What Does Face Toner Do? Plus 3 Toners for Clearer Skin
Face toner may look and feel like water, but it does a lot more than just hydrate your face. Here's what to look for, plus, the top picks for clearer skin.
Don’t be fooled: Although many face toners look and act like water, they’re made up of so much more than plain ol’ H2O. “Face toners were historically developed to balance the skin’s pH, as the soaps used to wash the face would leave the skin too alkaline,” explains Channa Ovits, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Westmed Medical Group in Westchester, New York.
Modern day soaps are more pH-balanced, so toners have evolved to deliver bonus active ingredients to the skin after cleansing, boost hydration, prep the skin for the next step of the skin care routine and remove any residual makeup or oil, Dr. Ovits says.
Face toners often include anti-inflammatory ingredients, antioxidants, glycerin, and acids that penetrate the skin quickly and prime the skin for what’s to come, whether it’s moisturizer, a specific skin serum, or something else.
How to use face toner
While toners are often fairly gentle, as with any new skin care treatment, it’s best to start slowly if you haven’t used them before. What time of day and how often to use face toner depends on your own skin chemistry, but as a general rule, start with once per day and work up to once in the morning and once at night. “Toner can be used once or twice a day, but if it’s drying, then try decreasing to every other day or even once weekly,” Dr. Ovits says. “It’s always a good idea to test it first on a small area on the face to make sure your skin tolerates it well.”
“Apply your facial toner after cleansing the face and before you moisturize. This gives your skin a better pH balance, and therefore your moisturizer can be more effective,” suggests Stacy Chimento, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology in Miami. “Put the toner on a cotton ball or cosmetic pad and lightly spread it on your face, chest, and neck, and apply your moisturizer afterward.” While swiping it on, try to avoid the eyes and lips, Dr. Ovits says, or if you’re using a face toner mist, do so with eyes and mouth closed.
Face toner benefits
The magic of face toners is that they work well to support and aid in recovery from (and potentially prevent) a wide variety of skin woes. “Toners can now address a host of skin issues, including acne, dryness, and aging. Those formulated for acne-prone skin may include an astringent like witch hazel, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, niacinamide, and tea tree oil,” Dr. Ovits says. “For dry or sensitive skin, the ingredients to gravitate toward include hyaluronic acid, rosewater, chamomile, vitamin E, and aloe vera. The toners that are anti-aging can include antioxidants like vitamin C or coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) and retinol.”
Most often, face toners do any/all of the following important tasks, according to Dr. Chimento:
- Moisturize and hydrate
- Even out oil production
- Exfoliate the skin
- Minimize the appearance of pores
- Balance the pH levels of the skin
- Reduce acne
- Help remove dead cells off the skin’s surface, which leaves the skin glowing
“Facial toners may especially benefit those with acne-prone skin, oily skin, or those who wear makeup,” Dr. Chimento adds.
(Related: 13 Ways You’re Washing Your Face Wrong)
Types of face toner
There are a wide variety of toners available to suit individual needs. These tend to fall into three main categories, says Dr. Chimento:
- Exfoliating toners: Help keep the pores clean and remove roughness on the skin. These usually contain fruit enzymes or hydroxy acid.
- Treatment toners: Eliminate discoloration and excess oil. These normally feature salicylic acid or glycolic acid.
- Hydrating toners: Add an extra layer of moisture to the skin. These generally include glycerin or hyaluronic acid.
The best face toner ingredients (and ingredients to avoid)
“Ingredients are everything in choosing a toner; know your skin type and choose accordingly,” Dr. Ovits says. No matter what skin type you have, aim to avoid alcohol-based toners, such as facial astringents, as they intensely dry out the skin, she adds.
Follow this skin-specific face toner ingredient dos and don’ts from Dr. Ovits:
- Oily skin: Seek out salicylic and glycolic acid face toners that help balance out oil production.
- Sensitive skin: Try a combination of witch hazel and rosewater, which balance each other out nicely. Steer clear of (or use with caution) face toners that contain retinol or vitamin C, as they may cause irritation.
- Allergy- or irritation-prone skin: Avoid face toners with essential oils and plant extracts since they are frequent allergy culprits.
Top 3 face toners
Indie Lee CoQ-10 Toner
If you have dry skin, both Drs. Ovits and Chimento say you should consider investing in this mistable face toner from Indie Lee. One user raves, “is a keeper! My face feels hydrated and has a nice glow.” In addition to the CoQ-10 this face toner recipe includes hyaluronic acid, aloe vera, chamomile, and cucumber. “This is one of my favorites because it boosts hydration, soothes, and protects the skin. It also brightens the skin and removes leftover residue that may be on the skin,” Dr. Chimento says.
The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution
Another winner with both pros, this budget-friendly option contains glycolic acid, aloe vera, and ginseng “in a gently exfoliating product at a very inexpensive price,” Dr. Ovits says. It’s a “must-have” for Dr. Chimento since it improves uneven skin tone, reduces signs of aging, and wipes away dirt all while calming and hydrating the skin. One fan says The Ordinary face toner is far from ordinary: “Literally amazing! Cleared up my skin and made me glow in absolutely no time!”
Olehenriksen Balancing Force Oil Control Toner
Those with oily skin will likely enjoy this solution from Olehenriksen, Dr. Chimento says. It includes a blend of acids (salicylic, glycolic, and lactic acids) to refine pores and naturally antiseptic botanicals (green tea, eucalyptus, algae, and Irish moss extracts). “This unclogs pores, removes excess oil without stripping the skin of essential moisture and cleanses the face,” Dr. Chimento explains. “Since using this product in my regimen I have noticed a significant decrease in breakouts after daily use for a month,” one user says. “My previous hyperpigmentation has disappeared and it smells wonderful.”