What Does Toner Really Do for Your Skin?

Rebecca Norris
·4 mins read

What Does Toner Really Do for Your Skin?

Here's everything you need to know about this beauty product.

Take a look at your skincare routine. Does it involve a toner? If the answer is no, you likely believe that toner is only for oily, acne-prone skin types only. While that's long been the assumption, newer options on the market have proven that they're a beneficial addition to any beauty routine, and that's true whether you're shiny or dry. To understand out how and why toners are so effective, we tapped several experts to tell us everything they know about the product..

Getty / Petri Oeschger

Related: This Is Why Your Exfoliator Might Actually Be Doing More Harm Than Good

Toner 101

Toners are liquid products that, truthfully, were created to help manage oily, acne-prone skin. By patting on the liquid, users were able to remove excess oil, balance the skin's pH, and promote a healthier-looking visage. While toners with those very benefits still exist, New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner says that the latest iterations are also packed with a variety of anti-aging benefits, including brightening, hydrating, and collagen-stimulating effects.

What's more, award-winning researcher and clinical dermatologist Dr. Carl Thornfeldt notes that toners can also remove traces of dirt, oil, and makeup, making them a must-have step in any routine, as they ensure that skin is truly clear of debris, even after initial cleansing. "Finding the right toner can enhance the benefits of a regimen by nurturing and purifying the skin," he explains. Dr. Jennifer Chwalek, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in Manhattan, explains that toners are also effective prep products; by restoring the skin's pH and clearing away any leftover oil, dirt, or makeup, they promote better absorption of whatever other products you layer onto your face next.

Ingredients to Look For

As with all skincare products, the trick to maximizing any formula is to search for options made with complexion-boosting ingredients. This is especially important to note since traditional American toners (the ones consistently designed for oily, acne-prone skin) are often alcohol-based and include active ingredients like salicylic acid and witch hazel, which, says New York City dermatologist Dr. Hadley King, can be drying and irritating—even if aloe and glycerin are also part of the formula.

It's because of this—and the need for gentler options as a whole—that Korean beauty first started to take hold in the United States. "In Korean beauty, and in the newer generation of American skincare, toners are generally less harsh," Dr. King says, noting that they're now often called essences. "They're intended to prepare the skin for the next step. They can be either hydrating or exfoliating, but even the ones with active exfoliating ingredients are still designed to contribute to the moisture barrier of the skin, not detract from it."

Application Tips

It's just as important to understand when and how to put toners to good use: In sum, they can be applied whenever your skin needs a cleansing, hydrating, or oil-absorbing boost, though, they're best applied after face wash and before moisturizer. "Toners are an essential step in any skincare routine," Pomp esthetician Nicole Hatfield says. "When used after cleansing, they replenish essential nutrients and add beneficial ingredients back into the skin."

The exception? If you're using a toner made with exfoliating ingredients. Dr. King says that, in this case, it's best to use them only once per day, preferably at night, as many exfoliating acids can make skin more reactive to the sun when applied in the morning. Take caution, however, if you're combining an exfoliating toner with a retinoid product. "Remember, alpha and beta hydroxy acids can deactivate retinoids, so if you use a retinoid at night you should forgo a toner with these ingredients before applying the retinoid," she says. As for the actual application process? For the best results, Hatfield says to apply your toner with a cotton round. "Be sure to try and work in upward motions," she notes. "As a last step of your toning process, apply it around the hairline and behind the ears to cleanse those areas, as well."