What Is Toner, Anyway?

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I’ve been obediently applying the liquids and “lotions” otherwise known as toners since I started caring about skincare—simply because someone, somewhere, at some beauty counter/sleepover/dermatologist’s office told me I should. My life would have continued that way, too, if a curious friend hadn't asked a simple question: Why? And it was then that I realized I had about as much hearsay understanding of the product group as an elementary school student trying to explain childbirth. Even a quick scroll through our Top Shelves didn’t clear the fog much— Liya Kebede touts their deep-cleaning action; Sarah Rutson claims that toner helps boost her moisturizer; and makeup artist Siddhartha Bekers uses it to rebalance her skin after using a cleanser. And Beth Ditto refers to her toner as simply, "The best thing you’ll ever use in your life."

But toners should not be among life’s great mysteries, I reasoned. So, overcoming the fear that seeing behind the curtain would reveal that we've been spending far too much time and hard-earned dough experimenting with tap water or worse, I reached out to Mila Moursi, the Los Angeles skincare specialist loved by Chloe Malle and behind Arianna Huffington's age-defying, pore-less skin, to reveal the truth about toners:

Why tone? “A toner's function is to complete the cleansing of your skin—removing the dust, pollution, and impurities that can still be lingering after washing with a cleanser, as cleansers usually contain ingredients such as oil, which can leave a film on your face.”

What's in a toner? “Most toners are water-based liquids composed of specific active ingredients including plant extracts and essential oils, tailored to address a variety of skin types. Mainly there are hydrating toners, calming and soothing toners, and astringent toners. We have a pH Balancing Toner and a Cleansing Toner."

What's in a good toner? “I’d look for rosewater—for its hydrating, clarifying, and energizing properties—or chamomile, which is wonderful for calming and soothing the skin. Or both! Alcohol is usually found in astringent toners for oily skin. Their function is to dry out the skin and be especially anti-bacterial—but you don’t want to use those excessively because it will over-dry the skin. Alcohol isn't bad for your skin, but it just depends on the percentage.”

How should a toner be used? “After using a cleanser with warm water and a washcloth, splash your face with cold water. Then, saturating two cotton pads, use toner on your face, neck, and décolletage at night to complete the cleansing of the skin, and in the morning to remove sebum produced during the night and to balance your skin's pH. Finish by applying your treatment products and/or cream.”

Can you DIY? “Yes! For all skin types, I’d suggest a green-tea toner: make one cup of green tea, add half a teaspoon of honey. Mix well. After the mixture’s cooled, add three drops of jasmine essential oil and pour into an airtight bottle. There’s your toner! Just store it in a cool place. And for normal to oily skin types, I'd recommend an apple-cider vinegar toner: mix the juice of one lemon with one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar. Then, mix in 200 mL of mineral water. Again, pour into an airtight container and store it in a cool place. But, because lemon is photosensitive, only use this one at night."

—Mackenzie Wagoner

Photos by Mathea Millman. 

Let’s Talk About It! JOIN IN
  • p90

    If your cleanser doesn't remove all of your makeup and 'impurities, dust and pollution' then you need a new cleanser. The purpose of a toner is to rebalance, pH wise after cleansing, hydrate and exfoliate.

    • Carm

      I say this ALL the time! Or you are doing a piss pore job of washing your face.

      • Guest

        "Piss pore." I see what you did there. And I like it!

    • eternalvoyageur

      Yes! I can´t believe the post didn´t mention pH levels once. Basically, cleansers tend to be alkaline. Our skin likes to be slightly acidic. Toner brings the skin´s pH level closer to normal.

    • http://www.oqibo.co.uk/ Oqibo Professional Skincare

      Absolutely! A cleanser should do just that, skin should feel clean, comfortable and balanced. No tightness, stinging or tingling. Technique is important too as is using the right product for the job. Double cleansing is particularly helpful when on a make-up day or in need of extra attention.
      Toners are not all the same but the ph element you mention is so important but so often missed or overlooked. Toners heavily acidic or very high in harsh ingredients such as alcohol will provide a possibly desired but temporary toning and astringent effect but this can strip away vital oils within the skin, upsetting the natural surface balance or causing irritation.
      Conditioning toners are a great option, they actively put back what is lost through the cleansing process (and yes we of course lose some natural oils and essential skin protectors). Look out for products that hydrate and balance with ingredients essential to naturally healthy and happy skin.

      http://www.oqibo.co.uk/cat/skincare/

    • Sophia

      I'm a licensed esthetician in two states and I totally agree with you. When we wash our face, the pH of our skin becomes imbalanced and toner rebalances it, calms it and helps restore hydration.

  • Eleri Roberts

    Amazing post! I always get so confused with the range of toners out there!

    I'm loving Origins make a difference + lotion right now to help keep blemishes at bay, and I've heard Lush's tea tree water is rather good too xx

    Eleri Roberts

  • Mademoiselle nature

    Super great article! Toner is a great part of my cleansing routine.
    I wrote an special post about my fav toner:

    http://mademoisellenature.blogspot.nl/2013/04/wy-i-love-rose-flower-water.html

    xx

  • xx

    toners most important function is to bring skin pH back to right level after cleansing

  • Charlotte MacDonald-Gaunt

    Call me old fashioned but I enjoy using a toner and it's a great way to make sure you get rid of all of the cleansing product :o) Xx

    Makeup by Candlelight

  • http://www.travelpennies.com/ Nicola

    I use the Darphin Intral toner, and I love it. It did seem crazy expensive, but it instantly soothes my sensitive/rosacea skin. It just feels like "aaahhhhhh" going on!
    Lots of people rave about exfoliating toners too, but they're too harsh for me.

  • Elle m

    Love this. Thank you. Tea with essential oil sounds really nice.
    I use rose water..feels soft and smooth. (During the summer it is also a more affordable alternative for evian when you put some in a little spray bottle.)

  • Mary

    I use my Clarins toner with Iris and I like it a lot+ sometimes I use as a toner Caudalie Beaty Elixir.

  • http://thehitchcockiancockatoo.blogspot.com/ Christine

    Thanks for clarifying! I, too, apply toner every night and morning without really knowing the purpose. The more you know! :)

  • Jane

    I would drink Environ toner if I could. It's not too harsh at all - moisturizes a bit and never leaves skin feeling tight or dry. Plus it's the only thing that's helped to clear up and maintain my skin. Would highly recommend.

  • Lucy

    I LOVE toners. I have oily skin but alcohol and chemical astringents can really make it unbalanced which irritates my skin even more. You have to try the YULI Panacea elixir, it is seriously so good!

    Also a good source is Green Derm: http://greenderm.blogspot.com/2013/06/summer-skin-must-facial-mist.html

  • anonymous

    I would classify Bioderma Crealine as a cleanser, not a toner.

    • murt

      Definitely - that was my first thought when I saw the picture! don't use Bioderma Crealine/Sensibio as a toner!!

    • EM

      I bought some of the Bioderma Sensibo and can't figure out how to use it. It says not to rinse it, but it feels weird to just leave it on my skin, and it also doesn't feel like I expected-- it sort of just feels like I am adding something on top of my skin, and not taking things off, if that makes sense.

    • ITGMackenzie

      Elodie Bouchez and Emily have used it as a 2-in-1 cleanser and toner. Emily talks about it here:
      http://intothegloss.com/2011/12/my-skin-care-december-2011/

      xo
      MW

  • vvn

    I've heard that witch hazel is a great toner. Any info/thoughts on that?

  • Katrina

    I am an obsessive skin freak who not only double cleanses, but DOUBLE TONES. I just got the cult favorite, Biologique Recherché P50. I have used some great toners, from YonKa to Clarins, but this is the only toner that has made a magical difference in unclogging pores. Yo, it's even minimized a chin breakout. It's got a slightly funky smell, but I kind of like it and it's TINGLY. Everyone from Caroline Hirons to Wayne Goss swear by it. Then, after P50 I'll use a hydrating toner, either rose water or Hadalabo's Gokyujin (which has three types of hyaluronic acid and it's crazy moist).

    From what I understand, toning not only should be the last step in cleansing, but corrects your skin's acid mantle to an acidic pH. An alkaline acid mantle is a great breeding ground for bacteria and breakouts! Yuck!

  • Bells

    If your cleanser doesn't remove all of your makeup and dirt, double cleanse. And then copy beautiful Isabelle Bellis when she sprays thermal water on her face to balance the pH of her skin. I think toner is an unnecessary step.

  • Charmystique

    Honestly Toner has made such a difference in my skincare routine. I never believed in using it, but it's been amazing in removing any residue/dirt/dust from my face. (BTW, I do double cleanse, with my Clarisonic!) It's great in balancing my skin's PH too, I don't break out as much now. I use the toner from Derma Rx, it's non-alcoholic and doesn't dry out your skin.

    http://www.charmystique.blogspot.com/

  • GlossyFinds

    Omg toner decoded in a few simple notes, thanks for clearing this up for me. For years I've ignored toners because they tend to over-dry my skin, but the DIY recipes seem like a more gentler alternative. Are there any toners that you recommend for combination skin? Would love to hear more about this subject.

    Xo

    • katie

      I have combination skin and my favorite is SW Basics of Brooklyn's toner . Ingredients: "water, organic raw apple cider vinegar, witch hazel. organic essential oils of clary sage and sandalwood." When I ran out a couple of months ago i tried to make my own version with witch hazel, a.c.v., and water, but it just wasn't in the same ballpark. I really recommend giving it a go if you have skin prone to both breakouts and dryness, like i do. :)

    • ITGMackenzie

      Hi @disqus_WO5MXpdK4s:disqus,
      I agree with Katie (below). Apple cider vinegar is going to help balance your pH, which will keep your skin from venturing to oily or dry extremes. I would look for any toner aimed at balancing your pH. Mila Moursi's is great (it's what Chloe Malle uses). And then just try to stay hydrated and moisturized. I hope that helps!

      xo
      MW

  • Bella

    I don't use toner and I can't really say that I miss it. I cleanse with Murad Refreshing Cleanser and my Clarisonic, and after rinsing, when I wipe my face with a white muslin cloth it remains white. I then apply serum and moisturiser and I think that's quite enough.

  • EM

    I just started using toner (Clinique Clarifying Lotion 2) a few weeks ago after never understanding what it was for, and it seems to have made a huge difference in my skin already-- it's less oily during the day, and it seems to clear up clogged pores and breakouts faster. Plus my skin just feels super clean after I apply it, and I think it helps my lotion sink in faster. Whatever it's doing, I like it!

  • http://theposhblog.com/ Posh

    I, too, only have toner because some beauty informant told me I need it. Part of the 3 step cleansing process…I am bad about toning. Thanks for this info, I'm going to start using my toner daily, at least after my last wash for the day.

  • CFH

    I have been using Decleor's Tonifying Lotion for four years now. It smells amazing, and I love how it removes whatever film is on my face from the oil/cream cleansers I use. I use it morning and night; it's my favorite skincare product.

  • Bells

    I understand your point of view, but I say it's an unnecessary step because I already have a good exfoliating serum, my moisturizers have antioxidants and if I need more moisture, I top it off with a facial oil. These are all more potent than a toner.
    I use floral waters or thermal water to calm my skin every once in a while. If they are considered toners, then they are the only "useful" types for me. :)

  • pamb

    I tend to use a toner when I get home from work to take off my makeup and feel clean. Then I will wash my face before bed (several hours later). I also use toner as a midday cleanse when I'm not wearing makeup to remove dirt and oil.

  • thisgirl….

    What about witch hazel as a toner? Is that good for you?

  • Vanessa Reyes

    I just read about Pixi Glow and I am interested in it as well. Found this review http://www.carolinehirons.com/2012/11/pixi-glow-tonic-p50-dupe.html

  • AC

    I just use Witch Hazel. It makes my skin brighter and fresher. It also sooths any bumps or redness.

PRODUCTS MENTIONED

Mila Moursi
Mila Moursi pH Balancing Toner
Mila Moursi
Mila Moursi Cleansing Toner
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