What Is Toner And Do I Need To Use One?

a woman applying toner in a mirror
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Toner is just one of many in a 12 step skincare routine. It’s thrown around all the time when people talk about their skincare regimen but what does it actually do? Traditionally, toners were used after cleansing to help balance the pH of your skin.

Toners were often frowned upon as harsh, astringent-like products. They stripped the skin of hydration to reduce oil and sebum production and led to irritation. Now, cleansers are balanced and you don’t have to worry about using a toner after washing your face. But, toners have had a significant glow since and many are actually hydrating and reparative.

Most don’t contain those harsh alcohols and they still work to balance and hydrate the skin. They’re great preparation for serums and active ingredients. Toners have evolved to suit more specific skin issues like dehydration, dullness and clogged pores.

They are great at giving your skincare routine that push to the next level for better results. Why? Toners balance your skin and allow your other skin care to penetrate the skin deeper.

What is toner?

Toner is a fast-absorbing, liquid that is applied to the skin after cleansing that works to target a number of different issues. Today, you can find exfoliating, brightening, hydrating and balancing toners. Toners work best after cleansing to help prep your skin for other skincare and serums.

Toners run in the same circle as tonics, essences which tend to run a little bit thicker along with face mists. They all balance the skin and should fit in as the second step of your skincare routine. Toners and essences grew to rising popularity as they are a staple in Korean Beauty and 12 step skincare routines.

In Korean Beauty, toners are a step closer towards ‘glass skin’ and they’re gentle products that balance the skin. Toners do not have to be harsh, astringent products that strip your skin of moisture. Finding the right one can transform your skincare routine and you should definitely be using one!

What are the benefits of using a toner?

Toners are great for adding hydration into the skin along with targeting other skin issues. Toners set the framework for your skincare routine and allow for better absorption. They’re not a step you want to skip! Toners are not one size fits all and there are many different options to target different skin issues.

Hydrating toners are a great way for dry, dehydrated skin to look plump and moisturized. As you layer other products, that hydration gets locked into the skin. Exfoliating toners work like a serum and are great at minimizing oils, preventing black heads and acne along with fading dark spots. They often contain AHAs, BHAs, or PHAs and work to chemically exfoliate away dead skin to unveil a brighter, glowy complexion.

Look for ingredients like glycerin, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, rose water and fermented ingredients in your toners. These all boost hydration and help to smooth out skin texture. Oily skin types should look for green tea extract and centella as they’re calming and won’t clog pores. Salicylic acid can help to minimize oil production and chemically exfoliate.

Avoid essential oils, fragrance and alcohol in your toners. All those ingredients combined make up a room spray, not something that should go on your face! These ingredients can be incredibly irritating and lead to inflammation, breakouts, and redness. While EOs and fragrance aren’t irritating to everyone, you want to avoid them when possible.

When should you use toner?

The best time to use toner is after washing your face. If you wash your face in the morning and at night then use your toner 2 times a day. If you only want to use toner at night, that’s okay too!

Typically with skincare you always want to apply your products thinnest to thickest. Toners have a thin, almost water like consistency which is always why they’re used first.

Here is a typical morning routine:

  • Cleanse.
  • TONER.
  • Vitamin C Serum.
  • Moisturizer.
  • SPF.
  • Makeup if you wear it.

And a typical nighttime routine:

  • Oil cleanser to remove makeup and SPF.
  • Water based cleanser to remove dirt.
  • TONER.
  • Essence. Think of an essence as a thicker toner. They’re very similar and interchangeable.
  • Serums and actives.
  • Oils.
  • Moisturizers and Eye creams.

How do you use toner?

Toners work as a spray, on cotton or applied in the palm of your hands and patted in. Patting toner in with your hands is reminiscent of the 7 Skin Method derived from Korean Beauty. This method involves patting your toner in 7 layers in a U shape motion for ultimate hydration.

The U shape motion takes into account the ‘T zone’ which is typically the oiliest part of the face that doesn’t need extra hydration. Some prefer to use toner on cotton as a way to remove any excess makeup. Double cleansing with an oil based cleanser followed up by a water based cleanser is the best way to remove all makeup, dirt, oils and SPF from your skin. If you don’t double cleanse it’s a great way to help reduce acne and ensure that you are adequately cleansing your face.

Toner and cotton can help to remove extra residue off your skin but that’s not what toner is for. Save that for a micellar water and a 2nd cleanse. Use a toner to target specific skin issues like dehydration and to prepare your skin for your other skincare.

Does using toner have any adverse side effects?

If toner has irritated your skin in the past, it was likely an astringent toner with alcohol to help control oils and clean pores. Using witch hazel is an old secret and even that can cause significant irritation to the skin. Most witch hazel toners contain up to 15% of alcohol and cause more skin issues rather than helping your skin.

Adverse side effects from toner are likely due to ingredients and pairings. Many brands create toners and mists filled with alcohols, essential oils and fragrances. These ingredients should not be put on your face, especially in high amounts. If you’re using a toner with actives like salicylic acid, make sure you’re not using more actives in your routine that can strip your skin barrier.

Milky or oily toners can lead to breakouts if they’re too occlusive on the skin and clog pores. If you’re looking for something relaxed to start off with, a gentle toner like thermal water is a good option and won’t cause irritation.

Our Favorite Toner

Tower 28 Beauty’s SOS Daily Rescue Mist

Tower 28 SOS Daily Rescue Mist

A soothing and nurturing daily facial spray treatment that is good for everyone's skin.

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Tower 28 Beauty’s SOS Daily Rescue Mist is a fabulous toner and mist that ALL skin types can benefit from! It contains 3 ingredients: Electrolyzed Water (H2o), Sodium Chloride (Nacl), Hypochlorous Acid (Hocl). They’re simple but what do those ingredients mean?

Their Hypochlorous Acid is derived from electrolysed and pH balanced water and salt. Hypochlorous Acid works to promote healing, and to fight off foreign bacteria. Tower 28 is made for sensitive, eczema prone skin and all their products and ingredients support that. None of their products contain alcohol, fragrance or essential oils.

This toner is effective at eliminating acne causing bacteria from the skin as well as healing inflammation, rashes and eczema. It’s a great toner to prep your skin for the rest of your routine and it will never cause irritation or lead to breakouts.

Pros:

  • Simple ingredient list with only 3 items.
  • Great for inflammation and killing bacteria. This toner will not cause irritation or breakouts — it will prevent both of those.
  • Spray applicator makes it easy to apply to your face and pat in with your hands.
  • This toner is super affordable and comes in 2 sizes.

Cons:

  • If you want a toner to target acne, hyper-pigmentation or dehydration this toner isn’t the most effective option.
  • Plastic packaging is not luxurious.

Where to buy: Sephora

What else should I know about toner?

Toners generally aren’t products that cause purging or breakouts unless it’s an intense chemical exfoliator like P50. These products should be treated differently because they work like a serum and contain active ingredients. If you’re using an exfoliating toner with AHAs or BHAs you don’t need a serum with those ingredients too.

Instead go for an exfoliating toner and pair it with a hyaluronic acid or niacinamide serum. If you’re dry, use one with hyaluronic acid to help add hydration into your skin. If you have sensitive, irritated skin use something like Tower 28’s SOS mist.

If you’re concerned about introducing a toner into your routine, go for a gentle option. Toner should be used to help improve the quality of your skin along with helping your other products to absorb better.

Final Thoughts

If you’re looking to boost your skincare routine, toners are a great option! They help the rest of your skincare to absorb better and penetrate the skin deeper. Toners in the past have had a bad rep but they really have glowed up to become an underrated superstar that can really make a difference for your skin.

Toners are a huge aspect of K-Beauty so if you’re looking for a good one to start off with, look there. A toner if your routine is one step closer to the covetable, ‘glass skin’ look! Overall, toners are a great way to help improve the quality of your skin. There is an option for every type of skin issue and the right one can make a world of a difference in your routine!

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s a good exfoliating toner I can add to my routine?

Paula’s Choice 2% BHA is an amazing exfoliating toner with a cult following. This toner contains salicylic acid to help decongest pores, manage acne and brighten your skin tone. Skincare enthusiasts and newbies alike flock to this toner and rave about the results. All and all it’s a great option that gives results!

A 2% BHA toner is gentle enough for daily use without experiencing irritation. It’s deemed very effective when paired with a niacinamide serum and a good moisturizer.

Sometimes my toner stings my face. What does that mean?

There’s an old adage in skincare that if a product stings it’s working. Yes and no. Some acids like AHAs or BHAs can sting and that should go away as your skin gets used to it. If the stinging doesn’t go away or is causing irritation and redness stop using the product.

Toners with alcohol can sting so do your best to avoid that. Your skin will thank you!

How do I know if I should use an essence?

Essences and toners tend to get lumped together as the same product. Really the only difference is that sometimes, essences tend to run a little thicker. Some say toners are for removing leftover residue on your face and balancing the pH. While essences hydrate and increase absorption.

Toners and essences are very similar products and you don’t need to use both in your routine.

Their names are interchangeable and they apply to the skin in the same way so just look at the product’s claims and ingredients. If it’s a hydrating essence with a thicker consistency, that could be a great option for dry skin.

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