Toner may be one of the most misunderstood products in the skin care industry. Is toner meant to soak up excess oil? Clear pores? Moisturize? Fight signs of aging? And before trying to figure out what toner does for your face, you are probably wondering, “what exactly is face toner?” Keep scrolling to learn all about face toner — including what it is and what it is used for — in our complete guide on how to use toner.
Related: Best Face Toners
What is face toner?
So let’s answer the most common question, “What is toner for face?”. Unfortunately, there is no clear cut definition for toner. Decades ago, toner was often used synonymously with astringent. Think back to your pre-teen days of applying an alcohol-based toner (e.g. Sea Breeze) to your skin with hopes of it clearing your acne for good. These types of face toners resulted in an immediate degreasing effect due to the drying nature of alcohol. However, regular use of these toners led to skin dryness, stinging, irritation, and even disruption of the skin barrier over time. Needless to say, the use of face toner fell out of favor.
But face toners have made a comeback due to the widespread popularity of Korean 10-step skin care regimens. Toners have a thin, watery texture and they penetrate the skin quickly to deliver hydration while helping to remove impurities from the surface of skin. Fortunately, most of the toners available today contain little (if any) alcohol, and many toners contain beneficial ingredients that can prep your skin for the rest of the products in your skin care routine.
There are several different types of toners, and you may see them sold under such names as “astringents” or “splashes” as well.
What does toner do?
A common misconception is that a toner will “tone” your face by shrinking or tightening pores. This is simply not true. Pores cannot open, close, shrink or tighten because they don’t have muscles around their opening to allow them to open and close! So if a toner doesn’t tone your face, what exactly does it do? Once again, there is no definitive answer to this question because not all toners are created equal. Generally speaking, a toner is used to hydrate and clarify the skin so that it is prepared for the next steps in your skin care routine, such as serums, treatments, and moisturizers.
Related: Best Face Toners
What is toner used for?
In the past, toners were primarily used by those with oily, acne-prone skin. Currently, there are toners on the market to address almost every skin concern and they are no longer limited to treating acne and oily skin. Here are a few examples of what a toner is used for:
- Remove any remaining oil, makeup, dirt, etc. after cleansing
- Exfoliate and remove excess dead skin cells
- Add extra hydration to skin
- Calm skin and reduce inflammation
As you can see, the main purpose of using a toner is to prep your skin for the next steps in your skin care routine. Here’s a simple analogy: a toner is to serum as primer is to foundation. Pretty easy to understand, right?
Who should use toner?
Anyone can use a face toner! The decision to use a toner really depends on your specific skin needs and the benefits of a particular toner. For instance, if you notice your skin is looking dry, you may want to use a hydrating toner with ingredients like glycerin, hyaluronic acid, panthenol, or niacinamide. Moreover, if you have stubborn blackheads you may want to try a toner with salicylic acid to dissolve oil in clogged pores. Toners are definitely not a necessary step in your skin care routine, however, they can be a good addition if you aren’t seeing the results you want from your other skin care products.
Face toner ingredients to avoid
In a previous section, we alluded to the fact that using a face toner with a high concentration of alcohol will cause dryness, irritation, and disruption of the skin barrier. You should avoid face toners that include this type of drying alcohol, which may be listed on the ingredient label as ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, Alcohol Denat., SD alcohol, etc. However, it’s okay if the product contains fatty alcohols like cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol because these ingredients are not drying.
You’ll also want to avoid face toners that are heavily fragranced. You may notice the term “parfum/fragrance” on the ingredient list or individual fragrance ingredients, some of which include hydroxycitronellal, linalool, limonene, coumarin, alpha-isomethyl ionone, geraniol, and isoeugenol. The term “parfum/fragrance” represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals, as well as ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate. According to EWG, fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress, and potential effects on the reproductive system.
A final face toner ingredient to avoid is witch hazel. This may be challenging because witch hazel is a very common ingredient in many face toners, especially with natural beauty brands. Witch hazel is claimed to help with everything from acne and oily skin to redness to puffy eyes. Research suggests that witch hazel can help when used as a short-term remedy, but long-term use is a problem, no matter your skin type or concern. This is because witch hazel contains polyphenolic compounds known as tannins. Applied to skin, tannins have a constricting and drying effect. However, tannins are sensitizing and can lead to allergic reactions and skin irritation, especially with prolonged use.
When to use toner
You can use a toner in the morning and at night after cleansing. A thorough cleanse helps to wash away excess oil, dirt, makeup, and other impurities that may have accumulated on the skin during the day. This clears your face so that the beneficial ingredients in a toner can more easily penetrate the skin. It’s also important to apply your toner no later than one minute after cleansing because most ingredients penetrate the skin better when it is wet. Thus, applying your toner immediately after cleansing delivers better results.
How to use toner
When you’re ready to apply your toner, you can either dispense the toner onto a cotton pad or straight into the palm of your hand. Press your hands or the cotton pad onto your face and work your way outwards until your entire face, neck, and chest are covered. Always follow with a serum or moisturizer.
Toner vs. Serum
While a toner can hydrate and prime your face for the rest of the products in your skin care routine, it is not meant to replace your serum. Serums have many advantages over toners. For instance, serums are formulated with a higher concentration of active ingredients that are designed to target specific skin concerns. The concentrated dose of actives in serums, such as peptides, antioxidants, and herbal extracts, are usually intended to target concerns like hyperpigmentation, fine lines, and wrinkles. Toners prep the skin while serums deliver these active ingredients to produce noticeable results.
The key to choosing the right serum is to look for high-quality, professionally formulated products with ingredients that are known to benefit skin. One brand that fits this description is Formulyst. Formulyst’s philosophy is to create the right products that will help treat skin issues, rather than covering them up. They have many high-quality serums that can address your specific skin care needs. A few of the most popular Formulyst serums include Pro-Collagen Serum, Retexturing and Perfecting Serum, and Advanced Repair Serum.
Formulyst Pro-Collagen Serum is a lightweight, restorative serum specifically formulated for aging skin that has experienced a loss of collagen. Think of collagen as the scaffolding of the skin; it gives structure, support and suppleness. But collagen production naturally slows down as we age, causing wrinkles and fine lines to appear. Formulyst’s Pro-Collagen Serum contains a highly concentrated mix of peptides and proteins, derived from seaweed, wheat and soy, to help tackle these signs of aging. Apply a few drops of this hydrating serum to help skin look smoother and younger.
Formulyst Retexturing and Perfecting Serum contains glycolic acid, a powerful alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), as the key ingredient. This lightweight serum is expertly formulated to gently exfoliate, clean, and refine pores, as well as help remove dead cells and visibly reveal the brighter, healthier skin beneath. Overall, Formulyst Retexturing and Perfecting Serum delivers perceptible improvement to the tone and texture of your skin, while also helping to reduce the appearance of uneven, blotchy skin.
Formulyst Advanced Repair Serum is specifically formulated to help optimize skin hydration, as well as visibly plump and smooth the appearance of wrinkles. This serum contains a Peptide Complex of acetyl octapeptide-3 and dipeptide diaminobutyroyl benzylamide diacetate, which are both classified as neuropeptides. These neuropeptides help to relax facial muscles and thereby prevent the formation of expression lines (wrinkles). This serum also contains a Stem Cell Complex because stem cells are known for their regenerative and healing properties. Lastly, the Advanced Repair Serum contains a Microbiome Repair Complex in order to help restore the good bacteria and microbes that keep the skin’s microbiome balanced. A balanced microbiome helps to prevent dryness, and even signs of aging. Overall, the Formulyst Advanced Repair Serum is formulated to help rejuvenate, moisturize, and smooth skin.
References: Allure “WTF Is Toner, Anyway?” July 2017, EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database “Fragrance”, PaulasChoice.com “Why Witch Hazel is a Problem for Skin”