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You Asked: What Does Toner Do? The Answer Might Surprise You

Have you ever used a beauty product just because you think you should, but don't necessarily know exactly what the purpose is? Toner is that skin care step for many. Sure, you may feel hydrated and clean afterward, but what does toner actually do? 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 is a make-or-break product that can significantly improve your skin. We asked several skin experts to weigh in on the importance of this water-based solution.

What Exactly is Toner?

"Toners are skincare products that have the consistency of water," explains dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD. "Traditionally, they were used to remove excess oil from the skin and were especially useful 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."

NYC cosmetic dermatologist Sejal Shah, MD, founder of SmarterSkin Dermatology also notes how new formulations of toners are completely different from traditional toners. "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," explains Shah. "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."

Modern toners are often gentler and more adaptable to your skin's individual needs. Tammy Yaiser, vice president of product development at Algenist discusses 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," Yaiser says.

Skin Benefits of Toner

Dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD, lays out the skin benefits of toner as such: "It removes oil and traces of dirt, bacteria, and makeup. It also removes the dust, pollution, and impurities that can still be lingering after washing with a cleanser."

According to Daphne Studio's lead esthetician, Gunna Covert, toners "exfoliate, help balance the pH level of skin, and even help other skincare products penetrate deeper into skin," says Covert. "To maximize benefits, be sure to look for a toner that is right for your skin type."

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

The Best Time to Use 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."

According to Yaiser, "Toner is best used as your first step after cleansing because it helps cleanse the skin from any residual impurities, leaving the skin refreshed and perfectly prepped for your subsequent skincare routine."

Covert points out that you shouldn't skip toning in the morning because "at night, we sweat." She notes that "it's important for everyone to cleanse and tone in the morning, but it's especially true for those who are prone to acne or have oily skin in order prevent breakouts."

The Precautions You Should Take With Toner

As with any new skin care 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. Jaliman suggests being weary of applying it to the most sensitive areas of your face: "Be careful using a toner near the eyes and crease of the nose."

And according to Covert, always, always watch out for alcohol in the ingredients' list. "Be sure to use toner that is appropriate for your skin type," she says. "Stay away from alcohol in toners since they tend to dry out skin." Do some research or talk to a dermatologist about ingredients and toners that work for your skin type.

Expert-Recommended Toners

Fresh Rose Deep Hydration Facial Toner 8.4 oz/ 250 mL
Fresh Rose Deep Hydration Facial Toner $45

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

Kiehl's 1851 Cucumber Herbal Alcohol-Free Toner 8.4 oz/ 250 mL
Kiehl's 1851 Cucumber Herbal Alcohol-Free Toner $16

"It's a very mild toner and good for sensitive skin," says Jaliman of this popular cucumber-based option.

Biologique Recherche Lotion P50
Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 $103

"My all-time favorite is Biologique Recherche Lotion P50," explains Covert. "It exfoliates, purifies, and regulates excess sebum, 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." 

Glossier Solution
Glossier Solution $24

"This is a salicylic acid-based toner great for acne-prone skin," says Shah. 

It Cosmetics Miracle Water(TM) 3-in-1 Tonic 8.5 oz/ 250 mL
It Cosmetics Miracle Water(TM) 3-in-1 Tonic $38

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 $30

For dry skin, Jaliman recommends Lancome's toner, which is packed with hydrating ingredients like glycerin and honey. 

Neutrogena Alcohol-Free Toner
Neutrogena Alcohol-Free Toner $6

This is a great pick for oily-by-sensitive complexions, according to Zeichner, because "it can help remove oil from the skin."

Caudalie Beauty Elixir 3.4 oz/ 100 mL
Caudalie Beauty Elixir $49

A "relatively gentle toner that contains hydrating and soothing ingredients with astringent ingredients that have anti-aging and brightening properties [to] instantly refresh the skin," says Shah.

SK-II Facial Treatment Essence 7.8 oz/ 230 mL
SK-II Facial Treatment Essence $185

Zeichner recommends this massively popular essence because of the "active ingredient, pitera," which "helps with your overall complexion." 

Tata Harper Hydrating Floral Essence 1.7 oz/ 50 mL
Tata Harper Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid Floral Essence $72

This is a great pick recommended by Zeichner that contains "antioxidants and hyaluronic acid." These ingredients "brighten and hydrate," according to Zeichner.

Algenist Hydrating Essence Toner 5 oz/ 150 mL
Algenist Hydrating Essence Toner $25

Algenist's Hydrating Essence Toner is a favorite of Yaiser's. "[It] immediately refreshes, moisturizes, and treats my skin," Yaiser says.

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