Forget harsh, drying formulas. Toners are so much more than glorified rubbing alcohol.
You may remember toner as a step of your high school skincare routine. The drying. The stinging. The grimy cotton ball. Ringing a bell? (If not consider yourself—and your natural skin barrier—lucky.) But toners have come a long way since the drug store offerings of the ‘90s and 2000s, so what are toners really? Should I use one? How do I choose which one? Never fear fellow Ghosties, we’ve got all your toner related search results in one place.
What does toner do?
You may have first encountered toners in their astringent phase. When they first gained popularity among pimple-plagued people (aka us at 14), toners were in an all-consuming toxic relationship with drying, irritating ingredients. Not their finest hour. They have since cut ties and now contain actives that can balance, brighten, gently exfoliate and hydrate. We love to see the glow up.
Many of the toners and toning mists on the market currently offer targeted treatment for dozens of skin care concerns. But before we get into specifics, lets cover the basics of what toner does:
1. Removes excess dirt and oil
You can cleanse and double cleanse all day, but sometimes cleansers leave behind grime and makeup. Toning can prep your face for the rest of your routine.
2. Replaces moisture stripped in cleansing
We love a cleanser that leaves our moisture barrier alone, but even the best cleansers can leave our face feeling a little too squeaky clean. Toners help rebalance post wash.
3. Adds active ingredients
For those of us who know a thing or two about skincare ingredients, adding actives like Vitamin C, AHA/BHA, acids, peptides, etc. can mean the difference between pore-less skin and a placebo effect. Toners are a great way to include those sought after ingredients for visible results.
Why should I use a toner?
The short answer is because your skin probably needs something it’s not getting in your routine.
The longer answer depends on what it is your skin needs. Think of toners like the opposite of a one-size-fits-all product. Different toners target different skin care concerns with different formulas. Some hydrate, some tone, some exfoliate, some purify, some protect...you catch the drift. Toners are a great way to add those missing active ingredients to your routine without worrying about the pilling or thick feel from too many thick creams.
However, most toners share a few similarities. They’re often formulated to rebalance the skin’s pH levels, which can get out of whack from cleansing or maskne or pollutants. They’re also great team players, prepping the skin to help other products sink deep down through the skin barrier.
How do I use toner?
You’re back on board to tone, but how do you actually use it? Good news! You’ve got options.
The old stand-by cotton ball method is way less sustainable than we’d like. If you’re set on that swiping feeling, place a few drops of your product on a reusable version and rub gently on clean skin.
Another option is a more hands-on approach. Dispense a bit of toner into the palms of clean hands and pat pat pat onto cleansed skin. The skincare gurus that swear by the pat tell us it is gentler than our go-to rubbing motion and can help products absorb quickly.
Our favorite way to apply toner goes completely hands free. Toners in spray or toning mists make application a breeze morning, night and on the go. Spray toner onto clean skin and be on your merry way. They also deliver a more even application and make travel with your favorite toner mess-free.
When should I use a toner in my skincare routine?
Whenever. You. Want.
Toners and toning mists can be used regularly as a part of your morning and night routine. You can apply toner after cleansing both a.m. and p.m.. Just be sure to follow up with moisturizer to avoid irritation and drying.
Is it ok to use a toner every day?
If you find the right formula, absolutely! At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we want to warn you that some toner formulas can be drying or irritating. Back off if your skin starts to feel uncomfortable in any way. Dermatologists say when there’s irritation, toner should be the first thing to go.
But if you’re loving your toner, you could even apply in-between your morning and night routine. Spray formula toners or toning mists are ideal for adding a boost of treatment midday. Give your mug a refreshing spritz between Zoom meetings and you’ll be tempted to turn off that beauty filter.
What’s the best toner for my skin?
Because toners and toning mists can increase the permeability of your skin, it’s important to avoid irritating ingredients. Often what isn’t in your toner is just as important as the things listed on the bottle. Check your products for Sulfates, silicones, drying alcohols, essential oils, added fragrance, paragons, phthalates, synthetic dyes, propylene glycol, formaldehyde, MEA, DEA, TEA, PEG compounds and EDTA. If your toner has any of these, it’s a no-go for us.
So what should you look for? Again, the best toner for your skin differs from person to person. You can look for a toner that targets your specific need (exfoliation, hydration, firming, etc.), but finding the best toner often depends on your skin type. Check out our recs below.
The best toners for oily skin work to degrease but not via dehydration. Oil-free toners are a no-brainer for this skin type. But a word of warning for our extra-dewy folks out there: Don’t be tempted by the satisfying sting of an oil-stripping toner. They can do serious damage to your precious natural skin barrier in the long run.
The best toner for dry skin needs to do one thing: help hydrate. Look for toners with humectants that attract and retain moisture, like hyaluronic acid. Sometimes more hydrating toners will label themselves as essences.
The best toner for combination skin might actually be multiple toners. One thing we love about toners is their ability to address specific skin needs. If your chin needs something different than your T-zone, you can tone like you multi-mask, applying the different formulas to the regions of the skin that need it. If you want a single solution, look for a toner or essence with a combination of hydrating and purifying ingredients. Trust us, they’re out there!
The best toner for acne evens out skin tone and texture, eases irritation and fights pigmentation from scarring. You’re looking for a toner with actives like Vitamin-C and niacinamide that do just that. And like we told our friends above, drying and stripping your precious skin will only exacerbate inflammation and blemishes. Gentle formulas can still pack a punch.
The best toner for sensitive skin puts the moisture barrier as its top priority. Along with easing irritation from acne, niacinamide strengthens that barrier and reduces the look of pores to boot.
The best toner for mature skin requires actives that can plump up collagen and minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Using a peptide-rich toner can do just that and can elevate the absorption of the other products in your regimen.
Don’t know your skin type? This may help!
The truth about toner is YOUR truth. The advancements in the category have made it so there are as many toners as there are types of faces. Just promise us you’ll pick one based on what will give you that healthy-looking glow, not the harsh, drying versions we were sold in the ‘00s.