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Whether you have a 5-step or 12-step skincare routine at some point, you were most likely told the importance of using a toner. But is this really necessary? It was at one point, but now, it may not be. We spoke to a few board-certified dermatologists to get the details on if this step in your skincare routine is actually making a difference or just a waste of your money.
“Toner was created to correct pH at a time when most people used soap to wash,” shares Dr. Loretta Ciraldo MD FAAD, a Miami-based board-certified dermatologist with over 40 years of experience and founder of Dr. Loretta skincare. “Since soap has a high alkaline pH it can alter the health acid mantle of skin so toner was truly a more necessary step years ago than it is now,” Dr. Loretta explains. Most face cleansers contain a pH balance so no pH correction is really needed after you wash your face. “On the whole toners can strip the top layers of the skin and lead to skin barrier compromise, so unless using them for a specific purpose, we normally don’t recommend them,” states Dr. Matt Elias, DO, FAAD, a South Florida based board-certified dermatologist and Clinical Assistant Professor at Nova Southeastern University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. Nevertheless, many people like using toners and they are meant to be used after cleansing and before applying serum.
Skincare queens—if you have clear, non-oily skin, you most likely don’t need a toner. Dr. Elias only recommends them “for acne-prone skin or anti-aging.” Fin.
Toners are more a matter of preference. “Sometimes it is used as a way to introduce an active ingredient in a more subtle way,” shares Dr. Loretta. She adds, “For example, people who may want to use AHA but are concerned that it may irritate them can start with a low concentration AHA toner or a toner that combines multiple fruit acids to see if their skin tolerates this type of ingredient.” AHAs stand for alpha-hydroxy acids and are a mix of plant and animal-derived acids with anti-aging benefits including improving the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, combatting hyperpigmentation, preventing breakouts, and increasing the absorption of your skincare products. While they can be helpful, Dr. Elias emphasizes that most dermatologists aren’t going to recommend a toner. He adds, “They can overcomplicate your skincare regiment which can usually be boiled down to a few easy steps: cleanse, retinoid at night, moisturize, and sunscreen.
“If you’re sensitive skinner or have facial redness [then] avoid AHA toners,” states Dr. Loretta. “If you have eczema avoid toners with artificial fragrances or color,” advises Dr. Loretta. And if you have dry skin, then she instructs to “avoid toners with witch hazel or ethyl alcohol,” as both of these can further dry out and strip your skin. Regardless of your skin type, you should test out your toner (and really any skincare product) to see how it reacts with your skin. “There is always a risk that adding a new product/step to your routine may either add an element of irritation or possibly interfere with penetration and effectiveness of your other products,” says Dr. Loretta. The solution to this is to test out your toner! “You can use a new toner on one side of your face only for a week and continue with your normal routine on the other side,” suggests Dr. Loretta. If any problems arise from using the toner then stop. If it isn’t mixing well with your other products, you don’t have to throw it out. Dr. Loretta shares this pro tip: “You can stop using the toner on your face and use it on your chest and neck, two areas that are typically underserved by skincare.”
So if you are a bit wary of toners, there are still options for you. Essence is very similar to toner. “It is best applied after cleansing and it helps to set the stage for all skincare that is applied afterward,” educates Dr. Loretta. Essence is also a great option if you have sensitive skin.
If you are still on the market for toner, don’t worry. We found the 8 best toners on the market to keep your skin looking young and ready to absorb all of your other skincare products.