For years, dermatologists and estheticians in the United States have gone back and forth on whether swabbing our face with a toner-soaked cotton ball is helpful or harmful to skin health. But this argument isn’t about toners — it’s about alcohol in the toners.
It’s a common belief that toners with alcohol are an essential step to killing acne-causing bacteria, but it’s also a double-edged sword. Though alcohol does fight bacteria, it also strips the skin of moisture. “Alcohol actually dries your skin out, which makes issues like acne even worse,” says Coco Pai, a licensed esthetician with over 25 years of experience and the owner of CoCo Spa in San Francisco, CA.
This may be why some dermatologists say toners aren’t necessary, but there’s one important distinction to make: Not all toners have their roots in alcohol. Korean beauty, or more commonly popularized K-beauty, does not.
You may have heard of the Korean beauty skin care regimen that has 10 steps: cleansing, cleansing again, exfoliating, toning, tapping in essence, applying treatments, masking, using eye cream, moisturizing, and slathering on sun protection. K-Beauty toners fit in this skin care sequence as a step to maximize great skin results.
Whether you already ritually perform each of these steps or are just learning about Korean skin care, don’t skimp on your toner knowledge. Here are the reasons that solidify toner’s place in K-Beauty and why you’ll want to pay attention to this beneficial step in your skin journey.
K-Beauty toners nurture and purify the skin
Also called lotions, K-Beauty toners are rich in ingredients that hydrate skin rather than rid it of moisture. You can find ingredients like kelp extract, mineral water, amino acids, hyaluronic acid, grapeseed oil, and carrot root oil in K-Beauty toners. But can you beat acne-causing bacteria without the alcohol?
Definitely. There are many other, more calming ways to fight breakouts. K-Beauty toners rely on extracts like propolis and chamomile, which naturally keep bacteria at bay without shifting the skin’s pH. But more importantly, the many steps in a K-Beauty skin care routine also offer more opportunities to banish bacteria.
“Toners are critical after the double cleanse because they remove any impurities your cleansers didn’t catch,” says Charlotte Cho, a licensed esthetician and founder of Soko Glam, an online destination for Korean beauty products. Cho is also the author of “The Little Book of Skin Care: Korean Beauty Secrets for Healthy, Glowing Skin.”
When to use a toner Clean your face with a makeup remover and oil-based cleanser, and follow up with a water-based cleanser. After, lightly soak a cotton pad with toner and wipe your skin. If any bacteria or dirt lingers after this double cleanse, a toner will get rid of it.
K-Beauty toners balance the skin’s pH
These aforementioned moisturizing ingredients are important because they restore the skin’s pH. Your skin’s natural pH is around 5.5. But pollution, oil production, makeup, and alcohol can shift your skin’s state, hence its pH. K-Beauty toners, on the other hand, mimic the skin’s natural pH. Most have a pH ranging from 5.0 to 5.5, according to Pai. By applying K-Beauty toners directly to the skin, you encourage skin to maintain its balanced state.
“If skin is not at a balanced pH level, it becomes prone to the cycle of excessive dryness followed by too much oil production, and even environmental damage,” says Pai.
Why you should buy a toner Keep in mind, pure water has a pH of 7. Meaning, simply cleansing and splashing your face with faucet water can leave your skin unbalanced. So K-Beauty toners aren’t just a required step, they’re also a logical one.
K-Beauty toners are formulated to support other skin products
“Think of your skin like a sponge,” says Cho. “It’s more difficult to rehydrate it when it’s dried up than when it’s already a bit damp. Essence, treatments, and moisturizers will be more fully absorbed when prepped with toner than when the skin is dry.”
Pai adds that when you have dry skin, products like serums, masks, and moisturizers will just sit on top of this layer of dead skin. “Alcohol actually dries your skin out more, which makes this problem worse,” she says. “But when skin is hydrated and at a balanced pH after applying toner, other products can penetrate the skin.”
Extra benefits of using a toner K-Beauty toners facilitate active ingredient penetration from your other skin care products. Think of it as a booster for your vitamin C, retinol, or expensive anti-aging creams. After all, in order for a product to work its magic on your skin, it’s got to be absorbed.
Want to try a K-Beauty toner?
“You want to choose a K-Beauty toner that has the right ingredients for your specific skin type,” suggests Cho. For example, dryer skin benefits from humectants, like hyaluronic acid, which bind moisture to your skin. Oily types, on the other hand, will want a formula that’s more lightweight and less emollient in texture.
Here are some of our favorites:
|Toner||Featured ingredients||Skin type||Review consensus|
|Klavuu White Pearlsation Revitalizing Pearl Treatment Toner, $40||pearl extract, mineral water, apple fruit water, kelp extract||dry, dull, uneven skin tone||has a creamy, milky consistency leaving skin hydrated, soft, and glowing without leaving a greasy feeling behind|
|Klairs Supple Preparation Facial Toner, $28||amino acids||acne-prone skin||calms irritation, and soothes redness and acne; dries quickly on the skin so you’re immediately ready for your next skin care step|
|COSRX One Step Moisture Up Pad, $14.94||propolis extract, hyaluronic acid||dry, acne-prone, combination skin||gently exfoliates any dead skin flakes, quenches dry skin, and keeps breakouts under control|
|Beauty Water by Son & Park, $30||lavender water, rose water, willow bark, papaya extract||all skin types||cleans pores, hydrates skin, and brightens up uneven texture|
If you choose to purchase from retailers like Amazon, always watch out for counterfeit products. You can spot fakes by paying close attention to a product’s rating and customer reviews. Look for those with high ratings and positive reviews that confirm authenticity.
What else can I use?
Not all toners are created equal — but not all American toners are bad either. While many brands in the United States may have a bad rap due to their moisture-stripping properties, some manufacturers have caught on to produce mists that work for more sensitive skin. For example, you can try rose water sprays, which are known to help rebalance your skin’s pH.
In the world of K-Beauty, toners are seen as a must-have for healthy, balanced skin.
English Taylor is a women’s health and wellness writer based in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Refinery29, NYLON, Apartment Therapy, LOLA, and THINX. She covers everything from tampons to taxes (and why the former should be free of the latter).