Everything to Know About Toner and How to Use It Correctly

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To use toner or not to use toner? Some skin-care experts say they are obsolete; others say they’re a great way to balance or exfoliate the skin. Depending on the formula, toner can also be highly beneficial for certain skin types, especially those with oily or acne-prone skin. And then there’s how to use toner. If you overdo it, your skin could pay the price. But when used correctly, it can be a helpful tool for better, clearer skin.

“Toners were initially created as alcohol-based solutions meant to balance your skin’s pH and remove residue from traditional lye-based soaps,” says Los Angeles dermatologist Divya Shokeen, MD. “However, most cleansers nowadays are pH-balanced, so toners aren’t as widely used. Astringent toners of the past that are alcohol-based are rarely recommended anymore. In general, toners aren’t a necessary part of a skin-care routine.” Necessary or not, West Palm Beach, FL dermatologist Kenneth Beer, MD is pro toner. “For many of my patients, the witch hazel and other ingredients found in toners are great ways to remove dirt, debris and oil from their skin. However, as with anything, overuse can produce irritation, so moderation is key.” Here, answers to all your burning questions about toner, straight from the dermatologists and skin-care pros.

What is toner?

“A toner, or tonic, is a water-based product that is used after cleansing the skin and before applying any serums or moisturizers,” says Margate, FL dermatologist Ramya Garlapati, MD. “It works to remove any residual oil and debris, and essentially preps the skin to receive additional products that are subsequently applied.” Depending on the ingredients included, toner can also hydrate, soothe and refresh the skin, adds Megan Picurro, director of marketing for Mario Badescu. “Toners also help to restore the skin’s pH balance.”

There are two main categories for toner: balancing and exfoliating. “Balancing toners essentially help rebalance the skin’s pH and mainly contain hydrating ingredients to hydrate and soothe the skin,” says Dr. Garlapati. “Exfoliating toners contain ingredients such as AHAs and BHAs to exfoliate and brighten the skin.”

Who is toner best for?

There are different toner formulas for different skin types. “These days, there are specialized toners that can target specific skin concerns,” says Fort Lauderdale, FL dermatologist Dr. Matthew Elias. “So, if you know what type of problem you are trying to treat, a toner can be helpful.” Dr. Garlapati says some toners are formulated with salicylic acid, which works great for those with oily and/or acne-prone skin. “Oily and acne-prone skin can utilize an exfoliating toner to quickly deliver active ingredients and control excessive oil production,” adds New York dermatologist Teresa Song, MD. Some exfoliating toners contain glycolic acid, which can benefit those with uneven skin tone and texture.

Toners aren’t generally recommended for anyone with dry or sensitive skin. “Traditional toners aren’t known as great hydrators and they quickly evaporate off the skin,” says Dr. Song. “Some toners contain alcohol, fragrances and exfoliants that may irritate dry and/or sensitive skin.” However, there are toners that contain hydrating ingredients. “Formulas with hyaluronic acid can help hydrate the skin, and dry skin types can benefit from this,” says Dr. Garlapati.

What to Look For in a Toner

Look for a toner that suits your specific skin type and concerns. “Balancing toners are best for oily or combination skin because they contain ingredients that decrease oil production and improve pore size,” says Dr. Song. “These toners typically include witch hazel, niacinamide and/or green tea extract.” Witch hazel is astringent and anti-inflammatory, so it can help control oil and reduce breakouts, adds Dallas dermatologist Elizabeth Bahar Houshmand, MD. “Rose water is another great ingredient to look for in balancing toners. It provides soothing and hydrating benefits.”

Exfoliating toners, on the other hand, are great for aging skin, acne-prone skin and oily skin. “These contain light acids to improve texture and pigment,” Dr. Song adds. “Look for ingredients such as alphahydroxy acids (AHAs), betahydroxy acids (BHAs) or polyhydroxy acids (PHAs). Specifically, these include lactic acid, glycolic acid and salicylic acid.” Dr. Shokeen recommends using an exfoliating toner two or three times a week to provide chemical exfoliation in conjunction with retinol/retinoid use.”

“If you have dry skin, look for a hydrating toner with ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin and/or aloe vera, which can add moisture,” says Piccuro. “If you have sensitive skin and want to use a toner, look for an alcohol-free formula with soothing ingredients like chamomile, calendula and/or cucumber extract.”

How do you apply toner?

“After cleansing your skin at night, moisten a cotton round with toner,” says aesthetician Nichelle Temple, founder of Inderma Studio. “Then tap or swipe it across your skin, avoiding your eyes, until no dirt, oil or makeup residue is left. In the morning, you can press toner into your skin with your fingers or use a cotton round. Generally, toner can be used twice a day, but introduce it into your routine slowly. Also, use it consistently to see the long-term benefits.”

Let your toner sit absorb for a minute—do not wash it off. Then follow with a serum and/or moisturizer, adds Dr. Song. “Toners are not hydrating enough to use alone.” Dr. Shokeen adds, “Applying moisturizer after using toner is important to maintain pH balance and minimize disruption of your skin barrier.”

Cons of Using Toner

Some skin-care experts believe toners aren’t necessary and add an extra step to an already-crowded routine. “I feel like most toners overly strip the stratum corneum, or top layer of the skin, and compromise the skin barrier,” says Campbell, CA dermatologist Amelia K. Hausauer, MD. “Plus, of all the science-backed, critical steps in a routine—sunscreen, retinoids, antioxidants—toner is not one of them. So, if you want a streamlined routine, toner can just overcomplicate it.”

Toners get a bad rap for being too astringent, which only certain skin types need. “Many toners are harsh astringents that contain alcohol or preservatives that can irritate or dry out the skin,” explains Bay Harbor Islands, FL dermatologist Lucy L. Chen, MD. “However, there are exceptions for acne-prone skin if the toner contains some oil-controlling ingredients like glycolic acid or salicylic acid.” Fort Lauderdale, FL dermatologist Dr. Igor Chaplik says some patients feel clean, or that their pores are tighter, after applying a toner. “But, those benefits are usually temporary. The skin’s natural reaction to the harsh effects is first to dry out, and next, to become oilier. Good cleansers and a daily routine with glycolic or salicylic acid—depending on your age and skin—are better ways to accomplish those benefits.”

Product Picks: Toners Experts Love

1 / 10

CeraVe Hydrating Toner ($11)

“This is a great balancing toner,” says Dr. Garlapati. “It helps to remove impurities and rebalance the skin’s pH, and it is packed with hydrating ingredients like ceramides, hyaluronic acid and niacinamide to help hydrate, soothe and restore the skin barrier.”

cerave hydrating toner


Balancing and hydrating

Best for

Normal and dry skin types

2 / 10

SkinCeuticals Equalizing Toner ($38)

“Toners can be a gentle way to cleanse the skin in the morning when washing twice a day is too much for those with sensitive skin,” says Dr. Shokeen. “I love this one, which prepares the skin for the fragile growth factors and peptides in anti-aging products applied after.”



Best for

All skin types

3 / 10

Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner ($18)

“This formula resurfaces and refines skin post-cleanse for a brighter, more even-toned complexion,” says Picurro. “This toner is Martha Stewart’s favorite and is excellent for promoting cell turnover.”


Exfoliating and balancing

Best for

Aging and combination skin

4 / 10

Haruharu Wonder Black Rice Hyaluronic Toner ($17)

“This toner features hydrating and gentle ingredients like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, along with rice extracts to nourish the skin,” says Dr. Song.


Hydrating and balancing

Best for

Sensitive skin

5 / 10

Kiehl’s Calendula Herbal Extract Alcohol-Free Toner ($75)

“Toners can help prep the skin for serums and moisturizers by getting rid of excess oil or dirt that your cleanser might have missed,” says Dr. Houshmand. “This is one of my favorites.”


Soothing and hydrating

Best for

Redness, uneven texture and combination skin

6 / 10

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 6% Mandelic Acid and 2% Lactic Acid Liquid Exfoliant ($37)

“This is a great exfoliating toner that contains gentle exfoliating ingredients that help to brighten skin and even out skin texture,” says Dr. Garlapati. “It has gentle AHAs in it, making it applicable for all skin types to use.”



Best for

All skin types

7 / 10

ZO Skin Health Calming Toner ($46)

“I often recommend treatment toners for my acne patients,” says Birmingham, AL dermatologist Holly Gunn, MD. “Those that contain witch hazel, like this one, can soothe the skin and help with acne.”


Balancing and calming

Best for

Normal-to-dry and normal-to-sensitive skin types

8 / 10

Environ Skin EssentiA Botanical Infused Moisturizing Toner ($52)

“I like this toner because it can be used by all skin types, even sensitive,” says Temple. “It contains a gentle blend of moisturizing extracts, niacinamide and AHA lactic acid, which will help soften the appearance of fine lines, uneven skin tone and blemishes.”


Hydrating and balancing

Best for

Dry, acne-prone and aging skin

9 / 10

Good Molecules Niacinamide Brightening Toner ($14)

“This toner is great for acne-prone skin and those with pigmentary concerns,” says Dr. Song. “It contains vitamin C and arbutin to improve pore size and hyperpigmentation.”


Brightening and balancing

Best for

All skin types

10 / 10

PCA Skin Nutrient Toner ($46)

“Some toners, like this one, can provide similar benefits to your serums,” says Dr. Houshmand. “I tell patients to soak a cotton pad with the toner and swipe it over just-washed skin before applying other products.”



Best for

Dry, oily, combination and normal skin

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