The best toners for every skin care routine, according to experts

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Between cleansers, serums and moisturizers, knowing which products are useful to your skin care routine (and which aren’t) can be tricky. One product that has teetered the line between essential and unnecessary are toners, which are water-like formulas used as an in-between step after cleansing and before moisturizing.

“Toner helps remove excess oils on the skin to help prepare it for applying products like serums and moisturizers,” says Dr. Ryan Turner, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.

Wondering if they’re right — or necessary — for you? We spoke to experts about who toners are best for and what to look for when shopping for one. We also put together a list of what to shop based on their recommendations and guidance.

SKIP AHEAD The best toners of 2023 | How to shop for toners

Our top picks

How we picked the best toners

Toners can help reduce the appearance of enlarged pores, remove makeup or dirt left behind after cleansing and hydrate the skin, according to our experts. When shopping they recommend keeping the following factors in mind: 

  • Ingredients: Toners are available in both alcohol-based and non alcohol-based formulas. Alcohol-based toners can help balance oil production and are therefore better for those with oily skin types, while non alcohol-based toners are more gentle and won’t dry out the skin. Aside from a formula’s base, look for specific ingredients that accommodate your skin type and skin concerns. Some common ingredients in a toner are chemical exfoliants like AHAs and BHAs to promote cell turnover, as well as hyaluronic acid to hydrate.
  • Function: A toner’s formula will determine your results. Some aim to refine the skin tone and unclog pores, while others address issues like dullness, dehydration and restoring the skin barrier. In any case, consider what your areas of concern are and choose a toner accordingly.

The best toners of 2023

We spoke to dermatologists about their favorite toners and compiled their recommendations below. We also included a few products we love based on their guidance.

SkinCeuticals Conditioning Toner

Ideal for normal to oily skin types, this alcohol-based clarifying toner will help draw out pore-clogging excess oil from the skin. It does so via a combination of decongesting chemical exfoliants like glycolic acid (an AHA) and salicylic acid (a BHA), says Dr. Marianna Blyumin-Karasik, a board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of Precision Skin Institute in Florida. The fragrance-free formula also has eucalyptus essential oil to leave skin feeling refreshed, according to the brand.

Key ingredients: Glycolic acid, salicylic acid and eucalyptus oil | Skin type: Normal-oily

PCA Skin Nutrient Toner

Blyumin-Karasik recommends this exfoliating toner if you have sensitive skin and are looking for a soothing formula. It’s formulated with pumpkin wine — which is made by fermenting a whole pumpkin — that delivers vitamins A and C to the skin, while lactic acid, a gentle AHA, helps moisturize it, according to PCA Skin. You can use it  once a day at morning or night. 

Key ingredients: Pumpkin wine, lactic acid and aminoguanidine | Skin type: All skin types

Paula’s Choice Advanced Replenishing Toner

Blyumin-Karasik recommends this toner from Paula’s Choice for those with dry skin. It’s formulated with licorice root extract that can help brighten up the complexion, as well as hyaluronic acid to draw moisture to the skin, according to Blyumin-Karasik. The consistency, which is unlike traditional toners that are more watery,  has more of a milky texture that may feel more substantial and hydrating for those with dry skin.

Key ingredients: Hyaluronic acid, linoleic acid and evening primrose oil | Skin type: Normal to dry

Laneige Cream Skin Toner & Moisturizer

While Laneige recommends this toner-moisturizer hybrid for all skin types, it’s especially great for those with dry, sensitive skin, says Dr. Reshmi Kapoor, a board-certified dermatologist and the owner and founder of Brooklyn Dermatology in New York City. Dry skin types may suffer from a compromised moisture barrier, where the outermost layer of skin that’s responsible for trapping water becomes damaged via things like over-exfoliation and UV rays. This hydrating formula is made with ceramides, which helps keep the skin barrier intact, and amino acid-rich white leaf tea water to soothe inflammation, according to the brand. Plus, it’s refillable — a nice touch if you’re looking to be more sustainable with your purchases.

Key ingredients: Ceramids, peptides and white leaf tea water | Skin type: All skin types

The Inkey List PHA Toner

This toner uses a PHA (poly-hydroxy acid) to exfoliate and improve skin texture, and combines it with niacinamide, says Kapoor. The niacinamide helps balance sebum production to keep your complexion from being too oily, and can calm redness and minimize breakouts, according to the brand. PHAs work similarly to AHAs in that they gently slough away dead skin cells while trapping moisture to prevent dehydration, making this a great option for those looking to tone their skin without stripping it.

Key ingredients: PHA, niacinamide and aloe leaf juice | Skin type: Dry, combination

Sk-II Facial Treatment Clear Lotion Toner

Even though it’s labeled as a lotion toner, this formula has a watery consistency that you should apply via cotton pad, according to Sk-II. With over 450 five-star reviews on Sephora, this has AHAs, like malic acid and lactic acid, to remove pore-clogging debris and dead skin cells, as well as salicylic acid, a popular BHA that helps minimize pore-clogging, breakout-inducing oils. Because it’s alcohol-free, it shouldn’t feel drying on the skin.

Key ingredients: Salicylic acid, lactic acid | Skin type:  All skin types

Mario Badescu Hydrating Glow Toner

This toner works well for brightening and plumping up dry skin. I’ve used it on my dry and sensitive skin, and like that it balances PHA, a chemical exfoliant, with sodium hyaluronate, a type of hyaluronic acid, to keep skin hydrated. The peptide in the formula helps soften my skin, which is prone to flakiness. I also enjoy the small spout on the pour top — it makes pouring out the product into a cotton pad easier than other toners I’ve tried. 

Key ingredients: Gluconolactone, jojoba seed oil, red algae extract | Skin type: Dry

How to shop for toners

When shopping, our experts recommend looking at several factors, including your specific skin type and the key ingredients in the formula. Below, we highlight their suggestions of things to consider.

  • Choose a formula that caters to your skin type and skin goals. When shopping, first consider your skin type to ensure the toner you purchase  will produce optimal results. While some toners have moisturizing ingredients and are better suited for dry skin types, others will balance sebum production and are ideal for those who lean oily. In general, those with dry skin should look for hydrating, non alcohol-based formulas, while those with oily skin should consider exfoliating toners, says Kapoor. You should also consider the skin issue you’re trying to address, whether it be enlarged pores, dullness or fine lines.
  • Consider the ingredients. Toners can include a variety of active ingredients like exfoliants, humectants and antioxidants. Exfoliants help get rid of dead cells from the outermost layer of skin, humectants help draw water and moisture to the skin and antioxidants help protect against environmental damage. “For oily or acne-prone skin, look for exfoliating toners with AHAs (such as glycolic acid) or BHAs (such as salicylic acid),” says Kapoor. If you have dry skin, Kapoor says to be mindful of irritating ingredients. “Toners with astringent ingredients, such as ethyl alcohol or witch hazel, should be used with caution as they can be drying to the skin and disrupt the skin barrier, causing inflammation.” Instead, look for toners that are made with glycerin or hyaluronic acid. Aloe vera, ceramides and colloidal oatmeal are other dry skin-friendly ingredients to seek out. To combat dull skin or target signs of aging, Kapoor says antioxidants and peptides can help.

Frequently asked questions

A toner is a water-like product that you use after cleansing, but before moisturizing. Historically, toners were formulated to balance the pH of the skin, but now that many of the cleansers on the market today are already pH balanced, toners are now mostly used to reduce enlarged pores, hydrate and clarify the skin, according to Kapoor.

The low viscosity consistency of a toner is what makes it unique compared to products like moisturizers and oils. It is often compared to essences, which also have a thin, watery consistency; though the two are similar, they have different functions. “Toners are used for multiple purposes such as hydrating, enhancing radiance and balancing the skin, while essences are typically more emollient and seek to hydrate the skin and boost other skin products’ absorption on the skin,” says Blyumin-Karasik. Turner agrees, saying that essences provide deep hydration and brighten the skin, but typically don’t have irritating active ingredients like AHAs and BHAs (that toners do).

Depending on your specific skin type or goals, you should view toners as a bonus or adjunct step in your routine, according to Kapoor. “Toners no longer serve a singular function, and the word ‘toner’ has, in a sense, lost its meaning because they are no longer needed to rebalance the pH of the skin,” she says. “Ultimately, the necessity of a toner, as well as its function, boils down to which specific active ingredient it is delivering to the skin.”

Even though they aren’t an essential part of a skincare routine, they still come with a range of benefits. “A toner’s benefit will depend on the active ingredient it is adding to a routine and whether it’s necessary to deliver it in the modality of a toner as opposed to a serum, wash or cream,” says Kapoor. For instance, if you’ve decided your skin requires an AHA or BHA, both of which can be slightly irritating on some skin types, toners are a great way to introduce that ingredient slowly into your routine. This is because toners are milder than a serum, which contains a highly active concentrated form of the ingredient.

Toners are also a great way to remove any remnants of makeup, dirt and oils still lingering on the skin post-cleansing. Alcohol formulas can dissolve oil and waxes that are on the skin, which can improve the absorption of the products you layer on top, says Turner.

Finally, a toner can help reduce the size and appearance of pores by removing the debris living within the pores, says Turner. “Toners that contain ingredients like AHAS or BHAs can help chemically exfoliate the skin’s surface, which promotes cell turnover and helps reduce the visibility of enlarged pores over time,” says Turner.

When it comes to applying a toner, you should follow the instructions on the specific product you’re using. That being said, you can generally apply them one of two ways. For toners that are thinner in consistency, Turner recommends placing a small amount onto a cotton pad and gently tapping it across the face, starting from the center and moving outward. For toners that are thicker and have more of a milky texture, you should use your clean hands instead of cotton pads, which may absorb your formula, says Turner. If you’re applying a toner with your hands, Dr. Turner recommends gently patting or pressing it into the skin (versus rubbing), as this motion enhances absorption and helps avoid excessive rubbing, which can cause irritation or disrupt the skin’s protective barrier, says Turner.

Additionally, toners, unlike cleansers, are not meant to be rinsed off. “Toners usually carry valuable active ingredients such as AHAs, hyaluronic acid or adaptogenic botanicals like aloe, which pose skin benefits when they have a longer period to penetrate the skin,” says Blyumin-Karasik. After applying, let the toner sit on the skin for about one minute to let it dry before applying your serum — this gives the formula a chance to settle into the skin.

Application frequency will depend on the ingredients in the toner’s formula. “Toners with exfoliating ingredients, such as salicylic acid and glycolic acid, should be used two or three times a week, as overuse can lead to irritation, inflammation and dry skin,” says Kapoor. These should also be limited to a once per day application during your nighttime skincare routine to avoid over-exfoliation. Generally speaking, you can use formulas with more gentle ingredients, like hyaluronic acid and ceramides, twice daily as part of both your morning and nighttime skincare routine.

Meet our experts

At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and without undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

  • Reshmi Kapoor is a board-certified dermatologist and the owner and founder of Brooklyn Dermatology in New York City. She specializes in acne, melasma and hair loss.
  • Marianna Blyumin-Karasik is a board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of Precision Skin Institute in Florida. She specializes in cosmetic, medical and surgical dermatology.
  • Ryan Turner is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City who practices cosmetic dermatology, general dermatology, surgical dermatology and laser surgery.

Why trust Select?

Michelle Rostamian has more than 10 years of experience covering beauty and skincare topics. Rostamian has tried dozens of skincare products over the years, including toners. For this story, Rostamian spoke with board-certified dermatologists about how to shop for toners, what to look for and which products were the best. She also researched several highly rated toners from popular brands like Laneige and SkinCeuticals to see if they were in line with expert guidance.

Catch up on Select’s in-depth coverage of personal finance, tech and tools, wellness and more, and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok to stay up to date.

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