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Each morning and evening you cleanse your face and apply a moisturizer (right?). In the quest for clean, even, and firm skin, those steps have long been thought of as the essentials. But now, thanks to the popularity of the 10-step Korean skincare routine and more skincare companies at Sephora than we know what to do with, skincare junkies are finding more and more products we consider essential, like toner. Beauty experts extol the virtues of toner, but how many of us actually know what it does?
Learning about a new beauty product can be overwhelming, particularly if you’ve already got a skincare routine that you love. Plus, who has the time to understand a new product when you’re scrambling just to find a few minutes to yourself in the morning and evening to wash your face? But set your doubts aside: Once you understand what toner does, you’ll want to incorporate it into your routine.
We spoke to beauty experts and skincare scientists to answer all of your questions about facial toner. We got the answers on who should use it, when it should be applied, and that essential question: What does toner do?
Here’s everything you need to know about this crucial boost to your skincare routine.
What does toner do?
According to Clara Song of Catherine Jinn, a Korean skincare line that aims to bring together Eastern and Western approaches to skincare, facial toner is meant to cleanse your face and prepare your skin for the application of the serums and creams that follow in your skincare routine.
Toner should be applied after you wash your face to remove any leftover debris or dirt from the skin, giving you the perfect clean canvas to apply the rest of your skincare essentials.
Song says many people think they can skip facial toner, but using it really helps enhance a skincare routine.
“It’s easy to think cleaning the skin with a cleanser is enough, but this added step of toner can be an important step in keeping the skin clean without damaging it,” she says.
According to Charlotte Cho, esthetician and founder of Soko Glam and The Klog, a good toner should leave your skin feeling clean and hydrated. After you apply toner, your skin should feel soft and supple, she writes at The Klog, not tight or dry.
What is in facial toner?
Traditionally, toners were made from astringent ingredients that were meant to cause the skin to contract or tighten according to David Pollock, a chemist who has worked on many skincare products and consults in the beauty industry. Most toners were made using an alcohol or witch hazel base, which sometimes stung when they were applied to skin. These products gave toner a bad reputation as a product that would leave your skin stinging, red, or tight: not exactly what you want as part of your beauty routine.
Modern toners, however, are very different.
“Quality toner usually doesn’t contain ingredients like alcohol, which dry out and can even strip the skin of its nutrients,” Song tells HealthyWay.
Rather than assaulting your skin, modern toners are packed with antioxidants, nutrition, and hydrating materials that leave your skin feeling great, according to Rhonda Q. Klein, MD, a dermatologist practicing with the Connecticut Dermatology Group and a former assistant professor of dermatology at Yale University.
“A toner is a fast-penetrating liquid that removes dead skin cells off the surface of the skin leaving plump refreshed skin,” she tells us. “They are primers for the rest of your serums and moisturizers.”
Today, toners are formulated to fit a number of skincare needs from delivering powerful hydration to shrinking your pores and even reducing acne, Klein says.
What does toner do to balance pH?
In the past, facial toner was used to balance the pH level of your skin after it was cleansed.
In case you need a quick refresher on Chemistry 101: pH indicates how alkaline or acidic something is. It’s measured on a scale of 1 to 14, with water—which is neither acidic or alkaline—falling right in the middle with a measurement of 7. Anything with a higher pH is considered alkaline, while anything with a lower pH is considered acidic.
What does all this science have to do with skincare? Well, your skin is naturally acidic with an average pH of 4.7 according to a 2006 study published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science. The acidity of your skin helps it it stay healthy and keeps bacteria at bay.
“pH balance is important because if it becomes unbalanced, the skin weakens and is more susceptible to bacteria and infections,” Song explains.
So, what does toner do to balance pH? In the past, most cleansers were very alkaline according to Pollock. Because cleaners were alkaline, toner was promoted as a way to restore the proper (acidic) pH of your skin. However, with advancements in the formulation of cleansers, it’s become less necessary to use a toner purely to reset the pH level of skin.
“Multi-purpose cleansers started to do more and be more closely pH-balanced for the skin,” Pollock says. “For the past 15 or 20 years, I have had very few clients interested in launching any type of toner.”
Where does toner fit into Korean skincare?
If toners had gone out of fashion, why are so many people talking about what toner does in 2018? The answer: Korean skincare.
“With today’s K-beauty invasion, toners are coming back into popularity,” says Pollock.
Whereas Americans tend to emphasize makeup products that can make your skin look fantastic, a Korean skincare routine emphasizes having skin that looks healthy, even, and glowing without additional products. Women who follow Korean beauty regimens aim to achieve this using a 10-step skincare routine that involves—you guessed it—facial toner.
According to Cho, Koreans embrace toner as a way to get the most out of the rest of their skincare routine. She uses the analogy of a sponge: If the sponge is completely dried out, it won’t absorb much of the liquid it comes into contact with. However, if it’s slightly damp, it will absorb liquid much more quickly.
Your skin works the same way, she explains. If it is dried out after cleansing, you won’t get as much out of the serums and creams that you put on afterward. Toner, she says, provides the hydration and nutrients that leave your skin ready to take all it can from the rest of the products in your beauty routine.
What does toner do for people with oily skin? Should everyone be using it?
With all this talk of hydration, you might wonder if you can still benefit from using toner if you have oily skin. Good news: You absolutely can.
Cho points out that hydration has to do with the amount of water in your skin, not the amount of oil. Although having skin that feels dry might make you feel like you’ve temporarily defeated your oily skin, it’s not actually addressing the problem. In fact, Cho says that almost every client she sees could benefit from more hydration, whether their skin type presents as dry or oily.
Modern toners are formulated to address a variety of skin issues, so the key is finding one that works for you.
With the right product, Klein says anyone can benefit from using a toner. “If you feel that your skin care regimen is lacking and that your skin is not optimized, adding on a toner is the perfect primer for the rest of your skin care routine,” she says.
Here are toners that the pros recommend for specific skin types:
- If you have oily skin, try Fresh Umbrian Clay Purifying Facial Toner ($35).
- This toner gives you the same hydrated but clean feeling that you would experience after wearing a clay mask, without the time investment.
- If you have dry skin, try Galactomyces Alcohol-Free Toner ($16).
- This toner has a secret weapon: fermented ingredients that will leave your skin looking smooth and balanced. Korean skincare enthusiasts often use products with fermented ingredients, and this toner is a great way to get started.
- If you have combination skin, try Son & Park Beauty Water ($30).
- This toner is designed to cleanse without drying, making it perfect for people who experienced localized breakouts. With lavender and rosewater, it will soothe your skin and leave you feeling energized.
- If you have sensitive skin, try Kenzoki Fresh Lotus Water ($29).
- This misting toner is the perfect choice for women who want something gentle. You’ll feel refreshed and clean no matter when you apply it.
- If you’re feeling puffy, red, or dry, try Darphin Intral Toner With Chamomile ($54).
- No one likes when their face feels inflamed. The chamomile will calm irritation and is ideal for a variety of skin types.
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When considering a toner, Klein recommends taking a quick look at the ingredients to determine whether the toner will fit your needs. For instance, rosewater is hydrating and clarifying, while chamomile is calming and soothing. People who are dealing with acne might benefit from an alcohol-based toner, but most everyone else should stick to a water-based formulation, she says.
There are also some ingredients to avoid, depending on your skin type.
“If you have dry or sensitive skin, avoid alcohol, retinols, glycolic, or benzoyl peroxide toners,” Klein says. “If you are oily or acne-prone, avoid toners with vitamin E and other essential oils.”
How do I incorporate toner into my beauty routine?
Toner should be either the second or third step in your skincare routine.
In most cases, you should apply your facial toner directly after cleansing in the morning and the evening.
“You want to tone within one minute of washing your face so that the nutrients are absorbed best,” Klein says.
The only time you should wait to apply your toner is if you are exfoliating after cleansing. Apply your toner after that step; otherwise, it will be washed away when you wash off your exfoliator.
Some people prefer to apply the toner directly using their hands, but if you do that, you want to make sure that your hands are very clean. If not, you run the risk of introducing more debris onto your skin.
“Our hands are not clean either, so rubbing them on our face sort of defeats the purpose of cleaning it,” Song says. She recommends using a cotton pad to gently wipe or pat the skin with toner, without aggressively rubbing it in.
There are many gentle options for toners, so if you find that your skin is irritated, try switching products. If it still feel like too much, try using toner just once a day. Song recommends using it at night in this case, to be sure that your face is especially clean after a long day in order to prevent issues.
“Not having properly cleansed skin can lead to acne and breakouts,” she says.
Can I make a DIY facial toner?
The products listed above are a great way to get started with incorporating facial toner into your beauty routine. However, if you want to try a DIY toner, that’s possible as well.
Witch hazel is readily available and can be applied to the skin directly or diluted with water to make a witch hazel toner.
If you’re looking for a toner that is a bit more gentle, Pollock recommends steeping rose petals in water and adding a bit of glycerin, a natural, non-toxic hydrating compound made from vegetable fat that can boost your collagen levels. You can find glycerin at your local drug store.
Another popular DIY option is creating a green tea toner, which Klein recommends. This is super easy: Brew a cup of green tea, letting it steep for three to five minutes. After the liquid has cooled, you can apply it directly to your face. Be sure to store any DIY toners in airtight containers in the fridge when they’re not in use.
You might have heard of using lemon to make your own DIY toner, but experts don’t recommend this. Lemon is very acidic and can disrupt the pH balance of your skin. Plus, it can leave you exposed to sunburn.
You may not have grown up using facial toner as part of your beauty routine, but adjusting your skincare regimen to fit toner in can be a simple step toward healthier skin.