To tone, or not to tone – that is the long debated question in the world of skincare. We break down what toners are and if you really need them. 

The discussion around whether or not a toner is necessary in a skincare routine has always been ubiquitous in the beauty community. It’s usually the type of product that you either love, hate, or love to hate. Most of them look and feel like water, some don’t always offer overnight effects, and they can often be confused with a cleansing or micellar water. Those who are very minimalistic in their routines may also perceive toners as a sort of gimmick especially in the lengthy Korean beauty 10-step routine.

However, toners are just more than fancy skincare water. As long as you know what your skin craves and the formulation behind the toner, it can actually be an important asset in your skincare routine.

Do toners actually do anything? What are they for?

In short – yes. First you need to know that there are two types of toners: hydrating and exfoliating. Based on your skin types and skin needs, you can choose either one or alternate between the two in your skincare routine.

(L-R: Root Remedies Damask Rose Face Mist, Laneige Cream Skin Refiner, Decorté Liposome Treatment Liquid, Guerlain Abeille Royale – Honey Nectar Lotion)

Hydrating toners can be used either by applying with a cotton pad or poured into your hands before swiping or patting the toner into the skin. These products are usually packed with humectant ingredients such as hyaluronic acid or glycerin to help maintain your skin’s hydration levels, while helping to maximise the absorbency and efficacy of your other products like serums and moisturisers. After cleansing, the skin can feel a bit on the drier side – especially if you’ve already got parched skin, so it’s good to build back your skin’s moisture layers with thin layers of hydration. Targeted treatments and active ingredients usually present in serums, as well as moisturisers also absorb into the skin better when it’s slightly damp from after using a hydrating toner.

Hydrating toners also come in the form of lotions, mists, refiners, or “skins” (in K-Beauty speak). If you have sensitive, dry to combination or mature skin, they are best in helping to bring back that youthful bounce into your complexion by infusing more hydration into the skin. You can easily use these toners everyday whenever you perform your morning or night time skincare routine.

(L-R: Krave Beauty Kale-Lalu-yAHA, PSA Heroine Mandelic & Licorice Superfood Glow Toner, Biologique Recherche Lotion P50, Paula’s Choice Daily Pore Refining Treatment 2% BHA)

On the other hand, exfoliating toners usually contain a higher amount of chemical exfoliants, so think your AHAs, BHAs, LHAs and PHAs. These toners should be used with a cotton pad to help smooth away any dead skin cells and buildup, so that your skin cell turnover improves to reveal healthier and brighter skin. They are especially effective for people struggling with greasy skin, acne breakouts, hyperpigmentation and fine lines. Though exfoliants should be used sparingly – perhaps 3-4 times a week so you don’t end up damaging your skin through over-exfoliation.

Dry and sensitive skin types can also benefit from exfoliating toners, just look out for gentler acids such as lactic or glycolic acid in lower percentages. Try to stay away from astringent toners that have a very high content of alcohol as it can further disrupt your skin’s moisture barrier and dry it out even more.

All about the pH

Toners also do more than just hydrating and exfoliating. They also help to rebalance your skin’s pH after cleansing – especially exfoliating toners that contain exfoliating acids to bring your skin back to its normal pH. Cleansers – even mild and gentle ones – are usually more alkaline, which can disrupt your skin’s natural moisture barrier, which is usually slightly acidic on the pH scale of 4.5 – 5 for it to be healthy. An unbalanced skin barrier can cause some of our most common issues such as dryness, tightness, redness, irritation, sensitivity and even blemishes.

Are they the same essences and cleansing waters?

No. Essences are generally thicker in texture and is usually applied after your toner. They’re also typically more concentrated with beneficial ingredients. The only similarity between an essence and a toner is that they both help other products to absorb better while acting as another layer of hydration. While toners are designed to rebalance and hydrate, essences work to nourish and moisturise the skin.

As for cleansing waters, the name already speaks for itself. Cleansing waters or micellar waters may have the same thin consistency as toners, but they only perform one job: cleansing. They’re usually formulated with purified H20 that’s infused with unique ingredients that help cleanse the skin of impurities or remove light makeup.

All in all…

Toners are basically products you use to rebalance your skin’s pH after cleansing, exfoliate, provide your skin with a first layer of hydration, and prime your skin to better absorb the next product(s). You can go for either a hydrating or exfoliating toner, but can also reap the benefits of both by combining the two. It’s just the matter of just using the exfoliating version on alternate days before the hydrating one to make sure your skin doesn’t have any dead skin cells buildup getting in the way of the beneficial ingredients penetrating your skin.

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Product images by the respective brands.