Exfoliating Toners: What You Need To Know

After what feels like an eternity of scrubs and pads as our go-to exfoliants, our skincare regimens are quietly experiencing a coup. Exfoliating toners, once relegated to the realm of the utterly extraneous, have become totally vital.    

Why? Well, for starters, there isn’t a skin type or concern that won’t benefit from the use of a well-formulated exfoliating toner. “Skin texture and tone will be improved, clogged pores diminished—if not eliminated—and discolorations from sun damage and acne can all be minimized with daily use of an exfoliating toner,” explains Bryan Barron, Research and Content Director of Beautypedia.

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They should be layered on first, according to Dr. Neal Schultz, a dermatologist and the founder of BeautyRx. “Having the exfoliating ingredient in a light formula allows for layering and also helps it to be immediately absorbed,” says Schultz. “By being quickly absorbed, it works faster to jump-start the exfoliation process of dissolving the ‘glue’ that holds the retained excess dead cells on.”

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Schultz says daily application is important, especially at bedtime, post-cleansing. He recommends using an exfoliating toner in the morning, then combining a sunscreen layered over a glycolic product to provide optimum chemical exfoliation.

As for ingredients, Schultz prefers a glycolic acid-infused formula to salicylic acid, since there’s a wider range of strengths available. His favorites are NeoStrata Oily Skin Solution (8% glycolic) and his own BeautyRx Essential 8% Exfoliating Serum. Barron maintains you should choose glycolic acid if you have normal-to-dry skin with signs of sun damage and uneven tone. Salicylic acid, he says, is better if you have normal-to-oily skin that’s prone to breakouts, clogged pores, and redness. He recommends Paula’s Choice Resist Daily Pore-Refining Treatment with 2% BHA.

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If you like the convenience of a pre-soaked pad to a toner and cotton ball combo, Barron suggests looking for an alcohol-free solution. “Look out for ‘alcohol denat’ or ‘denatured alcohol’ on the label,” he says. “That’s the bad kind of alcohol that can lead to dryness and irritation.”

So, should you toss your beloved apricot scrub with wild abandon or can it still be incorporated into your skin-care mix? Schultz believes “chemical exfoliation is far superior to physical exfoliation like scrubs and cleansing brushes.” He notes that with the versatility and wide range of glycolic exfoliants, sufficient exfoliation can be achieved without the scrubbing action.

And, he adds, be careful about combining physical and chemical exfoliants. “If in fact, you have achieved that optimum exfoliation, additional physical exfoliating can only cause irritation and put your skin out of balance.” Turns out too much of a good thing isn’t so great for your skin.