Toners used to have a bad reputation. In the past, they were formulated and packed with astringent ingredients (which helps remove oil from the skin). This is the reason why toners of the past were mostly harsh and overly drying to virtually every skin type except the most oily ones.
In the recent years, toners have made a comeback in the skincare industry as next-gen hydrators with a focus on humectant ingredients to give skin the needed boost of hydration instead of drying it out.
In this article, we're going to share everything you need to learn about toners to guide you in choosing the best one for you.
What is a Toner?
Toners, commonly referred to as “skin” in Korea, are skincare products designed to provide the skin hydration that was lost during the cleansing process. They also prep the skin for the next products that will be layered in the skincare routine, for better absorption and efficacy.
In the past, applying a toner means performing an extra step of cleansing, hence the use of ingredients such as astringents or alcohol. “They were formulated to suck up oil and strip the skin—something that we know can lead not only to dry, dehydrated skin, but also trigger acne by tricking the body into thinking it needs to make more sebum,” says Deanne Mraz Robinson M.D., a dermatologist in Westport, CT. “Fast forward to 2020. There are alcohol-free formulations available that have therapeutic benefits—hydration, exfoliation, et cetera—versus solely stripping the skin.”
In Korean skincare in particular, toners are designed to be the first layer of hydration, which comes after the double cleansing method (oil cleansing followed by water-based cleansing). Read more about double cleansing here.
But what exactly does a toner do?
It depends on the formula of your toner. The new generation of toners that are currently available in the market now balance skin, lightly exfoliate, hydrate, and generally prep it for the next steps of your skincare routine.
A good example is the Benton Aloe BHA Skin Toner which is formulated with BHA to deep-clean your pores and hydrate your skin at the same time. While BHA is an exfoliant, it is not corrosive or abrasive. BHA helps get rid of dull skin cells and unclogs the pores without stripping the skin’s essential oils. Together with Aloe Vera, hyaluronic acid, and beta-glucan in the formulation, this toner provides the hydration that your skin needs.
Aside from hydration, toners have the important role of preparing the skin surface for maximum absorption and efficacy of the skincare products you will use in the succeeding steps. If the pores are clear and unclogged, then treatment products such as essences, serums, and ampoules will penetrate and be absorbed better by the skin, therefore maximising their efficacy.
The skin’s moisture barrier is designed to protect us from external stressors and pollutants, preventing them from getting inside our skin. Cleansing, exfoliating, and lightly hydrating the skin with a hydrating toner wakes up this moisture barrier, creating an environment that’s more receptive to let good things in and keep bad things out.
What ingredients to look for in a toner
Remember the key functions of the toner step of the skincare routine: prep and hydrate. Focus on the humectants in the ingredients list. Humectants draw water from wherever there's more of it and into wherever there's a shortage of it. This is applies not only to dry skin types but all skin types. For dry types, humectants help avoid flakiness and drying in the skin, but humectants are just as magical for oily skin types because they enable the skin to hold more moisture without adding more oil.
Here’s a list of common humectants to look out for:
- Sodium Hyaluronate
- Hyaluronic acid
- Propylene Glycol
- Butylene glycol
- Sodium PCA
- Aloe Vera
- Seaweed, algae
How to use a toner
So how do you choose a toner that is best for your skin? It's important to remember that aside from your general skin type, your skin needs may also change with the season, or even day-to-day.
Here's a guide to choosing a toner depending on your skin type or immediate skin needs.
Oily or congested skin
If your skin feels oily or congested in some areas, you may want to use a toner that incorporate gentle acids in their formula. The perfect acid for oily or congested skin is a BHA or salicylic acid, which is an oil-soluble exfoliating acid that can penetrate deep down into the pores and actually break up the excess sebum, dirt and grime that clog your pores. A BHA toner that is perfect for oily or congested skin is the Benton Aloe BHA Skin Toner. Apply it as your first leave-on treatment after cleansing, both morning and night.
If your skin feels dry, oily and/or normal at the same time, then you have combination skin. You can benefit from having two formulas to target your skin’s varied needs. The Benton Aloe BHA Skin Toner is great to target the areas in your skin because of BHA in its formula that helps unclog pores. Apply this toner on your t-zone that becomes more oily or congested than the rest of your face. As hydration is crucial to keep the skin well balanced, apply the Acwell Licorice pH Balancing Cleansing Toner or spray with Sioris Time is Running Out Mist to the areas which tend to be dry to cover the balanced hydration your skin craves in areas where your skin needs it.
This is a skin type that is lacking oil and moisture which can lead to dry, flaky skin, rough texture, and dry patches. It is best to use a layer of hydration with a targeted moisturising toner. Nacific Fresh Herb Origin Toner provides hydration while moisturising dry and flaky skin. As you go through your routine, give your face a spray of the Sioris Time is Running Out Mist or the Heimish Bulgarian Rose Mist Serum for extra long-lasting hydration!
When your skin feels tight, dull and lacking water content, this is most probably due to a damaged skin barrier causing trans-epidermal water loss. This may also be caused by skincare routine that lacks sufficient hydration. When this happens, you can apply a hydrating toner in a number of layers to quench your skin's thirst. Try the seven-skin method with a hydrating toner and let your get the much needed hydration little by little. (You can also customise the seven-skin method by tweaking the number of layers or by combining depending on how your skin is feeling.) Read more about the seven-skin method here and see below our top hydrating toners.
- Sensitive skin types have a lot of options for hydrating toners as well. You need to focus on selecting a toner with calming and soothing ingredients, but only those with a few ingredients. Avoid products with artificial fragrance and essential oils which tend to irritate sensitive skin. COSRX Centella Alcohol Free Toner, MAMONDE Chamomile Pure Toner and PURITO Centella Green Level Calming Toner are toners which will be loved by sensitive skin types.
Here are our top picks for hydrating toners that contain 3 or more key hydrating ingredients.