Toner isn’t exactly the newest kid on the block when it comes to skin care. Personal grooming classes from the 1960s encouraged the use of toners, usually referred to as “astringents” in this context, for a healthy, clean-looking complexion. It’s likely a lot of you out there have encountered the standard “cleanse, tone, moisturize” philosophy from various sources online, and it’s been the default routine recommended by many an aesthetician or beauty advisor.
However, things have changed drastically in the last decade or so when it comes to the role toners play in skin care, and where they started could not be further from the place they’ve settled now. And in the name of all that is moisturized and glowing, I could not be happier about the shift.
What Toners Don’t Do (Anymore)
I’m not a veteran of decades in the beauty industry (yet), but I feel worn out just thinking about the number of times I’ve heard that toners are supposed to balance the pH of your skin after cleansing. This may have been a thing in the past, but that was in an era where harsh, stripping cleansers were the standard. I won’t get into pH in relation to skin and skin care at this time, but basically, it’s not very likely anymore that you’re going to throw the balance of your skin so far out of whack with a cleanser that you need to reel it back with a pH-balancing toner every morning and night.
Something that’s still somewhat of a trend—although, to my relief, is also on its way out with the harsh cleanser era—are toners that are loaded with drying ingredients, like denatured alcohol. They’re often labeled as “astringents” or marketed as things like “clarifying,” but what that really means is that they’re gonna dry the living daylights out of your face and leave you feeling quite depleted and looking dull over time. As I said, unfortunately these types of toners are still hanging around, so make sure you’re not incorporating any of these outdated toners into your routine if you’re considering one.
Active vs. Non-Active
The two primary categories in which I like to classify toners these days are ones that contain active ingredients and ones that do not contain them. By active ingredients, I’m primarily referring to exfoliating ingredients like glycolic acid or lactic acid. These are the types of toners that you should start using only once or twice a week when initially incorporating them into your routine. Chemical exfoliation is a topic I love and one that also has a lot of intricacies, so I’ll discuss that another time, but my point here is that you should not get one of these acid toners and start dousing your face in it day and night, especially if you haven’t used one before.
The other category of toners, the ones that do not contain active ingredients to exfoliate, primarily serve to hydrate your skin. Korean beauty introduced this concept to a lot of people and propelled hydrating toners into the Western beauty market. I love hydrating toners so, so much that I’m never without one in my routine. I live in the middle of a literal desert where humidity is virtually non-existent, so adding hydration to my skin is a never-ending battle against my dry environment. Hydrating toners are usually loaded with humectants to help hold water in your skin and are generally well tolerated by the majority of people.
In recent years, some fancier iterations of hydrating toners have come on the market. Some come with oils incorporated into it that are there to help give your skin a boost of moisture along with hydration (yes, there is a difference), while others are replacing the water in their formulations with different plant extracts like green tea or birch juice to give even more benefits to the skin. Even some exfoliating toners have taken to adding in hydrating and calming ingredients alongside their star chemical exfoliants to help combat some of the side effects of exfoliation, like dryness and irritation. However, when you’re selecting a toner to try out, the most important distinction to make is if it’s one that does or does not contain active ingredients.
Korean beauty introduced hydrating toners to a lot of people and propelled them into the Western beauty market.
How to Use a Toner
As far as toner usage goes, it’s thankfully not too complicated and is really up to what feels best to you. The place they most commonly get slotted in is the first leave-on product on your face, right after you finish cleansing or are finished with a sheet mask. If you’re using both an active and non-active toner, then use the active one first. I’d recommend giving that 10 to 15 seconds to sink in, and then follow up with your non-active toner before moving on with the rest of your routine.
A lot of my skin care philosophy, like myself, originates from South Korea, so I’m a fan of putting a small puddle of toner in my palm, swiping it evenly over my face, and then patting it in with my hands. Some toners come in a mist bottle, but even these I spray into my palm—if I were to mist it directly onto my skin, I still give it a few pats. I’ve never personally been into soaking a cotton pad with toner and swiping it across my face, but that’s purely a me thing. If that’s your jam, I’d try actually dabbing and pressing the cotton pad around your face to help evenly distribute the product before swiping.
The amount you use is going to be something to feel out on your own as you use the product, and that sweet spot will likely end up being different from person to person. Just use enough to cover your face as evenly as you can while still feeling like it’s absorbing into your skin. If you’re left with a sticky finish on the skin, you may be using too much product.
Have questions about toners? Leave your questions in the comments below!