Facial Toners: Not Just for Toning Anymore!Nov 01, 2023 06:00AM ● By Susan Gonzalez
Are you skipping the toner in your skincare routine? Why? Facial toners should be part of every complete skincare routine, but they’re often overlooked or considered just an optional step.
Some people use toners even though they’re not sure what they do, while others have trouble choosing the right one since it can be quite confusing. Yet applying a toner is often exactly what is needed to solve many skincare issues, such as balancing oil, suppressing acne and smoothing, hydrating and plumping skin to improve complexion.
In basic terms, a facial toner is a liquid formulation that is applied to the skin after cleansing mainly to bring the skin’s pH—its level of acidity—down. The skin has a pH level of around 4.5, which is acidic, and most cleansers are typically in the 7 to 8 pH range. Cleansers need to be a bit alkaline—have a higher pH—to remove dirt and oil and do their job. But the skin, as well as its protective barrier—a combination of layers that keep skin healthy—are acidic. So, returning the skin to its desired pH not only makes sense for skin health but also prepares it to receive the serums, oils or moisturizers that follow in a typical routine, allowing those products to be better utilized by the skin barrier.
However, toners can do so much more than lower the skin’s pH. There are several kinds of toners, and each one does something different on the skin. They are chosen based on one’s skin type and skin condition. The three general categories of toners are fresheners, which are sometimes called hydrating toners, basic toners and astringents. There are also “active” toners that contain acids such as lactic or glycolic acid, which have an exfoliating property. [For more information about exfoliation, see “Exfoliation Revealed” in Gonzalez’s May 2021 article. —Ed.]
Fresheners and Hydrating Toners
Fresheners, also known as hydrating toners, help to restore the skin’s hydration level with ingredients such as glycerin, hyaluronic acid, aloe vera and hydrosols. They contain no alcohol or any other active ingredient, such as exfoliants. While other types of toners are swiped over the skin using a soft cotton pad, hydrating toners can also be sprayed on the skin and pressed in.
Hydrating toners are great to spritz on any time during the day, in dry climates, when traveling by plane or if the skin is irritated or overworked. Any skin type, from dry to oily, can use hydrating toners since they don’t typically contain any oil. Hydrating toners are often recommended for sensitive skin or when using ingredients that might dry the skin out, such as benzoyl peroxide or certain oral acne medications. They are also a nice way to end a clay mask treatment.
Basic Toners are designed to remove cleanser residue and can also tighten the skin. Some brands contain a small amount of alcohol, which is a bit drying, but the main ingredients are usually soothing and neutral, like witch hazel or hydrosols, which can remove residue without drying. The toner is applied to a cotton pad or soft application pad and gently swiped over the skin. It should be allowed to dry fully before going on to the next skincare step. Any skin type can use these basic toners, but those with dry skin should avoid basic toner formulations that contain alcohol. Basic toners come in many scents, and they often contain herbals or herbal scents such as lemon, cucumber or rose for a pleasant experience. But that can be a problem for those who are sensitive to artificial fragrances, so check the labels for ingredients.
Astringents are used to remove excess oil from the skin’s surface and to temporarily reduce pore size. Astringent formulations contain moderate or high levels of alcohol and can contain salicylic acid and witch hazel as well. Astringents are used as part of a routine for those with oily skin, oily combination skin or acne-prone skin. They are very harsh and should be avoided by those with rosacea and those with dry, mature or sensitive skin. Take care when using astringents and watch for signs of irritation such as redness, especially around the mouth, or a burning or tingling sensation.
These toners are similar to exfoliating serums since they contain active toners, or actives, that work a bit deeper in the skin. Actives are categorized as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), such as glycolic acid and lactic acid, and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), such as salicylic acid. Actives penetrate the skin and help with issues such as fine lines, scarring, acne, slight texture and dark spots called hyperpigmentation.
Acids help prevent fine lines by keeping the surface free of dead skin cells, which encourages the skin cells to replicate more frequently. Fresh new skin cells that aren’t covered by dull, dead ones are more luminous and give a glowing appearance. Because acids turn skin cells over more rapidly, they allow scars and hyperpigmentation to be worked up and out of the skin’s surface as well. Using a toner that contains an acid can also improve the skin’s ability to retain moisture.
Since dead skin can clog pores, an exfoliating toner can help control acne and open comedones, otherwise known as blackheads. Toners containing AHAs or BHAs or both are effective.
When using exfoliating toners, it’s important to always wear sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher since the acids make skin more prone to sun damage. If a retinol or acid serum is already being used as an exfoliating step in a routine, and you want a bit more brightening action, adding an exfoliating toner can help, but be careful to ease into using it slowly and watch for and signs of tingling, redness or irritation, especially in the creases of your face. When starting an exfoliating toner, begin by using it every other day for about two weeks. If there are no signs of irritation, you can begin using it daily.
Some people don’t need to cleanse their face in the morning every day. For those with sensitive skin or skin that is easily irritated or imbalanced, instead of cleansing, swiping with an appropriate toner can take the place of cleansing and can successfully prepare the skin for the next skincare step.
There are other solutions that aren’t technically toners that can be used both before and after cleansing. One is micellar water, which is a water-based solution with tiny beads of oil suspended in it. Because of the oil component, this solution is effective for removing makeup before cleansing; however, it has a neutral pH (usually around 7) and is not classified as a toner. However, micellar water can also contain many ingredients that are not appropriate for some skin types. For example, some are formulated with coconut oil, which will clog pores. Reading labels is important.
Using toners is an excellent way to enhance your skincare routine and increase the performance of other skincare products. Careful consideration is needed to help choose the right one for the job, however. First, identify your skin type, then choose a product that will support your skincare goals. If help is needed, seeing a skincare therapist for evaluation and recommendations is a great option. ❧
Susan Gonzalez is a holistic licensed esthetician, author, nurse and owner of MOON Organics, a skincare company providing clean, healthy skincare and personal care products. Reach her on FB, IG and TW: @MoonOrganics or visit MoonOrganics.com.