The Science of Face Toner: What You Should Know

If you came of age in the early aughts, you might have shared a practically universal experience with face toner: “You may remember that horrible stinging sensation of applying a toner, and how you convinced yourself that it must mean it was working, says Fatima Fahs, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Michigan. “Toners back then typically contained high concentrations of alcohol, which was drying, irritating, and potentially worsened the state of your skin,” adds Rina Allawh, MD, board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in King of Prussia, PA. 

That was largely by design. “Toners were originally created to rebalance our skin’s pH back to slightly acidic,” says Dr. Fahs. “For some, toners might not be necessary now that cleansers are more gentle and pH balanced and if you’re following a consistent routine of daily cleaning, moisturizing, and wearing SPF.”

Toners were also used to provide deeper cleansing of build-up. But now that many are cleansing properly through double-cleansing at the end of the day anyway, the toner step has been reimagined to be the first leave-on treatment of your routine.

Instead of face toners losing their spot on your shelf, today’s versions are a lot more versatile than the OG formulas. In fact, the moisture-stripping formulas of the past are long-gone. “The focus of newer toners is away from astringent properties,” says Fahs. “Traditionally used to treat acne and reduce oiliness, toners have been reinvented to address multiple skin concerns, including dullness, antiaging, exfoliation, acne, hydration — and just about everything in between,” she says. 

In keeping with the K-Beauty philosophy, we’re all about layering hydration, too, which is why we consider hydrating toner to be an essential step in any skincare routine. Keep reading to learn more about how to use it, why you need it, and more from the pros. 

What is face toner?

Face toner is a lightweight liquid formula that looks a lot like water, but it features more hydrogen and oxygen molecules that quickly penetrate into your skin. Not only does it deliver a fast dose of hydration, “it’s used to sweep away dirt, excess oil, and makeup that may clog your pores,” says Dr. Allawh.

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It can also be packed with antioxidants like vitamin C, exfoliating acids like beta hydroxy acid, hyaluronic acid, tea tree oil, rose water, and other beneficial ingredients, depending on the toner. 

What does face toner do?

Just about every skin type can benefit from a good face toner — and, just like other skincare products, you can pick a toner that’s geared towards your specific skincare concerns. Here’s a breakdown of the most common perks:

It can help exfoliate

“Toners that contain an exfoliating acid can help brighten the skin and decrease oiliness,” says Dr. Fahs. Our Watermelon Glow Pore-Tight PHA+BHA Toner contains breakout-fighting BHAs (beta hydroxy acids) and gentle exfoliating PHAs (polyhydroxy acids). “PHAs are a larger molecule and therefore work on the top layer of skin to provide gentle exfoliation without causing irritation, while simultaneously working as a humectant to hydrate the skin,” she adds. 

It can replenish moisture

“Toners with hydrating ingredients like glycerin or hyaluronic acid can restore the skin barrier and seal in moisture,” says Dr. Fahs. Since we’re all about hydration, you’ll also find hyaluronic acid and glycerin in the Watermelon Glow Pore-Tight PHA+BHA Toner, as well as electrolyte-rich cactus water.

It can brighten skin

Want more of a targeted treatment? You’re in luck. “Vitamin C and ginger are antioxidants, and together they can help to brighten dull skin and improve the appearance of dark spots over time,” says Dr. Fahs. You can find both in Sweet Chef Bright Spot Tonic, which helps even out skin tone.

How do you use a toner?

It’s best to use a toner right after cleansing, as damp skin helps the active ingredients of your toner to penetrate better. It’s important to remember that although toners sweep away dirt and oil, they’re definitely not a replacement for washing your face. (Try Blueberry Bounce Gentle Cleanser or Papaya Sorbet Enzyme Cleansing Balm, or both, for that.)

Face toner is versatile, and different applications can benefit certain skin types. Here’s why.

The actual process of applying toner is straightforward: Some toners you can spritz directly onto your skin. For others, you soak a cotton pad and sweep it across your skin. Whichever way you choose, “it is very important to avoid rubbing, scrubbing as this may be irritating and worsen dry, sensitive skin,” Dr. Allawh says. “Take a systematic approach: Wipe each area of your face once, avoid repeatedly wiping in one area as this may over-exfoliate and further dry out the skin.”

When should you use toner?

Toners can be used in both your morning and night routines. Just make sure that if they have strong, active ingredients — especially ones with exfoliating properties — you may want to “start with using a toner two or three time a week and work your way up to daily use as tolerated,” says Dr. Allawh. The bonus of our Watermelon Glow Pore-Tight PHA+BHA Toner is that the hydrating ingredients offset any potential irritation, so you can use it twice a day.

How should your skin feel afterward?

As always with any new skincare product, patch test on a small area (like your neck) to make sure your skin won’t react negatively. “Overall, a toner should leave your skin refreshed, but not irritated. It should prime the skin to accept active ingredients in the remainder of your routine and help them penetrate,” says Dr. Fahs. “Depending on the ingredients, results can be immediate in terms of hydration, but it can take several weeks to see an improvement in skin tone and texture.”

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