In my teen years, I used to think skincare had to hurt to show it was working. I suffered from cystic acne and would do anything to get rid of it. I used harsh astringents after I cleansed my skin, thinking the alcohol or witch hazel in it would help dry out the gunk on my face. I wasn’t wrong, those ingredients do dry out your skin. That’s exactly the problem.
Toners should be used after cleansing your skin. That just happens to be the point in a skincare routine when your skin is most vulnerable. Toner is there to help hydrate it, give it back nourishment, and set the stage for absorbing the rest of your serums and moisturizers. It shouldn’t burn or sting to use toner on your skin.
Are they necessary?
According to Dr. Alicia Zalka, a professor of dermatology at Yale, they aren’t absolutely necessary but are a great addition to a good skincare routine. In an interview with the Huffington Post, she notes that toners can help “other skin applications penetrate more rapidly.” So they aren’t a required step, but skin absorbs topical products easier when it’s hydrated with a toner.
So what is toner? And how should it be used?
A toner is not a cleanser.
When Kylie Jenner came out with her skincare line, she did an online demonstration showing how to use every product. When she showed the toner, she said she uses it to get the last of her makeup off. This is a big NO! It means your cleanser is not effective, or that you need to cleanse again. (Sorry Kylie!)
Toner shouldn’t be used to remove makeup. It’s not made for that. If you’re seeing makeup and dirt come off when you tone, definitely cleanse again. You want your skin to be a blank slate to effectively absorb the ingredients in the rest of your skincare. Think of it as a skincare primer. Just like you primer your face for makeup, toner is the primer for the rest of your skincare products.
Toner can help treat multiple skin types.
Where toners used to be solely for acne-prone skin, there is a myriad of formulations for all skin types. Yes, there are plenty of essences and toners for blemishes, but not every skin type experiences that at the same time.
For dry skin, try a hydrating toner such as the Fresh Beauty Rose & Hyaluronic Acid Deep Hydration Toner. Look for ingredients that have anti-oxidants, vitamin C, and fermented acids. Stay with me on the fermented aspect. Fermentation of certain ingredients can add a pro-biotic to the toner, giving your skin the healthy biome it needs.
Also, if you see snail mucin, don’t run away crying. Snail mucin is a filtrate that gives mega-hydration to your skin. There’s a great snail toner called the Fermentation Snail by Swanicoco. Trust me, your skin will thank you.
Do you have dull, textured skin? Try Paula's Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant. This is one of the most popular toners on the market. Ask any Skinfluencer and they’ll agree. It’s a gentle exfoliation with salicylic acid (also called Beta Hydroxy Acid) that helps exfoliate away the dead skin, leaving younger, brighter-looking skin. It also helps keep breakouts at bay, as BHA helps to unclog pores too. The best part: This doesn’t sting. It’s gentle enough to use every day.
If you have sensitive skin, make sure to avoid skincare with alcohols or witch hazel in it. These ingredients can irritate skin that is already easily agitated. A great toner to try is the Kiehl's Calendula Herbal Extract Toner. It will help hydrate and soothe skin after cleansing. The same brand has an alcohol-free Cucumber Herbal Toner that is another great choice.
Ingredients are the most important part of a great toner.
Look for hydrating ingredients when picking out a new toner. Hyaluronic acid is a very hydrating ingredient, and one I suggest everyone incorporate into their skincare routine.
Also look for ceramides, anti-oxidants, glycerin, and other skin-replenishing ingredients. Try to avoid alcohols, witch hazel, irritating essential oils, and unnecessary fragrances.
As you build a skincare routine, incorporating a toner after cleansing is a great way to set your skin up for success in the absorption of the rest of your skincare. Is it necessary? Not entirely, but it's a great step to add to increase the efficacy of your skincare routine.
Other products can help do the same thing a toner can. If you see something labeled an essence, it’s very close to a toner. You can use micellar water as a second cleanse. They’re less harsh on the skin and help remove the last bits of makeup and grime. They work to clear the skin in a way that toner can’t. When you feel too lazy to wash your face, micellar water can work (but don’t make it a habit! Wash Your Face!)
During the day if you experience dry skin, try a facial mist. I live in the desert and about halfway through the day, I can feel my skin get tight and dry. I use a facial mist to rehydrate it until I can get home and throw a moisturizer on. My favorite facial mist is the Caudalie Beauty Elixer. It’s full of flower water and oils that moisturize, refresh, and brighten my skin. The fragrance of the mist wakes me up and gives me a little boost.
If spending $50 on a facial mist isn’t your style, there are great facial mists from drugstore brands too. I love the Pixi Hydrating Milky Mist at Target, and it runs about $15. There is alcohol in this formulation, but I haven’t found it to be drying. It gives my skin a nice burst of hydration to get me through the day.
So let’s forget about the astringent days of old. Toners today are made for all skin types, and skin conditions. You can really boost the efficacy of your skincare routine by incorporating a toner, essence, or a facial mist. Each of these helps hydrate, soothe, refine, and replenish your skin after cleansing.
Photos by The Savvy Reeder