Whether you’re a skin care newbie who is piecing together their first regimen or a product-wise pro, what in the heck toners are for remains one of life’s great mysteries.
Why is there so much confusion over a product that’s been around for decades? A few reasons.
Way back in the era of cold creams and non-rinsing cleansers, toners were used to wick away the layer of film left behind after makeup was removed. However, cleansers have evolved, and now do a much better job of actually cleansing your skin. (Thank goodness!)
The lack of a residual slick has made many feel like toner is no longer a useful intermediary product in between washing and moisturizing.
Another reason for the confusion? The term “toner” has been applied to dozens of different types of liquids throughout the years.
In the past, toners were mostly harsh astringents that claimed to suck the oil right out of your pores like a Texas tycoon. However, an even broader range of products claiming to be toners still on shelves today, including so-called skin refreshers. These are often expensive canisters of “purified” liquid, like those bottles of Evian water that were oh-so-trendy to pop into your Coach bag several years ago.
The sheer variety of different tonics that are sold under the label of “toner” has left many consumers in the dark as to what the product is supposed to do.
Finally, many so-called toners ingredients that are downright horrible for your skin. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in many first-time users experiencing irritation, dryness, or even an allergic reaction to unnecessary scents. (We’ll tell you what to watch out for shortly.)
Let’s Define “Toner”
Since we’ve mentioned so many reasons why shoppers are confused about toning products, let’s further narrow down our definition: A toner is a water-based liquid that’s swiped across your skin after cleansing, but before you add any product.
A toner isn’t a skin refresher, like those previously-mentioned aerosol sprays.
Additionally, a well-formulated toner isn’t something that includes astringents, such as alcohol and witch hazel, or fragrance.
Alcohol and witch hazel are particularly common in astringent-type toners that promise to target your pimples. These too-harsh ingredients don’t just cause irritation—they can actually damage your skin’s ability to repair itself and lessen your collagen production.
Scented toners, such as rose water or any tonic with essential oils, should also be avoided at all costs. Even natural perfumes can irritate your skin, causing allergic reactions, inflammation, and damage.
Why Tone Your Skin
Especially if you’re new to developing a personalized beauty routine, we understand the apprehension to invest in yet another product. However, toners can do a few great things for your skin with minimal effort.
Their main purpose is to restore your skin’s pH to an optimal, slightly-acidic 5.5 after washing, as cleansers sometimes create too much of a non-acidic environment. Why does pH matter? Because when your skin’s pH balance is off, it has a harder time fighting off bacteria. This can sometimes lead to breakouts.
Despite the lack of film left by today’s cleansers, Dr. Alicia Zalka, a Yale-affiliated dermatologist, confirms that toners can still be a complementary second step in the cleansing process:
“The benefit is that, when used correctly, it can help remove excess oils and dead skin cells that may lurk on the face after washing. To some extent a toner can help other skin applications penetrate more rapidly. However, this can be the case when one puts a product on moist skin (water can do this). It is a well-known fact that moist skin can better absorb topical products than dry skin. That is why certain products, such as retinol, come with instructions to apply to skin that is dry to avoid irritation from ‘over-penetration’ so to speak.” 
However, well-formulated toners aren’t all one in the same. Many boast beneficial ingredients that are targeted to help specific skin types. Here’s how to recognize which ingredients will best benefit yours:
How To Choose The Right Toner
In case it wasn’t clear above, we strongly recommend avoiding any toner that includes alcohol, witch hazel, or fragrance extracts. But, how to narrow down your choices beyond what should be left out? Here’s a breakdown by skin type:
Choosing a Toner For Dry & Sensitive Skin
Those with easily irritated skin should seek out a toner that reduces redness and flaking, leaving skin soothed and comfortable. Look for the terms replenish, repair, and calming in the name.
Ingredients should include built-in moisturizers such as aloe, glycerin, and vitamin E to moisturize. Or, look for cucumber and vitamin B5 to help fight inflammation and calm redness, while hydrating and soothing skin.
Choosing a Toner For Oily & Acne-Prone Skin
If you’re prone to breakouts, be extra careful when shopping for toners, as many of the formulas that claim to be specifically for your skin type contain the too-harsh astringents that we mentioned above.
Not only will alcohol and witch hazel make it harder for your current blemishes to heal, but they also stimulate additional oil production—the opposite of what your skin needs!
Instead, those with oily or acne-prone skin can choose one of two toning routes. If you live in a drier climate, consider a formula that includes exfoliating alpha hydroxy acids to help loosen the bonds that hold together dead skin cells on the surface of your skin, making clogged pores less apparent.
If you live where it’s extra-humid, consider testing out moisturizing toners like those suggested for dry and sensitive skin types to replace your lotion. This is only recommended in the evening, as toners can’t provide any sun protection. However, lightweight formulas can provide all the moisture your oily skin needs.
Choosing a Toner For Combination Skin
If your skin is oily and acne-prone across your forehead, nose, and chin and normal on cheeks and jaw, consider swiping only your troublesome T-zone with a toner meant for oily skin to help calm blemishes. You can then apply an oil-free moisturizer to your entire face that provides light hydration.
Choosing a Toner For Aging Skin
Toners really shine when it comes to delivering antioxidants and repairing ingredients. Many of these formulas include aloe, white or black tea. Alternately, anti-aging toners may include similar alpha hydroxy acids to what’s found in formulas aimed at acne-prone skin—these ingredients also encourage cell turnover and collagen production.
How to Use A Toner
The first step in your regimen should always be washing your face with a gentle cleanser that’s formulated for your skin type.
After you’ve cleansed your skin with warm water, saturate a cotton pad with the toner of your choice. Swipe the pad across your face, neck and décolletage both morning and night to complete the cleansing of your skin. Finish by applying the next step in your regimen.
Can You Make Your Own Toner?
To try and save on purchasing an additional skincare product, we researched DIY toner recipes. It’s easy to find instructions that sound natural and soothing using a base of cooled green tea or chamomile mixed with honey. However, many suggest adding in essential oils—this causes red flags to fly as scents just aren’t great for your skin. Remember, fragrance is not skin care!
While there’s probably nothing wrong with swiping green tea across your complexion, sleeping with even a diluted amount of honey sounds sticky and possibly unhygienic. Instead, it’s our opinion that the best way to see benefits from using a toner is to leave the formulation to cosmetic chemists.
Bottom Line: The Right Toner Helps Balance Your Skin
Hopefully, we’ve helped to clarify the many misconceptions that surround shopping for a toner and armed you with an understanding of which ingredients can provide optimal benefits for your skin type.
Since your skin is most receptive to absorbing ingredients right after washing, the right formula can go way beyond getting the extra grime out of your pores.
But no matter what a product’s label says, if swiping on a toner leaves your skin stinging, immediately step away! The formula is likely too harsh for your skin type and may cause further irritation.
Just remember to search for ingredients that address your skin’s current woes—not exacerbate problems of dryness or irritation.
Read Next: Learning to Take Great Care of Your Skin