Washing your face after a long day of sweating through makeup is a feeling of pure bliss—but there’s always the looming curiosity of: Did I get everything off? Is my skin really clean? Double-cleansing is the first step to ensuring that it is, but facial toners can help remove any lingering dirt with a quick swipe of product deposited on a (preferably reusable) cotton round. Some say they’re unnecessary, but it’s really all about personal preference. Keep reading to learn about the different types of toners, how they work, and how to find the right toner for you.
What is face toner?
A toner is a “water-like product” used after cleansing and before the rest of your skincare routine, explains Elizabeth Bahar Houshmand, M.D., a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. Active ingredients within them vary, but in general, they help prep the skin for serums and moisturizers “by getting rid of excess oil or dirt that your cleanser might have missed,” she adds. In the past, toners have earned a bad rep for containing high amounts of drying alcohol, but now, many are alcohol-free, and even hydrating, with added benefits catered to different skin types.
Face toner benefits
“Toner can help remove makeup, pollution, and impurities,” explains Dr. Houshmand. “Specific formulations can help to hydrate the skin with moisturizing, brightening, or exfoliating ingredients after cleansing—the function depends on the formula.” Sasha Banner, skincare trainer and licensed esthetician at Heyday, adds that certain toners, again, depending on their ingredients, can also reduce the appearance of fine lines, hydrate the skin, and combat redness and inflammation.
Are toners really necessary?
Houshmand says dermatologists have mixed opinions on toners—and when it comes down to it, it’s all about personal preference. “I think they can be helpful,” she says. “I recommend toners for my patients that are specific for their skin concerns.” Many people simply enjoy the experience of using one. “Honestly, toners just feel really nice,” Banner adds. “It’s like a glass of water for the skin. Indulge in them.”
How to use face toner
After cleansing with a gentle face wash, Houshmand recommends applying toner using a cotton pad. Upon swiping it around (avoiding the eye area), you’ll be able to see the dirt and oil it picked up. “Now, your skin is clean and optimized for application of your next steps,” Houshmand says, which should most definitely include moisturizer to keep your skin barrier balanced and healthy, she adds.
Toner vs. essence
With the vast amount of toner-like products on the market, it’s easy to get confused and overwhelmed. So, to clear one thing up: Toners are similar to essences, but the two aren’t the same. Firstly, toners are used as an additional cleansing step, and many contain astringents (be it alcohol or a more natural ingredient like witch hazel or rosewater). Essences are similar in viscosity to toners, but they typically only contain hydrating, nourishing ingredients that provide an extra layer of moisture to the skin, Banner says. Essences can also be used as a “primer” for serums and moisturizers, Houshmand adds, as those treatments tend to absorb best into damp skin.
How to find the right face toner for you
The best toner for you depends on your skin type, which dictates the ingredients you should look for. Below, Houshmand and Banner break it down.
Dry skin: If your skin is dry or dehydrated, avoid alcohol at all costs. Instead, look for toners that contain glycerin, hyaluronic acid, or rosewater, says Houshmand.
Oily or acne-prone skin: Exfoliating or slightly astringent toners are the best suited for those with oily or acne-prone skin. Go for witch hazel or chemical exfoliants like glycolic and salicylic acids, which will slough away dead skin and absorb excess oil, says Banner. Toners with these actives will be slightly more potent and may cause irritation, though, so Houshmand recommends starting out by using them only two to three times per week until your skin adjusts.
Normal skin: If your skin is balanced and you’re simply looking for an extra cleansing step, you can’t go wrong with a mixture of any of the above ingredients.
If you’re not sure what to choose, don’t blindly pick a toner and hope for the best, as you could potentially cause more harm than good. “Check with your dermatologist to make sure the toner is best for your skin type,” Houshmand says. Below, she and Banner share their go-to toner recommendations to get your journey started.
Kayla Blanton is a freelance writer who reports on all things health and nutrition for Men’s Health, Women’s Health, and Prevention. Her hobbies include perpetual coffee sipping and pretending to be a Chopped contestant while cooking.