingredient, pitera," which is meant to help revive your overall complexion for a even, radiant look 

Tata Harper Hydrating Floral Essence 1.7 oz/ 50 mL
Tata Harper Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid Floral Essence $72.00

Zeichner approves this toner for its nutrient-rich formula that contains antioxidants and hyaluronic acid—both of which are touted in the beauty world as supercharged hydrators and brighteners.

Algenist Hydrating Essence Toner 5 oz/ 150 mL
Algenist Hydrating Essence Toner $33.00

Yaiser is a user of this hydrating toner, making note that it "immediately refreshes, moisturizes, and treats [her] skin."

Related Stories