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Toners have a bad reputation.

Typically containing high levels of alcohol, the toners of your youth removed oil from the skin and seemed to suck every bit of moisture out too.

But not anymore.

“Modern toners are formulated to be more gentle,” explains cosmetic chemist Vanessa Thomas.

Still, you might be wondering, what do toners actually do? Today’s toners aim to nourish it with a burst of hydration and nutrients. Some can even treat specific skin concerns like acne and sun damage.

Here’s the lowdown on the major benefits of using a toner.

A deeper cleanse

The benefits of a double cleanse are now well known. But did you know toners can provide the secondary cleanse you’re looking for?

They’ll get rid of any leftover makeup that your regular cleanser missed.

Plus, toners can remove excess oil and grime that’s built up during the day or night.

A balanced complexion

Toners don’t just provide an additional cleanse. They also work to restore skin with the nutrients that traditional cleansers can remove.

The result is often softer and smoother skin. A well-formulated toner (more on this later) can even help with stubborn issues like redness.

Balanced pH levels

Skin is naturally acidic, with a pH level of around 4.7. But some soaps and cleansers are alkaline in nature.

Using a product with a very different pH level to your skin can disrupt its usual functions, potentially leading to dryness, oiliness, or irritation.

Although your skin’s pH can recover within a matter of hours, a toner can be used to quickly balance levels.

Support for the rest of your routine

Using a toner can also help your skin better absorb other products you use.

When skin is dry, other ingredients will just sit on top. However, when it’s hydrated with a toner, these ingredients can penetrate the skin and work more effectively.

You can use a toner both morning and night, as long as your skin can tolerate it.

Thomas advises adding a toner to your regime slowly and consulting with a dermatologist, especially if you have sensitive skin.

Morning application can remove sweat and other overnight dirt, though some people choose to skip it.

Those with oily skin or acne may want to work their way up to using toner twice a day to help reduce breakouts.

If your skin becomes dry or irritated, though, go back to a once-a-day application. If you’re still having issues, you may need to change up the product you’re using.

Regardless of how often you apply toner, always use it after cleansing your face preferably while your skin is still wet to boost the product’s effects.

Afterward, you can move on to the rest of your skin care routine, whether it’s basics like moisturizer and sunscreen or targeted treatments like serums.

There are two ways to apply toner: with a cotton pad or with your hands.

If you opt for the former, soak a cotton pad with the toner, then swipe it across your face. Work your way outward, avoiding sensitive areas like the eyes.

If using your hands, add a few drops to your palms and gently tap them onto your face.

You can also apply toner to your neck and chest using these same methods.

There are three main types of toner available on the market today:

  • alcohol-based formulas
  • glycerin or glycol-based
  • water-based

Opt for a water-based toner without alcohol, fragrance, or witch hazel to reduce the risk of irritation.

Here’s what else to look for in a toner for your specific skin type.

For oily skin

All toners can help combat excess oil. But for maximum impact, try a mattifying toner that contains salicylic and glycolic acid for exfoliation.

Niacinamide is a good ingredient to try if you want to reduce the appearance of your pores.

Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Pore-Reducing Toner (shop here) contains niacinamide, antioxidants, and plant extracts to reduce oiliness and promote clearer, smoother skin.

For acne-prone skin

If you’re prone to blemishes or full-blown acne breakouts, look for a lightweight and gentle formula.

The last thing you want to do is irritate your skin even further, so it’s best to stay away from alcohol-based toners.

Try a toner with an alpha hydroxy acid or two to remove dead skin and reduce the oil that can clog pores.

Mario Badescu’s Glycolic Acid Toner (shop here) is a mild and alcohol-free option.

For dry skin

Dry skin types “will want to implement a toner that contains humectants,” says Thomas.

“Humectants are ingredients found in lotions and cleansers that hydrate the skin by attracting water molecules like a magnet.”

Again, you’ll want to steer clear of any harsh ingredients, like alcohol, that could dry your skin.

Instead, look for soothing, moisturizing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, vitamin E, and glycerin.

Try a milky lotion like Lancôme’s Tonique Confort (shop here).

For combination skin

When you have combination skin, you want the best of both worlds.

For toners, that means a formula that will remove excess oil while keeping skin hydrated.

Clarins’ Toning Lotion with Iris (shop here) is a balanced solution that contains no alcohol. Instead, it relies on iris and sage extracts to refresh skin.

When considering other products, look for nourishing antioxidants and gentle acids like hyaluronic, salicylic, and lactic acid.

For sun damage or other signs of aging

Antioxidants are a key ingredient for combating signs of aging.

The likes of vitamin C and E not only protect your skin against environmental damage, but they can also work to correct some of that damage.

The result? A more even skin texture and appearance.

Renée Rouleau’s Elderberry Soothing Toner (shop here) uses antioxidants to help moisturize and plump skin.

Hyaluronic acid is also important for a hydrated look, while glycolic acid can exfoliate and encourage collagen production.

It’s clear that toners aren’t what they used to be, so don’t be afraid to try one out. However, if you have a skin condition that’s easily irritated, like rosacea, consult with a dermatologist before using toner.


Lauren Sharkey is a U.K.-based journalist and author specializing in women’s issues. When she isn’t trying to discover a way to banish migraines, she can be found uncovering the answers to your lurking health questions. She has also written a book profiling young female activists across the globe and is currently building a community of such resisters. Catch her on Twitter.