Cleanser, toner and moisturiser are the classic skincare combination yet while the roles of cleanser and moisturiser are pretty self-explanatory, – the clues are in their names – you’re not alone if you’ve ever wondered what exactly does toner do.
Historically, when toners were first introduced, they contained high volumes of alcohol which would work to remove oil from the skin. The idea behind these early toners was that the alcohol would strip away impurities, yet the reality was that many early toners left users with dry skin. Now, toners come in forms and can do everything from providing a healthy glow to removing blemishes.
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If you’re like us, you’ve compliantly used a face toner for years because the experts told you to, or you’ve never used toner and you’re not sure why you’d need to, the reality is that toner is an incredibly crucial skincare step and not using it, or not using it correctly, could be vastly affecting how effective your other skincare products are.
Let us demystify what toner does, how to use face toner and the ingredients you need to look out for below, and once you’re clued up, discover which is the best toner for your skin type. We’ve also explained the science of moisturiser and what’s really in your foundation in our other explainers.
A toner is always a liquid applied to the skin using a cotton pad or a reusable equivalent. Some people prefer to dab it on with their fingers but however you apply it, toner is left on the skin to absorb in – you don’t need to wash toner off.
It usually looks like water, although some are a different colour, and the majority contain ingredients that, when combined in the correct formulation, can solve a multitude of skin problems and conditions. These ingredients include a variety of different acids, glycerine, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatories.
It’s not to be confused with hair toner, which is completely different. Read more in our What is hair toner? explainer.
In general, most toners are used after a cleanser to remove any dead skin cells and impurities the cleanser missed, and to remove any traces of cleanser that weren’t washed away.
They also help to give the skin a quick blast of moisture and create a clear canvas on which to apply your moisturiser, serums, oils and eye creams. This is key because without this canvas, the skincare products that follow – as well as your makeup – won’t work as well.
The other functions of toner depend on the type of toner you go for: moisturising, astringent and refreshing.
Moisturising toners contain oily ingredients, and they work to replenish the oils in your skin to keep moisture locked in. These are best for people with dry skin or combination skin. For especially dry skin, a toner with amino acids is a good bet.
Astringent toners tend to contain some form of acid, such as glycolic acid, and most contain alcohol. These work to tighten pores to reduce their appearance, and they help clear the skin of blemishes.
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Because of this, astringent toners are for people with big pores or acne-prone, oily skin. If you have big pores, look for glycolic acid, and if it’s oily skin or acne you are worried about, keep an eye out for salicylic acid. If you have dull skin, lactic acid is a natural exfoliator which can work to brighten up your skin’s appearance.
Refreshing toners contain botanicals such as tea tree oil, caffeine, green tea or other floral extracts, and they make your skin feel fresh and energised after cleansing.
These are best for people with sensitive skin. Refreshing toners can work well for people with mature skin, too, because some of the natural ingredients like rose water, orange blossom or hyaluronic acid are moisturising.
You can tell the specific type of toner through the ingredients listed.
To work out which type of toner works best for you, you need to decide what you’d like from a toner.
This will depend on the type of skin you have. For example, someone with dry skin should avoid an astringent toner as the alcohol in it will strip away oils, but this might be perfect for someone with more oily skin.
Most toners work best on wet skin, so use your toner immediately after cleansing.
Some people prefer to use their fingers and apply it directly, while others use cotton pads to sweep the toner over their skin. Start in the centre of your face and work outwards, including your neck.
Try to avoid the skin around your eyes, or if you do apply it there, be gentle and don’t pull or drag the skin with the cotton pad. This can damage it and lead to more fine lines.
Abigail is a leading science journalist writing about space, sustainability, technology and culture. She is author of The Art of Urban Astronomy, a must-have guide to the night sky that guides you through the seasons and learn about the brightest stars and constellations, the myths and legends of astronomy and how to identify star clusters and galaxies.