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What Exactly Is Toner—and Should I Be Using One?

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Photo by Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images

The use of toner in skincare is often still a highly debated topic: While some people swear by it, others steer clear of the stuff. Much of the polarization has to do with those harsh, alcohol-based solutions you may have used back in the ’90s and early ’00s. Although that style of toner can definitely irritate and dry out your skin, the best toners available now are much gentler and targeted for all different kinds of skin types.

Toner can be an incredibly useful and valuable tool to have in your skincare routine when you find the right formula for you. You can think of it like the last step in cleansing, as it removes any residual dirt, grime, makeup, or sunscreen that your facial cleanser didn’t quite get. Toner also balances the skins pH and brings it back to a neutral state. By using a toner tailored to your specific skintype and skin concerns - you’re letting your skin get a head start on amazing benefits and making the most out of every step.

With the expertise of board-certified dermatologist Jennifer Herrmann, MD, and esthetician Nicole Baylock, we’ve put together this guide to break down what toner is and how to use it like a pro. We've also included 10 of our favorite formulas—a few of which are Ipster favorites from past Glam Bags.


About the Expert:

Jennifer Herrmann, MD, is a board-certified, dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon based in Los Angeles, California.
Nicole Baylock is a Washington, DC based esthetician and content-creator. She’s passionate about K-Beauty and providing her audience with routines to make them feel comfortable in their own skin.

So, what exactly is toner?

The category of "toner" can actually refer to a range of products that serve different purposes for your skin. “There are different toner formulations that work for different skin types. Some toners focus on deep hydration and others focus on oil control,” says Nicole.

Toner is often used as a catch-all term for any skincare product with a water-like consistency; sometimes it goes by other names like tonic, essence, or exfoliating acid.

Dr. Herrmann explains, “Toners were more important in the past to help restore the natural skin's pH after cleansing. Because most cleansers aren't so harsh anymore, restoring pH is less relevant." 

However, toning isn't just about restoring pH levels. It can also be the secret sauce your routine may need to finally get those results you've been after. Continue reading below to discover what this skincare essential can do. 

What Can Toner Do for My Skin?

Still not sure what toner can do for you? Here are a few of the product's biggest benefits: 

1. It can target specific skin concerns. 

Similar to the best serums, toners are often packed with a specific set of active ingredients designed to target specific skin concerns. Depending on the formula, facial toner can be used to do anything from brighten to boost hydration to minimize the appearance of pores.

2. It’s great for acne-prone skin.

Herrmann says toners are often super beneficial if you're looking to prevent breakouts. “For some skin conditions like acne, toners that include ingredients like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid can help fight acne-causing bacteria and lightly exfoliate, which can be helpful," she says.

3. It can remove extra dirt and grime. 

Sometimes, even when you think your go-to cleanser has removed all traces of dirt, grime, and makeup, a little bit is still left behind. Toners do a great job of removing any remaining impurities while also infusing your skin with additional benefits. 

How to Use Toner Like a Pro

Ready to apply? Here are a few expert tips.

1. Apply it after cleanser. 

Toner should always be applied immediately after cleansing. “After cleansing, our skin needs to be returned to a balanced pH of 4.5-5.5,” says Nicole.

A good rule of thumb is that skincare products should be applied lightest to heaviest (with the exception of SPF, which always comes last). Because of its water-like consistency, toner is meant to be applied immediately after cleanser and before serums, moisturizers, and oils. 

2. Adjust the frequency depending on the ingredients. 

If you're using a super gentle toner that focuses on hydration, you can most likely use it daily. However, if your toner includes stronger active ingredients like AHAs or BHAs, "it shouldn't be used more often than a couple of times weekly," Herrmann says. Be sure to check the product's directions for more detailed instructions on exactly how often to apply.

3. Use a cotton pad. 

In general, the best way to apply toner is by using a clean cotton pad or cotton ball (bonus points if you use clean reusable cotton pads!). Soak the pad or ball with toner and gently wipe it around your face from your T-zone outward. Always start off small and add more if you need—with toners, a little goes a long way. 

4. If you have sensitive skin, dilute the toner with water. 

If your skin is sensitive or the toner is particularly strong, try soaking your cotton pad in water first and then applying a bit of toner to the pad to dilute the solution. Over time, as your skin acclimates to the formula, you can slowly phase out the water so that you eventually are applying the toner directly onto a dry cotton pad. 

5. Look for alcohol-free formulas. 

When you're on the hunt for the perfect toner, make sure you scan the ingredient label to check that it's alcohol-free. "Alcohol is always drying for the skin," says Herrmann. "It injures and disrupts the skin's natural barrier, leaving it more prone to redness and irritation and chemical environmental allergens and irritants."

The 8 Best Toners for Every Skin Concern

Not sure how to find the right toner for your skin type and biggest skin concerns? Here are eight of our favorite formulas to help you start your search. 

1. Best for All Skin Types:

GLOW RECIPE Watermelon Glow PHA+ BHA Pore-Tight Toner

GLOW RECIPE Watermelon Glow PHA+ BHA Pore-Tight Toner

This cult-favorite face toner is made for all skin types and does a little bit of everything: It hydrates, tightens pores, and gently exfoliates the skin. Watermelon extract moisturizes and improves the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots, while amino acid-rich cactus water helps skin to better retain moisture. Then, polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) resurface and smooth skin and remove dead skin cells, beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) penetrate the purify and decongest pores, and cucumber soothes. This is a multitasking toner if we've ever seen one.  

"This toner is fantastic," says one Ipster. "I felt an immediate softness of my skin the first time. Love the packaging, product, and the texture. Great on my oily, acne-prone skin."

2. Best Exfoliating Toner for Sensitive Skin

good light Moon Glow Milky Toning Lotion

good light Moon Glow Milky Toning Lotion
Courtesy of GOOD LIGHT

“For sensitive and acne-prone skintypes, I recommend using a hydrating toner with gentle amounts of chemical exfoliating ingredients, says Nicole.

Not only does the good light Moon Glow Milky Toning Lotion contain gentle fruit acids, it uses mandelic acid (a gentle AHA) to slough away dead skin cells. But exfoliating isn’t this toner’s main gig. Above all, the Moon Glow Milky Toning Lotion is lightweight (feels like water!) but is insanely hydrating thanks to snow mushroom and ceramides. This unique toner is suitable for everyday use but we suggest you start with 2-3 a week as you introduce it into your routine.

3. Best Toner for Acne-Prone Skin:

FARMACY BEAUTY Deep Sweep Pore Cleaning 2% BHA Toner

FARMACY BEAUTY Deep Sweep Pore Cleaning 2% BHA Toner
Courtesy of FARMACY BEAUTY

As Dr. Hermmann says, toner can be a total game changer for acne-prone skin—but you want to make sure you find a formula that treats breakouts without stripping your skin of its natural moisture. This alcohol-free toner does just that. Made with a BHA blend of salicylic acid and papaya enzymes, it gently exfoliates and deeply cleanses to keep pores clear, healthy, and as breakout-free as possible. 

4. Best for Oily Skin:

SUNDAY RILEY Martian Mattifying Melting Water-Gel Toner

SUNDAY RILEY Martian Mattifying Melting Water-Gel Toner

Looking for something to help control shine and oil production throughout the day? This innovative formula miraculously transforms from a gel texture into a mattifying water once it comes into contact with your skin, infusing it with a blend of ingredients perfect for oily skin types. Bentonite clay, green tea, witch hazel, and marshmallow extract all help to tame redness, control excess oil, and tighten pores. The result: a shine-free complexion that will last all day long.

"Absolutely one of my favorite products ever," says one Ipster. "Worked great on my oily acne-prone skin." 

5. Best Hydrating Toner for Dewy Skin

Belif Aqua Bomb Hydrating Toner

Belif Aqua Bomb Hydrating Toner
Courtesy of BELIF

If you’re looking for an simple yet effective, hydrating toner, you need to look into the Belif Aqua Bomb Hydrating Toner. It’s the beloved cousin to the cult-followed Aqua Bomb Moisturizer and it does not disappoint. Ideal for everyday use and if you’re after dewy, glass skin like that of Hailey Bieber’s. It’s lightweight and works for all skin types.

6. Best Toner for Discoloration:

PIXI Vitamin C Tonic

PIXI Vitamin C Tonic
Courtesy of PIXI

If you're not already all-in on vitamin C skincare, here's an easy way to weave it into your routine. Swipe this alcohol-free toner all over your face and neck to infuse this multitasking antioxidant into the skin. While it reduces dark spots and discoloration, it also forties the skin's moisture barrier and gently exfoliates for your smoothest, most even complexion yet. 

Want to double up on the benefits of this multitasking ingredient? Try following this toner with a vitamin C serum

7. Best for Dry Skin:

FRESH Rose & Hyaluronic Acid Deep Hydration Toner

FRESH Rose & Hyaluronic Acid Deep Hydration Toner
Courtesy of FRESH

Offer your skin a little bit of luxury with this rose-fueled, hydrating toner. While hyaluronic acid plumps, hydrates, and supercharges any moisturizers you apply afterward, toning rose fruit extract, soothing rosewater, nourishing rose oil, and real floating rose petals treat your skin to a multitude of benefits. Not to mention all that rose makes this formula smell like a dream. 

8. Best Brightening Toner:

GOOD MOLECULES Niacinamide Brightening Toner

GOOD MOLECULES Niacinamide Brightening Toner
Courtesy of GOOD MOLECULES

This affordable, alcohol-free toner features niacinamide as its hero ingredient. This skincare superstar can visibly minimize the look of pores, improve the appearance of uneven skin tone, and diminish dullness for a smoother, more radiant complexion overall. Use it morning or night for a welcome boost of brightness. 

9. Best Toner for Fine Lines:

ELEMIS Pro-Collagen Marine Moisture Essence

ELEMIS Pro-Collagen Marine Moisture Essence
Courtesy of ELEMIS

This ultra-moisturizing skin toner is clinically proven to double your skin's moisture content, effectively plumping the skin and minimizing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. These highly hydrating abilities are thanks to three deeply restorative hero ingredients: Padina pavonica (a type of algae known to support the feeling of hydration), ELEMIS' Flash Filler Hyaluronic Acid (a specially designed type of hyaluronic acid that dramatically plumps), and a multi-mineral active blend which encourage skin vitality for a youthful glow.

10. Best Exfoliating Toner:

YOUTH TO THE PEOPLE Kombucha + 11% AHA Exfoliation Power Toner

YOUTH TO THE PEOPLE Kombucha + 11% AHA Exfoliation Power Toner
Courtesy of YOUTH TO THE PEOPLE

This evening toner is designed to make your beauty sleep work overtime. While a powerful combination of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) like lactic acid and glycolic acid gently slough away dead skin cells and rough patches, a blend of prebiotics keeps the skin's microbiome expertly balanced. Use this during your p.m. routine to wake up to looking well-rested and radiant—even if you only managed to get a few hours of sleep. 

Want to find all the best products for your skin type? Take our Beauty Quiz now to get started. Already an Ipster? Refer your friends to earn points, which you can use toward products. Either way, don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and Twitter @IPSY.

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About the author
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Cortney Clift
Cortney is a New York-based freelance writer who has written about beauty and wellness for more than six years. She was previously the senior writer and special projects editor at Brit + Co where she covered a wide range of news and lifestyle topics.
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Article Last Updated August 4, 2022 12:00 AM