Face Toners: The Skin Care Product Gets a Reboot

New formulas are less drying and contain water-based and skin-loving ingredients
Person applying skin toner before putting on makeup and moisturizer.

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When it comes to skin care, toner is back in the starring role thanks to its evolution from an alcohol-based solution to one that has skin-loving ingredients to target different skin types and concerns.

Gone are the harsh formulas that left your skin dry and irritated. This new class of toners is water-based, soothing and, in some cases, can brighten and fight aging, leaving your skin feeling clean and hydrated.

Dermatologist Alok Vij, MD, breaks down how a face toner works, when to use it and how to find the best one for you.

What is toner?

A toner is typically a water-based lotion or tonic that you use after cleansing and before moisturizing. While it may look and feel like water, it does a lot more — think of it as a primer for the rest of your skin care routine. A toner may also be called a tonic, exfoliating acid or an essence.

“Previous generations of toners were used to get rid of any residual impurities or extra oil left on your skin that weren’t able to be removed with a cleanser,” explains Dr. Vij. “They tended to be very high in alcohol content, which tends to be really drying. Today’s toners are more moisturizing and soothing. They prep your skin for additional cosmetics and products that come afterwards rather than just stripping away oil and grime.”

You can find a variety of toners at stores or online. Some are infused with peppermint, aloe or eucalyptus to help soothe skin.

And don’t mistake a toner for an astringent. Astringents are usually alcohol-based and used to control oil — but they can be harsh and dry out your skin. A toner gently refreshes your skin without stripping it of moisture.

What does toner do for your skin?

So. what does toner do for your face? It removes any dirt or grime that remains after cleansing, but does so gently.

And toners help prep your skin for those products you’re putting on after — think serums, moisturizers, night creams, etc. The outer layer of your skin is a mixture of oils and proteins. When you wash your face, you’re removing any dirt and dead skin, which can cause the outer layer of your skin to feel dry.

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“When you apply a toner immediately cleansing, you’re increasing the water content of that outer layer of skin, which is better for the absorption of additional products afterward,” notes Dr. Vij. “It kind of acts like a sponge by helping those other skin care ingredients sink in.”

Other face toner benefits include:

  • Hydrates your skin. Thanks to its high-water content, toners can help hydrate your skin. Additional ingredients like hyaluronic acid also increase your skin’s hydration.
  • Makes pores look smaller. “You can make the pores look a little bit smaller,” says Dr. Vij. “But it’s pretty difficult to actually reduce the size of pores.”
  • Restore skin’s pH balance. “We use acids like alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, lactic acid, salicylic acid and glycolic acid in moisturizers,” he adds. “So toners can definitely help to restore the pH balance of your skin.”

And how quickly should you expect to see results from using a toner?

“It usually takes at least six weeks to three months to see any effect from using a toner,” he continues. “The improvement may be subtle, but toners really make everything else work better.”

If your toner is designed to help prevent acne or reduce hyperpigmentation, then you may see results in about two to three months. And Dr. Vij says that you may see more of a payoff long-term from using a toner, especially if it has anti-aging ingredients.

“You may not see an immediate difference. It’s over the course of a few years that you’re not seeing your skin age,” he notes.

How to use toner

When you think about applying your skin care products, Dr. Vij recommends starting with the lightest texture or thinnest consistency, then working your way up to products that have the thickest consistency.

“A toner should be used after cleansers because it’s water-based,” he advises. “Sometimes, toners come in a spray form, so you can mist it onto your face directly. Sometimes, they’re applied with a cotton ball, swab or round.”

When it comes to how to apply toner, it couldn’t be easier. All you need to do is gently swipe the toner over your face after cleansing. No need to wash off.

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And when to use toner is up to you — you can use a toner once or twice a day.

“You can fit it into your routine based on how your skin is tolerating the product and what other products or moisturizers you use,” Dr. Vij suggests. “Some people only do their skin care routine once a day and don’t need to necessarily add a second step or a second component of their routine.”

Choosing the right toner for your skin

As with many skin care options there isn’t a one-size-fits-all product out there. Toners come in a variety of formulas that cater to your skin tone, type and concerns.

“It’s important to look at the ingredient list. First, look to see if there’s any alcohol used and if so, how much,” Dr. Vij says. “A small amount of alcohol can be good for people with oily skin or who have acne.”

Here’s what to look for or avoid based on your skin needs:

  • Acne-prone skin. Try a toner that has alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids. “Some toners contain salicylic acid, which can be really good for hyperpigmentation or irritation,” says Dr. Vij.
  • Dull skin. Look for formulas that contain lactic acid or papaya extracts, which act as natural exfoliants.
  • Sensitive skin. Dr. Vij suggests avoiding toners that are heavily fragranced, use a lot of dyes and preservatives as that can irritate your skin. “Additionally, if you have rosacea and are on prescription products, it’s always good to be slow and be mindful about how you’re adding products to your skin care routine. You just want to make sure that your skin is going to tolerate it.”
  • Mature skin. Opt for a toner that boasts antioxidants and hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin.

If you’re looking to up your skin care game, adding a toner can be beneficial.

“There are so many toners out there on the market. And a bunch of them are marketed for any skin problem that you have from acne-prone skin, rosacea-prone skin, dry skin or oily skin,” says Dr. Vij. “There’s a toner for almost everybody.” 

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