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Thinking of updating your skin care routine? As you navigate the vast array of products available, you might feel a little overwhelmed — not just by your options but by the need to determine each product’s potential uses.

Cleansers, moisturizers, and sunscreens have pretty straightforward roles, but you might feel less certain about other products, like astringents and toners.

These water-based products do perform similar functions: You can use either one after cleansing to remove irritants and even out skin tone. Still, they aren’t exactly the same thing.

Astringents help clean skin, tighten pores, and dry out oil. Toners help clean skin, hydrate and nourish it, and balance out skin pH levels.

You might feel inclined to buy both just to be on the safe side, but the right product for you will generally depend on your skin type and skin care needs.

We’ll take a deep dive into the differences between astringents and toners below.

Astringents are liquid-based products that may be beneficial for:

  • reducing acne breakouts
  • drying out excess oil
  • tightening skin
  • cleansing irritants from skin
  • unclogging pores
  • reducing the appearance of pores
  • reducing inflammation

Many astringents contain isopropyl alcohol, also known as rubbing alcohol, though some contain alcohol from botanicals instead.

If you have dry or sensitive skin, alcohol-free options may be worth considering, since alcohol can irritate your skin and dry it out further.

Other ingredients you’ll often find in astringents:

Typically, you apply an astringent right after washing your face. Since astringents can dry out your skin, you’ll generally want to use them only once each day, either in the morning or at night.

How to use astringents

  1. Wash your face with a cleanser.
  2. Dry your face completely by patting it with a towel.
  3. Pour a small drop of astringent onto a cotton ball or pad, or use your fingertips.
  4. Dab the astringent onto your face.
  5. Follow up with a serum, if desired, and then moisturizer and sunscreen.
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Toners are gentler, liquid-based products that can:

  • help remove leftover makeup, oil, or grime for a deeper clean
  • provide nutrients to your skin
  • reduce redness and smooth your skin
  • balance skin pH levels
  • help boost absorption of other products, such as moisturizers

Toners used to be alcohol-based, but today most feature water-based formulas that often include glycerin or glycol to help hydrate and smooth your skin.

Other toner ingredients aim to help brighten your complexion, even out skin tone, or improve texture. Common ones include:

You can generally apply a toner twice a day unless you have particularly sensitive skin. Still, it’s best to start slow. Try applying it once a day at first, and then increase your usage once it’s clear your skin can tolerate the product.

How to use toners

  1. Wash your face with your usual cleanser.
  2. You can skip the drying step, since applying toner to damp skin may increase its impact.
  3. To apply toner with a cotton ball or pad, moisten the cotton and dab or swipe it across your face. Alternatively, you can put a few drops into the palms of your hands and then lightly press or tap them across your face.
  4. Follow with a serum, if desired, plus moisturizer and sunscreen.
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Both astringents and toners can cause a few unwanted side effects.


After applying an astringent, you might feel some slight tingling or tightness. This is normal and should be temporary.

Red, hot, or irritated skin, on the other hand, is not normal. If you notice these effects, it’s best to stop using the product, since it’s quite possibly too strong for your skin.

Astringents can also over-dry skin, which can lead to peeling or redness. Increased irritation can sometimes make acne worse. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends avoiding astringents to help reduce breakouts.

You may also want to avoid astringents if you have:


Most side effects of toners come from overusing them — unless, of course, you have an allergy or skin sensitivity.

If you do use a toner more than twice a day, you might notice:

  • redness
  • patches of dry skin
  • inflammation and itching
  • increased acne breakouts

It depends on your skin type — and the product.

Generally, astringents tend to be harsher than toners. They also help dry out excess oil, so they often work well for people with oilier skin. Toners, meanwhile, tend to work well for people with sensitive, dry, or combination skin.

That said, you might not always find it easy to tell the difference between toners and astringents, since some beauty brands give them unclear names like “balancers” or “cleansing waters.”

When trying to pick the right product for your skin type, it often helps to pay more attention to the ingredients.

Here’s what to look for if you have:

  • Oily skin. Consider ingredients like citric acid and witch hazel. Alcohol-based products (such as isopropyl) may also work, unless you have more sensitive skin.
  • Acne-prone skin. Potentially helpful ingredients include salicylic acid, alpha hydroxy acid, glycolic acid, and citric acid.
  • Combination skin. Consider ingredients like witch hazel, salicylic acid, and lactic acid.
  • Dry skin. Try ingredients like aloe vera, glycerin, glycol, vitamin E, hyaluronic acid, and sodium lactate.
  • Sensitive skin. Aim to stick to alcohol-free and fragrance-free products. You may also want to consider avoiding colorants, menthol, and sodium lauryl sulfate.
  • Sun-damaged skin. Products containing vitamins C and E can protect against environmental damage and even help repair it.

These aren’t hard and fast rules, though. If you notice any burning, stinging, or redness after using a product, you’ll want to stop using it and check with your dermatologist or doctor.

What about using both?

If you have sensitive or dry skin, you’ll want to avoid using both an astringent and a toner, since it could lead to irritation.

On the other hand, if you have oily skin, using both may be just fine. But you might want to apply them at different times of the day.

Generally speaking, you don’t need both — or either. Neither product is essential for healthy skin, so if you don’t want to use them, you don’t have to.

You can buy astringents and toners online or at your local pharmacy or drugstore.

A few highly rated astringents:

A few toner options, based on skin type:

Toners and astringents might have some similarities, but they do different things for your face.

Not sure about your skin type? Still struggling to decide on a product? A dermatologist or skin care expert can offer more personalized guidance and make recommendations.

Simone M. Scully is a writer who loves writing about all things health and science. Find Simone on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.