To tone or not to tone: It’s a question that’s up for debate even within the dermatology community. “Honestly, you will get a different opinion depending on who you ask,” says Rachel E. Maiman, a board-certified dermatologist at Marmur Medical in New York.
“Proponents of toners say that they offer a gentler alternative to cleansing in the morning, especially for people with sensitive skin for whom washing twice a day can be too much,” she explains. “Another argument for using toner is that it can help prep the skin for serums and moisturizers by getting rid of any excess oil or dirt that a cleanser may have missed.”
That said, not all toners are created equal. Some toners are alcohol-based or have a high alcohol content, which according to Maiman, “has the potential to cause significant irritation by stripping the skin of excessive moisture and deplete its lipid barrier.”
If you have oilier skin (which, if you’re reading this, we’re going to assume you do), you should be able to tolerate a slightly more astringent toner but keep an eye on the active ingredients (more on that later) and their strength, as too much of a good thing can backfire.
As Maiman explains: “Excessively drying out the skin will cause a paradoxical increase in the amount of oil produced, which can cause disregulation of the sebaceous gland and trigger more acne.” In sum, getting rid of too much oil from your skin will cause it to produce more oil, which can lead to breakouts.
Got it doc, so what exactly is a toner and what are the benefits of using one?
“A toner is a fast-penetrating liquid that works to hydrate the skin and remove dead skin cells off the surface of the skin,“ explains Marina Peredo, a board-certified dermatologist in New York.
“Toners can have any number of intended purposes, depending on the composition of the specific product, which may include anything from acids, glycerin, antioxidants and anti-inflammatories,” adds Maiman. “Most toners are meant to remove any last traces of cleanser and the day’s debris. Others are also meant to balance pH, thereby restoring your skin’s natural acid mantle. Some have astringent properties that tighten pores and control excess oil.”
How do you pick the right toner for oily skin?
“If you have oily skin, a toner with antibacterial and exfoliating properties is ideal, as it will absorb excess oil, remove dead skin cells and prevent breakouts,” says Peredo. To that end, Maiman recommends looking for toners that contain salicylic acid (BHAs), alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic, lactic and mandelic acid or witch hazel.
Are there any specific ingredients to avoid in toner?
Alcohol. “Alcohol can strip the skin of the natural lipids it needs to support the barrier, which is one of the skin's main immune functions,” says Maiman. “Alcohols can appear in ingredient lists with any number of names, which can make it hard to recognize. Look for words like ethanol, denatured alcohol, ethyl alcohol, methanol, benzyl alcohol, and isopropyl alcohol,” she adds.
How do you incorporate toner into your skincare routine?
“Toners should always be used right after cleansing and I recommend including them in both the day and night routines,” instructs Maiman.
As for the order of things, “use toner after cleansing and exfoliating the skin (on days where you’re exfoliating), but before you apply any serum, moisturizer or oil,” advises Peredo.
You can either apply the toner by dispensing a few drops onto a cotton pad and gently sweeping it across your face and neck or tap it directly onto your skin using your fingertips. According to Maiman, it’s all a matter of personal preference.
Can you still use a toner when using different actives like retinol?
“It depends on your skin type, and again, the ingredients in the toner,” says Peredo. “Active ingredients such as retinol can dry out the skin, so I don’t recommend using them at the same time as a toner unless there is no alcohol in the formula, and it also has hydrating ingredients (like glycerin or hyaluronic acid) so you don’t further irritate the skin.”
Maiman agrees, adding that skin tolerance to products is largely dependent on skin type. “Oily skin is typically much more resilient and generally able to better tolerate irritating ingredients. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that most people with oily skin will be able to use a hydroxy acid toner daily (and even twice daily) and still use a nighttime retinol without any issues.”
However, say you have combination or sensitive skin. In that case, even if you are oily in certain areas of your face, you should still exercise caution. “I don’t recommend using a hydroxy acid toner more than one to two times weekly, and on those days, it may be best to omit nighttime retinol use or only use the toner in the morning,” says Maiman.
A final note from Maiman: “A bit of trial and error may be required to figure out what your skin can tolerate. It’s always a good idea to do a small patch test on the outer cheek before using a skincare product on your entire face.”
OK, now that you’re well-versed on toners, let’s shop some of our derm’s top picks (as well as a few of our favorites) ahead.
1. CosRx AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner
Thanks to the mist-on formula, this skin clarifying toner can be used all over your face and anywhere your hands can’t reach—like your mid back, where bumps often form. AHA and BHA keep pores clear, while allantoin soothes and softens.
2. Thayers Alcohol-Free Witch Hazel Facial Toner
According to Peredo, Thayers Rose Petal Witch Hazel Toner is a classic. “It’s alcohol-free and has calming ingredients like aloe vera and rose water to soothe your skin. It’s also easy to find in most drugstores and affordable,” she shares.
3. Olehenriksen Glow2OH Dark Spot Toner
“Another one of my favorites is Olehenriksen’s Glow2OH Dark Spot Toner. It’s great for brightening up dark spots and dull skin and it works for all skin types—whether you have normal, dry, combination or oily skin,” says Peredo. “I also love that it is cruelty-free, paraben-free and very lightweight.”
4. True Botanicals Clear Nutrient Toner
For the breakout-prone, this clarifying toner helps regulate excess oils and unclog pores without being astringent or stripping in the slightest. Black willow bark extract (a natural source of salicylic acid) clears up any acne-causing offenders, while sandalwood and olive leaf extract calm and soothe skin.
5. PrimaSkin Nano-Formulated Skin Solution
“PrimaSkin makes one of my favorite toners because of the innovation used in its nano technology, which allow the active ingredients to go deeper into the skin” says Peredo. “It’s formulated with glutathione, which is one of the best antioxidants and a great anti-inflammatory ingredient,” she adds. (We like that it comes in a fine mist for easy application.)
6. Ole Henrikson Balancing Force Oil Control Toner
“This toner contains three hydroxy acids to exfoliate the skin, clear pores and reduce sebum production. It also contains witch hazel to help tighten pores and further reduce oil. Botanical ingredients like green tea, eucalyptus and algae mitigate any potential irritation and provide a boost of antioxidants,” shares Maiman.
7. Neogen Dermalogy Bio-Peel Gauze Peeling Pads
Each pad features three layers of textured cotton and gauze mesh to efficiently sweep away sebum, dirt and dead skin cells. Plus, they’re soaked in a Vitamin C rich serum and lemon extract, which, in addition to smelling great, leaves your skin radiant. Fans love that the pads are “easy to use” and “convenient,” praising them for being more effective and much less messy than scrubs.
8. First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Wild Oat Hydrating Toner
“This alcohol-free toner is super soothing and an excellent choice for those with hypersensitive skin,” says Maiman. “It contains colloidal oatmeal and wild oats to help soothe distressed skin and repair your skin barrier. It’s one of my absolute favorites for daily use.”
9. Pixi Glow Tonic
Not to hit you over the head with it but keeping up with regular exfoliation is key when it comes to preventing future breakouts. To help slough off any dead skin (which can get trapped in the mix with oil, sebum and keratin and clog your pores), simply swipe this toner over clean skin. Made with five percent glycolic acid and aloe vera, it’s strong enough to get the job done without being overly irritating.
10. Ren Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Toner
As the name implies, this toner is meant to give you a “ready steady glow.” It’s not a quick fix; rather, it keeps your skin in the clear with continued use (which is why we always keep a bottle on hand). The crisp citrus scent offers a nice pick-me-up, while the lactic acid and willow bark extract unclog pores and azelaic acid brightens. We also like the push-pump top because it dispenses a modest amount of tonic without any of the accidental spills or overpouring that can happen with liquids.
11. Fresh Rose & Hyaluronic Acid Deep Hydration Toner
“I like this toner because it manages to effectively tone the skin without using any astringents,” says Maiman. “It also contains a hefty amount of rosewater and rose flower oil which soothe, hydrate and nourish your skin.”
12. Farmacy Deep Sweep 2% BHA Pore Cleaning Toner
This toner proves that alcohol-free doesn’t mean less effective. With two percent BHA and moringa water, this gentle toner whisks away all traces of oil on and beneath the surface of your skin to prevent future blackheads and breakouts.
13. Kiehl’s Blue Astringent Herbal Lotion
One of the OGs for oil-busting, this pretty blue toner came onto the scene in 1964 and has remained a steady constant for many because of the way it keeps extra sebum in check without causing irritation.
14. Origins Zero Oil Pore Purifying Toner with Saw Palmetto and Mint
Though you can’t change the size of your pores, you can make them appear smaller by keeping them clear. This minty fresh toner gets the job done (and then some) thanks to salicylic acid, which dissolves excess oils and any residual gunk in a few sweeps. Bonus: The mint adds a cooling sensation that’s especially refreshing on a muggy summer day.
15. Bliss Clear Genius Clarifying Toner + Serum
This toner-serum hybrid swiftly clears pores with salicylic acid and witch hazel, while niancinamide and cica brighten and soothe skin. Given its myriad benefits, you can now skip a step in your routine (and save counter space while you’re at it).