For anyone that came of age in the '90s or early '00s, an astringent toner was probably a part of your acne-centric teenage skincare routine. And you likely thought the stinging sensation that came afterwards was just a part of the process for clearer skin.
Thankfully, toners, like the rest of your skincare routine, have evolved over the years. Today, many toners are alcohol-free, and instead, are used to refresh and treat the skin before you apply the rest of your serums and creams — without making you extra dry.
One such example is exfoliating toners, which are infused with chemical exfoliants such as AHA and BHA acids, which help to loosen and break up the dead skin cells clogging your pores, while also minimizing dark spots, and improving overall skin texture and tone. These formulas often include soothing and hydrating ingredients to balance out the exfoliation.
"The use of a toner can have the added benefit of mechanical removal of skin debris," says Dr. Melanie Palm, board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon in San Diego, Calif. "Simple application of a skincare product such as a serum does not lift off dull skin cells."
Dr. Palm also notes that a toner can help balance pH level for the skin microenvironment.
When choosing an exfoliating toner, it's important to consider your skin type and its needs. Dr. Palm says that those concerned with aging can benefit from using a formula with AHAs such as lactic or glycolic acids.
Acne-prone skin can see an improvement with BHAs such as salicylic acid, or a combination of both AHAs and BHAs. As for sensitive skin types, they may fair well with PHA acids, which are larger in molecular size and more gentle on the skin. The same goes for mandelic acid, an ingredient that is great for rosacea or redness.
While an exfoliating toner can be used daily, it's best to introduce it slowly into your routine to prevent irritation. And if you have sensitive skin, Dr. Palm recommends using a liquid exfoliant once or twice a week at first to gauge how your skin handles it. She adds that if you are using anti-aging products such as retinoids or retinol, gradually start to use the toner over a period of days to weeks. But when in doubt, follow the usage instructions on the back of the bottle.
Finally, don't expect clear, brighter skin over night.
While you may see some instant improvement, like a bit of a glow, it can take much longer to experience the full benefits of incorporating an exfoliating toner into your skincare routine.
VIDEO: When You Apply Sunscreen in Your Skincare Routine Actually Matters A Lot
When You Apply Sunscreen in Your Skincare Routine Actually Matters A Lot
And make sure it's at least SPF 30
"It takes 30 full days for the epidermal layer of the skin to turn over," says Dr. Palm. "Therefore, I tell most patients to use a new topical product for two to three months (two to three cycles of epidermal turnover) to gauge response by the skin to active ingredients. However, many patients may notice changes prior to the three month mark."
Now that your crash course in exfoliating toners is over, we've rounded up the best ones for every skin type and concern, from acne to hyperpigmentation.
CORSX Refresh AHA BHA Vitamin C Daily Toner
On top of clearing clogged pores, CORSX's toner contains brightening ingredients vitamin C and niacinamide to help minimize dark spots and boost your overall glow.
To buy: $27; amazon.com.
Good (Skin) Days Prime Time Cleansing Toner
Good (Skin) Days, the newest in-house brand from K-beauty e-tailer Soko Glam, is a must for anyone who wants the benefits of an exfoliating toner, but is concerned about potential dryness or irritation. Antioxidant maple extract and anti-inflammatory Damascus rose water soothe and nourish skin while pumpkin and papaya enzymes provide gentle exfoliation to remove buildup from pores.
To buy: $18; sokoglam.com.
Farmacy Deep Sweep 2% BHA Pore Cleaning Toner with Moringa + Papaya
Farmacy is another skincare brand that harnesses the power of superfruit papaya in its liquid exfoliant. In this formula, the enzyme is paired with 2% salicylic acid, a tried-and-true chemical exfoliant, plus moringa, for squeaky-clean pores. Together, these ingredients also help control excess oil, too.
To buy: $28; sephora.com.
Bliss Clear Genius Clarifying Toner + Serum
Not quite as thick as a serum, but not quite as watery as a toner, Bliss' hybrid treatment gives you the best of both worlds. Salicylic acid, witch hazel, and niacinamide tackle swollen, congested pores, while zinc tackles oil, and cica soothes skin to minimize dryness and irritation.
To buy: $18; amazon.com.
Krave Beauty Kale-Lalu-yAHA
If uneven skin texture and hyperpigmentation are your two major skincare concerns, Krave Beauty's green juice-inspired liquid exfoliant is for you. Glycolic acid dissolves dirt, oil, and residue that's chilling in your pores while hyaluronic acid and kale simultaneously soothe and hydrate skin.
To buy: $25; kravebeauty.com.
Peter Thomas Roth PRO Strength 10% PHA Exfoliating Clarifying Liquid
Don't let the name of this toner intimidate you. While Peter Thomas Roth's liquid exfoliant contains a whopping 10% PHA acid, this chemical exfoliant effectively — yet gently — clears pores and gets rid of excess oil without over-drying skin. While any skin type will get results with this toner, the combination of PHA with AHA and BHA acids will especially benefit acne-prone skin, from healing current blemishes to minimizing post-breakout hyperpigmentation.
To buy: $58; sephora.com.
Versed Weekend Glow Daily Brightening Solution
The Versed Weekend Glow Daily Brightening Solution has an all-star lineup of exfoliants including lactic and glycolic acids. It's an especially good choice for anyone who struggles with post-breakout dark spots and inflammation, thanks to brightening kojic and azelaic acids. While this toner is gentle enough to use morning and night, just make sure you apply sunscreen if you use it in the morning, since chemical exfoliants can cause sun sensitivity. Additionally, Versed is a great option if you're looking for an effective liquid exfoliant that won't break the bank — it comes in at under $20.
To buy: $18; dermstore.com.
Summer Fridays Soft Reset AHA Exfoliating Solution
With lactic acid, glycolic acid, and niacinamide, this powerful exfoliating toner from Summer Fridays is a triple threat. The two AHA acids work on declogging pores and refining skin texture and tone, while niacinamide aids in reducing the appearance of pores and further clarifying skin for a more radiant finish.
To buy: $54; sephora.com.