Skin Toners Are Good, but Are They Necessary?

Key Points

  • Toners are not essential to balancing the pH levels of your skin.

  • Various types of this beauty product have different ingredients to serve different purposes. 

  • Toners are similar to essences but are not the same. 

  • They are not necessary to cleanse the skin, but some contain hydrating and blemish-fighting ingredients. 

Ready to bust a myth about toners? Some temporarily tighten skin, but they don't shrink or tighten pores as many believe. Pore size is genetically determined; nothing can change it.

Toners with chemical exfoliants can make your pores look smaller by clearing them of impurities like oil and dead skin cells. Some toners also even out your skin tone — the surface skin color.

Ready to learn more about toners?

Are Skin Toners Necessary?

Many dermatologists say toners are not necessary for your skincare routine. Beauty product manufacturers disagree.

In an era when harsh soaps threw off the skin's pH balance, toners were necessary to restore that balance. Toners also removed scummy residue left by the combination of lye-based soaps and hard water. 

21st century cleansers disrupt the skin's pH balance much less than 20th century face washes. Cleansers in 2023 are gentler, less irritating, and less drying than old school soaps.

Girl using skincare product

In short, toners are no longer necessary for pH balance and cleansing. 

Many skincare brands recognize those changes but still claim their products normalize the skin’s pH. Many have added ingredients to benefit the skin.

Research the toner's ingredients to ensure its formula targets your skin issues.

The Difference Between Toners and Essences

It’s hard to distinguish the differences between toners and essences because many use the terms interchangeably and some of the products have similar purposes. 

New York dermatologist Dr. Shereene Idriss, a leading expert in cosmetic procedures, says, “In a nutshell, toners and essences are different. Toners traditionally are astringent or chemical exfoliants that help to exfoliate the superficial layer of your skin whereas essences deliver a targeted active ingredient.”

Some people define essences as botanical-based skincare products. 

Toners are more of a Western culture thing; essences are more common in Eastern cultures. Both are merging in the worldwide skincare market.

Does Toner Clean Your Face? 

Although the toner usually follows cleansing, they aren't necessary for everyone because many cleansers leave no sticky film on the skin. These cleansers remove oil, dirt, and bacteria without over-stripping your skin’s natural moisture.

If your skin feels clean and fresh after using your face wash, it doesn’t make sense to use a toner to cleanse.

Some believe toners provide an extra cleanse and use them after cleansing to achieve a squeaky-clean complexion. A squeaky-clean face may mean you've over-cleansed — you’ve removed vital natural oils and healthy bacteria from your skin.

Skin toner for face

Adding toner with alcohol or other harsh ingredients can irritate and dry out the skin. 

When your face wash fails to remove all the grime and dirt from your face, switch to a better cleanser or try the double cleansing method. Double cleansing involves using face oils or micellar water first, then following with a cleanser to ensure you remove all the crud and makeup.

Another option is exfoliating a few times a week to remove dead skin buildup. 

As for pH balancing, Houston-based dermatologist Dr. Andrea Suarez – known as Dr. Dray on her YouTube videos – says “a moisturizer helps in normalizing the acid mantle and normalizing the skin barrier pH.”

In short, Suarez says toners are not necessary to clean your face or balance your skin’s pH levels. 

Can You Clean Your Skin With a Toner?

Although toners aren’t necessary for cleansing, some people still love them and find them useful.

Some toners remove impurities because they contain exfoliating agents to get rid of excess oils, dead skin cells, and other debris. To embrace this skincare step, substitute your exfoliator for an exfoliating toner. 

Switch cleansers if yours is not doing the job. There’s no need to add a toner to get the desired result.

Do you have too many skincare products irritating or drying out your skin? Take a break from your toner; you don't need it.

The fewer products in your skincare routine, the less risk of skin irritation. 

How To Pick a Face Toner

There are several types of toners and each type provides different benefits to the skin. There are hydrating toners, exfoliating toners, brightening toners, pH-balancing toners, anti-aging toners, and more. You get the idea. 

There are other skincare products to tackle your skin concerns, including serums, moisturizers, retinols/retinoids, and other skin-repairing treatments. Why opt for a hydrating toner when a hydrating moisturizer nourishes and quenches your skin?

Skin toner and cotton pad

There are also skin-specific toners for dry, oily, sensitive, combination, and normal skin. Pick a toner that suits your skin type and targets one of your skin concerns. Avoid toners with alcohol if you have sensitive skin

“Think of toners as a water-based product that is to be used after a cleanser if you are going to use it only if it is delivering an active to your skin that is not present in other steps of your skincare routine,” Dr. Idriss recommends.

How To Apply Toner on the Face 

Toners are usually the second skincare step after cleansing. Since some toners have exfoliating ingredients, avoid using other exfoliators during the same routine. It’s better to use one or the other or alternate between the two. Don't use these exfoliating products every day.

Some people use both exfoliants and toners one after the other, but pairing them may be irritating or drying for their skin.

To apply toner, dab the product on your face using your hands or cotton pads/balls. Dr. Dray recommends massaging the toner onto your face in a circular motion. 

When To Use A Toner: Day or Night? 

There is no hard-and-fast rule on whether it’s best to use a toner during the day or night. Deciding when to use a toner depends on its ingredients. Using a toner with green tea may be more beneficial to your skin in the morning, as this ingredient helps depuff the eyes to look more awake. Some people use toners both morning and night every day.

Avoid daily use of acid toners that serve as exfoliants because they may cause redness and irritation if used too frequently. Use an exfoliating toner no more than once or twice a week.

Not all acids are exfoliants. For example, hyaluronic acid does not exfoliate the skin and you can use it every day.

Your skin type also determines how often to use a toner. Oily skin types benefit from using an exfoliating toner three times a week. If your skin is ultra-sensitive or dry, use acid toners only once a week. 

How To Use Toner and Moisturizer 

Knowing how to layer skincare products in the right order is super important. Since toners are water-based products, always apply them after cleansing and before moisturizing. It should also come before your serums and skin treatments.

Applying skin toner to face

Applying a water-based product first maximizes their penetration into the skin. Applying a moisturizer first limits the toner’s absorption.

It’s recommended you apply skincare products from the lightest to heaviest or thinnest to thickest consistencies. 

It makes sense to apply a toner before moisturizing. If your toner has hydrating ingredients, it hydrates your skin if applied correctly. Following it with a moisturizer seals in hydration to ensure your face stays supple throughout the day or night.

How To Use Toner and Serum 

Some toners offer the same active ingredients as serums. It’s not ideal for skincare newbies to apply more than one active ingredient at the same time.

Applying several active ingredients to your face one after the other increases the risk of irritation and dryness. To limit irritation and sensitivity, use one in the morning and the other at night, or alternate between the two. 

How Do You Use Toner for Skin Clearing? 

Many skincare brands market toners for oily and acne-prone skin types. Toners aren't necessary to clear your skin. Cleansers with acne-fighting ingredients or over-the-counter retinoids may do the trick. Some toners with blemish-fighting ingredients make very lightweight acne treatments. 

Toners with exfoliating properties are beneficial to oily, acne-prone skin types because they help remove excess oils, bacteria, makeup, and other impurities that clog your pores and cause breakouts. Toners with glycolic acid, salicylic acid, lactic acid, or benzoyl peroxide help prevent and reduce acne blemishes. 

How Long Does It Take for Toner To Clear Your Skin?

No acne treatment clears your skin overnight – not even exfoliating toners. Everyone’s treatment results vary and some may see improvements faster than others. 

Using acid toners to unclog pores and prevent new breakouts can take several weeks to show results. If you don't see any improvement after several weeks of using a toner, try a stronger acne treatment. 

Using face toner

Best Toners for Healthy, Glowing Skin

Toners are not for everyone; they’re not even necessary in a daily skincare routine. Lightweight toners are a good alternative for skin that cannot tolerate skincare products with thick, heavy consistencies.

For instance, many hydrating toners don’t feel heavy on the skin, making them appealing to oily skin types. 

Selecting the best toner for your face depends on your skincare goals, needs, budget, and brand preference. Choose a toner that targets one of your skin problems.

Selecting a facial toner is challenging. There are many good skin toners available, but a few of the popular brands are Paula's Choice, The Inkey List, and Isntree.  

Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

This acid toner/exfoliant is the best-selling salicylic acid product from Paula's Choice. The active ingredient is a beta hydroxy acid that exfoliates dull skin, unclogs pores, and evens out skin tone and texture.

Salicylic acid reduces inflammation and oil production, making it an excellent product for acne-prone skin types. 

The Inkey List PHA Toner

This exfoliating toner dissolves dead skin build-up, improves the skin’s tone and texture, and makes fine lines and wrinkles less visible to give you a younger-looking complexion. The PHA (polyhydroxy acid) also hydrates the skin and retains moisture; it’s also excellent for sensitive skin types.

Suitable for all skin types, this product contains three percent niacinamide which combats hyperpigmentation, redness, inflammation, and free radical damage. This ingredient also reduces oil production, making it a great product for oily, acne-prone skin types. 

Isntree Green Tea Fresh Toner

This Korean skincare product is a hydrating toner that soothes and nourishes dry, dull skin. It contains antioxidant-rich green tea extract to reduce oxidative stress. It reduces pore-clogging bacteria and excess oil to ward off acne. It also reduces inflammation caused by skin conditions.

Some people refer to this product as an essence because of its 80 percent concentration of green tea. It’s best to apply this toner on damp skin to maximize absorption.

Unlike exfoliating toners, it is safe to use this product one or two times daily. 

Fresh's Rose & Hyaluronic Acid Deep Hydration Toner

Formulated with rosewater, this best-selling toner calms red, irritated skin. It also contains hyaluronic acid so your skin maintains a plump, hydrated appearance. The product provides all-day hydration. 

Not All Face Toners Are Created Equal 

Traditional toners are a thing of the past. Many experts note they are no longer essential for a healthy, effective skincare routine. Some people disagree and swear by these skincare products.

Don’t let anyone – especially skincare brands – convince you to buy a toner unless you know it delivers science-backed hydrating or skin-repairing ingredients proven to improve the condition of your skin. 

Girl with skin toner

Using too many active, irritating ingredients in your skincare routine does more harm than good. The fewer skincare products you use, the better — especially the “extra cleanse” varieties. 

Knowing the purpose of your skincare products before applying them to your face is vital to your skin's health. Always choose products suitable for your skin type. Choosing products blindly puts your skin at risk of irritation.

To prevent wasting money on unnecessary skincare products, learn which skin issues are reversible and which are permanent before buying a product promising treatment for your skin concerns. The skincare products others claim they can't live without might not be important or necessary for your skin.

Do your research to decide which beauty products are "helps" and which are "hypes."

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