In the great toner debate, Montclair, NJ dermatologist Jeanine B. Downie, MD admits that she tends to sway toward the “you don’t really need it” side.
“Patients love toner because of its cool, refreshing sensation, but toners do not provide any benefits and may even dry out or irritate the face,” she says, adding that one of the biggest skin-care errors she sees is patients using toner to remove excess makeup, when it’s smarter to be more thorough with your cleanser, or buy a better cleanser altogether (she’s a fan of ones from SkinMedica and Restorsea).
Her recommendation: “You’d be better off spending that money and effort on products that actually work for your skin.”
Coming in on the other side, QMS Medicosmetics international educator Rowan Hall-Farrise backs the use of toner, but says it’s important to understand that it is best used as a balancing product.
“A pH-balanced toner allows the skin to function at its optimum especially when used morning and evening,” she says. “It can be used across all skin types—oily, dehydrated, dry—the right toner is best suited for all.”
Her best advice: “Think about your shower curtain or bath after a shower and the residue that is left behind. When cleansing your face, water leaves behind a residue. Using toner to remove the water residue balances the skin and helps to avoid damage that can lead to dehydration and/or premature aging.”
Davie, FL dermatologist Marianna Blyumin-Karasik, MD also stresses the balancing benefit when it comes to toners. “Toners have skin balancing effect by gently purifying, soothing, hydrating, and equilibrating skin pH. This provides skin with fresh and even tone ideal for the rest of cosmetic applications.”
However, she warns, some toners can be very harsh on sensitive skin. “If they contain potent exfoliants such as AHA/BHA mix and/or alcohol with astringent properties, they may cause dryness and irritation. So using gentle, calming toners is better for most skin types. I personally like PCA Nutrient Toner with pumpkin extract and lactic acid gentle exfoliation, which is calming and glow boosting simultaneously.”
While Campbell, CA dermatologist Amelia K. Hausauer, MD isn’t totally against toner, she see a lot of patients not selecting the correct toner for their skin type.
“We spend too much time and money on toners, which often do not match our skin type [i.e. they are too drying], instead of ingredients or products that have been studied more extensively,” she stresses. “That does not mean toners are useless. I just do not see them as a staple in skin-care regimens and do not routinely recommend them for my patients, as I think we have better products for hydrating, cleansing and exfoliating.”
Like Dr. Downie, Saddle Brook, NJ dermatologist Dr. Fredric Haberman says a toner’s main job is to gently “refresh” your skin without stripping it of its natural moisture. “This means toner won’t irritate sensitive skin or cause excessive dryness.”
He also says it’s smart to look at toner as a “prep-step”—a product that prepares the skin to drink up your post-cleansing moisturizer and any other skin treatments that you may apply. “Toner is a fast-penetrating liquid that delivers skin a quick hit of hydration and helps remove some dead cells off the surface of the skin,” Dr. Haberman explains. “The result is plump, glowy skin. On a makeup-related note, toner is like a primer for the rest your skin-care routine, like serums and moisturizer. It brings your skin back to its natural acidic state, sweeping impurities away and helping your skin absorb your skin-care products.”
“Your skin is like a dried-up sponge,” he adds. “If you put a thick cream on a brittle, dry sponge, it won’t accept it and it isn’t ‘prepped’ for moisture. But if you wet the sponge, the cream will sink in more easily.”
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