What does toner do? What is toner?

What does face toner do – and why is it so important?

14th February 2024 | Author: Abigail Beall

Ever wondered what does toner do for your face? We explain all below and give face toner recommendations for different skin types


Cleanser, toner and moisturiser are the classic skincare routine 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 does a face toner do?

Historically, when facial toner was introduced, it 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 left users with dry skin.

Today, face toner comes in many forms and can do everything from providing a healthy glow to removing blemishes and helping to balance acne-prone skin.

If you’re like us, you’ve compliantly used a facial toner for years because the experts told you to, or you’ve never used it and you’re not sure why you’d need to, the reality is that using face toners is an incredibly crucial step in skincare routines. 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.

READ NEXT: Best toners as tried and tested by our editors | How to make your own homemade toner


What is toner?

A toner is a liquid applied to the skin using a cotton pad (or reusable equivalent) as part of a daily beauty routine.

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 it off. In fact, part of its toning properties come from it evaporating off the skin.

READ NEXT: The truth about the acids in your skincare

Toner usually looks like water, although some like the Pixi toner come in 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, glycerin, witch hazel, 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.


What does face toner do?

In general, most face toners are used after a cleanser to remove any dead skin cells and impurities the cleanser missed. They can also remove any traces of cleanser that haven’t been properly washed away.

Toners also help to give the skin a quick blast of moisture and create a clear canvas on which to apply moisturiser, serums, oils and eye creams.

This is key because without this canvas, the skincare products that follow – as well as your makeup – may not work as well.

WHAT TONER DO I NEED?

You can tell the specific type of facial toner via its ingredients:

  • If it contains oils, it’s moisturising
  • If it has alcohol it will be astringent
  • If the ingredients contain botanical or floral extracts, it is refreshing

To work out which type of toner works best for you, decide what you’d like to achieve, which will depend on your skin type.

For example, if you have dry skin, avoid astringent toners as the alcohol can strip away oils.

The other functions of toner depend on the type you go for: moisturising, astringent or refreshing.

Moisturising face toner: Best toner for dry skin; combination skin

Moisturising toners contain oily ingredients, and they work to replenish the oils in your skin to keep moisture locked in.

These are the best toners for dry skin or combination skin.

For especially dry skin, a toner with amino acids is a good bet.

Astringent face toner: Best toner for oily skin; acne-prone skin

Astringent toners tend to contain some form of acid, such as glycolic acid, witch hazel, and most contain alcohol.

These work to reduce the appearance of pores, and help clear acne-prone skin of blemishes.

If you have large pores, look for glycolic acid. If it’s oily skin or acne you’re 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.

Meanwhile, witch hazel is a natural astringent that helps reduce redness and inflammation.

Refreshing face toner: Best toner for sensitive skin

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.

They are usually water-based. Aloe vera is another soothing ingredient that is common in these toners.

A refreshing toner is 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.

See our science of moisturiser article or our What is hyaluronic acid guide? for more info.

FURTHER READING: The science of face oil


Do I need to use a toner?

Homemade toner recipes lemon cucumber rosewaterSeksak Kerdkanno from Pixabay

Whether you need to use a toner depends on your skin type, concerns, and the rest of your skincare routine.

Not everyone needs to use a toner but it can be beneficial.

If you have oily or acne-prone skin, for example, a toner can help remove excess oil and reduce breakouts.

If you have dry or sensitive skin, a hydrating toner can add a layer of moisture and soothe the skin.

However, if your skincare routine already addresses your skin concerns effectively, you might not need a toner. Go through our toner pros and cons list below to work out if you need to use a toner or not.


What are the pros and cons of toner?

The pros of toner include:

  1. Making pores look smaller: Toners help cleanse the pores, reducing their appearance and preventing the buildup of gunk.
  2. Restoring your pH balance: Cleansing can disrupt your skin’s natural pH balance; toners help to restore this balance, making your skin look and feel healthy.
  3. Hydrating the skin: An increasing number of toners are made using hydrating ingredients that boost the skin’s moisture levels, leaving it soft and plump.
  4. Creating a canvas for skincare: Toners can improve the skin’s surface which increases how effective and how well-absorbed all your other skincare products are. This is particularly key for helping serums penetrate the skin.
  5. Refreshing and cleansing the skin: Toners can help remove any last traces of makeup or dirt, ensuring the skin is clean and fresh.

The cons of toner include:

  1. Potential irritation: Some toners, especially those containing alcohol or astringent ingredients, can be drying or irritating. This is a particular problem for sensitive or dry skin.
  2. Allergic reactions: Ingredients in some toners may cause allergic reactions or sensitivities, leading to redness, irritation, or breakouts. Although this is the case with all skincare products.
  3. Overuse: Using toner too much or in excessive amounts can disrupt your skin barrier, leading to dryness, irritation, and increased sensitivity.
  4. Cost: Adding an extra product to your skincare routine will be yet another product to pay for.

How to use toner

Most face 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, and don’t forget to include your neck.

If you have acne-prone skin and don’t want to touch your face, you can buy spray and misting toners. Our favourite is the Tropic Vitamin Toner (£14) which comes scented or unscented, for sensitive skin. We also highly recommend the more affordable Grüum Gösta Facial Tonic (£7).

The Grüum tonic contains witch hazel, to tone the skin, antiseptic chamomile, and orange to refresh the skin and leave it feeling bright and fresh. This can be used as a primer, a toner or as a way to refresh your skin during the day.

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 the skin and lead to more fine lines.


How do you use skin toner? Step-by-step guide

To use a skin toner, follow these steps:

  1. Cleanse: Start with a clean base by washing your face with a gentle cleanser suited to your skin type.
  2. Apply Toner: Soak a cotton pad with toner and gently swipe it across your face, neck, and décolletage. Alternatively, you can pour a few drops of toner into your palms and gently pat it directly onto your skin.
  3. Avoid Eye Area: Be careful to avoid the sensitive area around your eyes.
  4. Let It Dry: Wait for the toner to dry completely. This shouldn’t take long, as toners are designed to be absorbed quickly.
  5. Follow Up: Once the toner has dried, proceed with the rest of your skincare routine, applying any serums, treatments, and moisturisers.

FURTHER READING: Which Glow Recipe toner is best for your skin?


How to apply toner in five ways

There are multiple ways to apply toner.

The one thing to remember is to use the correct toner to match your skin type and to understand how to apply toner to get the best out of this magical liquid.

5 methods of toner use:

  1. Cotton pad.
    This is great to use when using astringent toners, like glycolic or salicylic acid. Using a cotton pad gives that extra exfoliant which is great to use on oily skin because it helps pick up the dead skin that the astringent toner is doing. Start from the centre of your face where it tends to be slightly more oilier and work outwards.
  2. Hands/fingers.
    This method is great for anyone that has dry skin, using toner with palms of your hands or fingers warms up the tone for easier absorption and is more gentle on the skin instead of using a cotton pad, that can exfoliate the skin. Add a few drops in the palm of your hands and gently rub together and pat around the face. When using a hydrating toner they contain replenishing oils so the heat from the hands well melt the toner into the skin.
  3. DIY face mask.
    Soak two cotton pads with your toner, we recommend using a moisturising/hydrating toner. Apply the cotton pads to the dry areas of your face and wait 10 minutes. This method is great to give that extra moisture boost to dry areas of the face.
  4. Compressed face mask.
    These compressed masks are great for travelling, and the active ingredient is just your toner. Instead of using water opt for the moisturising/hydrating toner. Add a good amount of toner to the compressed face mask, it will start to expand. Open it up and place it on your face, leave it on for 10 minutes and remove.  It’s like you’ve used a sheet mask without even knowing it!
  5. Mist toner.
    Often mist toners are more refreshing but you can buy mist toners for all skin types. Mist toners are great if you don’t want to touch your skin and don’t want to waste excess product. Having a mist toner in your bag is like having an instant injection of hydrating when you need it.

FURTHER READING: How to layer your skincare


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