If you’re at all into skin care, chances are you’ve heard of toners by now. But even a seasoned product devotee may not actually know how these formulas work. Allow board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick to explain: “A toner is a quick-absorbing liquid solution that’s applied to the skin, typically as a step after cleansing, to help remove any residual debris and bring the skin back to a naturally acidic state — as the process of cleansing can make the skin more alkaline depending on the type of surfactant used.”
For more context, most cleansers increase skin’s pH to above 6, and research shows that the ideal surface level of acidity should be at or below 5. Aside from balancing the skin’s pH levels, Garshick says toners may also include ingredients that help exfoliate and/or hydrate to prep skin for serums and moisturizers applied after. This brings us to two main types of toners: exfoliating and hydrating. Here’s the scoop on each, how they work, along with some of our favorites from both categories.
Hydrating vs. Exfoliating
When it comes down to it, the difference between exfoliating and hydrating toners is pretty straightforward: hydrating toners hydrate skin, and exfoliating toners exfoliate it. But how do they do so, exactly? “Hydrating toners tend to be formulated with ingredients such as humectants (like hyaluronic acid and glycerin), which work to draw moisture in, and other nourishing ingredients like rose water or niacinamide,” explains Garshick. Hydrating toners can feel especially nice on dry and sensitive skin types, because they often have a calming effect on top of being moisturizing.
On the flip side, exfoliating toners typically include ingredients designed to brighten and eliminate dead skin cells. “You’ll commonly see ingredients like alpha hydroxy acids, including glycolic acid and lactic acid, as well as beta hydroxy acids like salicylic acid, which is especially good for those with oily or acne-prone skin, because it helps unclog pores,” says Garshick. She adds that some exfoliating toners also contain witch hazel, which, depending on the specific formulation, can help remove excess oil without leaving skin dry or irritated. Unlike hydrating toners, which tend to be very gentle, exfoliating toners can be stripping if they’re used incorrectly. (More on that, ahead.)
How Often Should You Use Them?
According to Garshick, hydrating toners can be used one to two times a day, because they’re purely meant to hydrate and calm and don’t contain any harsh actives. If you have dry or sensitive skin, she says you should limit your use of exfoliating toners to just a few times a week in order to minimize the risk of any potential adverse reactions. Moreover, overdoing it with exfoliating toners can strip the skin and in turn comprise your protective barrier, leading to increased sensitivity and the inability of skin to defend against environmental aggressors. “Some toners that contain a combination of exfoliating and hydrating properties may be able to be used daily if tolerated,” adds Garshick, though she says you should always patch test first to be sure.
For application, exfoliating toners are best used with a cotton pad, as this can further help with breaking down dead skin cells, while hydrating toners can be applied directly with your hands. Both should be applied right after cleansing — however, if you’re already using a face wash spiked with acids, you should be wary about using an exfoliating toner on top of that. Always listen to your skin, and when in doubt, opt for hydration over exfoliation.
Toners We Love
Not sure where to start when it comes to shopping for a toner? Here are some great options.
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Infused with skin-nourishing ingredients like aloe and bamboo, this formula is free of drying alcohols and helps deliver a smoother, softer complexion.
As the name implies, this toner contains rose water to hydrate and soothe skin, and it also helps remove excess makeup and buildup.
Designed specifically with darker skin types in mind, this lactic acid toner helps to gently exfoliate and address dark spots and uneven skin tone. Additionally, it contains vitamin C for its antioxidant benefits.
Spiked with glycolic acid, this toning solution helps to brighten and eliminate dead skin cells. It also contains aloe vera to help soothe, as well as ginseng root to help reduce irritation and boost radiance.
Salicylic acid is the star of this toner, making it especially ideal for those with oily and acne-prone skin.