Toners are kind of like the Chandler Bing of the skincare world: No one’s quite sure what they do for a living. Think about it. What does it even mean to “tone” one’s skin?
“Traditionally, toners were used as a mop-up product,” explains Toronto dermatologist Dr. Renée Beach. “Cleansers left behind somewhat of a soapy residue and didn’t fully wash off. So at first, toners were meant to be this cleaner-upper.”
The term has since evolved to mean a myriad of things. Take a scroll through the toner section of the Sephora site and you’ll encounter potions promising to do everything from smooth texture to control oil or increase hydration. “I think they’ve evolved into, frankly, an unrecognizable product now,” says Beach. The question is: Do you really need one? Read on for the answer.
What does the word “toner” even mean?
“I don’t know if it was initially to ‘tone the skin down’ or to provide some sort of relief to the skin,” posits Beach. “The skin pH is around 5.5, so there was an idea that using a toner might help to restore skin pH to that level.” That’s important because skin pH is associated with its homeostasis, meaning its most stable state, where the barrier is functioning optimally and you’ve got a healthy level of bacteria to protect the epidermis. The thing is though, “whether or not that’s actually done with the products that are on the market now is highly debatable.”
Is it essential to restore skin’s pH after cleansing?
“Depends on what cleanser you’re using,” says Beach. “Let’s say you’re using a syn-det—short for synthetic detergent—cleanser, those are already designed to mimic the skin’s pH, so in that capacity, you wouldn’t need to restore the pH because nothing’s been disturbed in the first place.” Examples of synthetic detergent cleansers would be something gentle like Cetaphil or CeraVe.
Do all toners do the same thing?
“No, and I think that goes back to the fact that we’ve gotten away from what a toner initially was,” says the pro. Indeed, nowadays, many toners contain ingredients such as AHAs (like glycolic and lactic acids) or BHAs (like salicylic adic) to slough off dead skin cells and smooth the skin, making them more akin to exfoliants. Others might have anti-acne agents in them. “So it depends on what is being advertised as a toner.”
Some toners claim to enhance the absorption and performance of subsequent products in one’s routine. Is there any truth to that?
“If your routine depends on having your skin dampened by a product to increase absorption, then sure,” says Beach, though you could achieve a similar effect with water, she notes. “Or if your toner has a sunscreen agent in there, could it then bolster the sunscreen that you put on after? Sure. So it’s possible.” But when crafting a skincare regimen, Beach says she prefers for every product to complement rather than enhance the others. “Each step is a step unto its own with different properties and objectives.”
Some toners are more like liquid exfoliants these days. Can they be beneficial to the skin?
The good news: Dermatologists recommend chemical exfoliation—the kind provided by toners containing glycolic, lactic or salicylic acid—over the mechanical variety: Think gritty scrubs or washcloths. That’s because the latter type can cause micro-tears in the skin. “It’s easy to overdo it, leaving the skin raw, irritated and in a worse state than you began with,” says Beach. “So I guess that could be an advantage of having a toner with a bit of salicylic acid in it, for example, so it provides a bit of exfoliating property without as much of the irritation as a micro-crystalline product. But again, it’s still getting away from the essence of what a toner is. To me, you’re making a serum and just trying to call it a toner.”
Are there any ingredients you’d want to avoid pairing with these kinds of toners?
If you’re following up an exfoliating toner with more AHAs or BHAs, you could risk irritation, says the doc. “Particularly if you have retinol or prescription retinoid on board—it’s too much. There may be the odd skin type that can handle it, but I do think that you’re probably trying to do too much.”
Also, if you’re using a retinol or prescription retinoid and leaving it on overnight, you’re already getting a sufficient amount of chemical exfoliation, so you wouldn’t need to add an exfoliating toner to your regimen. Now, if you’re unable to tolerate retinol or retinoid or can’t use these ingredients because you’re pregnant, that’s when AHAs or BHAs, which are much more agreeable to different skin tones, could be good substitutes.
“They could also be a great option for people who use their retinoid three nights a week, but are looking to do something another couple of nights a week.” In that case, you would alternate between the two, making sure not to use an exfoliating toner on the same nights you apply a retinol. “We’re always tiptoeing the boundary between efficacy and irritation.”
Okay, so the crucial question now: Do we really need a toner?
“I hate to be a party-pooper and I know people love their routines and their multiple steps, and I’m going to be honest: I do multiple steps, too. But I wouldn’t be fully truthful if I said I use a toner,” says Beach. She also doesn’t recommend using a toner to her patients. “I think that they’ve been marketed as an essential step in the routine just so that people have another step in their regimen.” Instead, what she likes to do, and encourages her patients to try, is follow up cleanser with micellar water to gently remove any residual makeup or pollution on the skin.
There is one circumstance, though, where she says she’ll reach for a toner and that’s if she’s getting quite a bit of acne. “I will go for one that’s got salicylic or glycolic acid in it because I want that extra boost of skin exfoliation,” she explains. “So I will use it then, but I’m expressly using it because I want to calm down the acne without having any sort of thick layer on.”
But apart from that, you don’t really need a toner, she says. “I don’t know of any derms who have them in their office, to be honest. We all retail products because we want patients to have direct access to what we recommend, and in all the offices I’ve worked in, we’ve never had a toner.”
Shop the advice
Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser, $16, amazon.ca SHOP HERE
The mild cleanser: A bestseller for good reason, this ultra-gentle cleanser does away with impurities without disrupting skin’s pH balance. It’s safe to use on even the most sensitive skin.
Bioderma Sensibio H2O Micellar Water, $14, shoppersdrugmart.ca SHOP HERE
The micellar water: It doesn’t get more classic than Bioderma’s Sensibio H2O micellar water. Many people like to use it before their cleanser to remove makeup, but try Dr. Beach’s trick and apply it after cleansing to get rid of any remaining residue.
Farmacy Deep Sweep 2% BHA Pore Cleansing Toner, $36, sephora.ca SHOP HERE
The salicylic acid toner: If, like Dr. Beach, you’re looking to curb some breakouts, look for a product spiked with congestion-fighting salicylic acid. It’ll also helps control oil and swirls in papaya enzymes for an extra boost of exfoliation.
Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner, $ 24, sephora.ca SHOP HERE
The gylcolic acid toner: If retinol refuses to play nice with your skin or if you’re looking for something to use on the nights you don’t apply it, consider getting a dose of chemical exfoliation via a glycolic acid toner. It can help smooth out your skin’s texture so it better reflects light and appears more radiant.
Shani Darden Mini Retinol Reform, $39, sephora.ca SHOP HERE
The retinol serum: A retinol serum serves up all the chemical exfoliation you need. This famous one by facialist-to-the-stars, Shani Darden, is also laced with lactic acid for an added skin-smoothing effect. Fans of the product swear by its ability to lessen the look of lines, even out tone and texture and make skin glow. The full-sized bottle is pretty pricey, but this mini version lets you try out the formula before committing to the real thing.
When you make a purchase through the links in this article, we may earn a small commission. Our journalism is independent and not influenced by advertising. Learn more.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION