If there is one step and/or product that confuses my clients the most it is toning. “Do I really need to use a facial toner?” “What exactly does toner do?” and “How much toner should I be using?” are common questions from my clients whenever I review or give them a skin care routine. We’re coming out of a time where people were unnecessarily going through 10+ steps of an elaborate skin care routine, so I understand the confusion. Plus, skin care brands and marketers aren’t doing the best job of educating consumers on this particular product other than saying you “need” it. But do you, really? For many of you the answer is actually no but read this post in it’s entirety to fully understand why.
A Very Brief History of Facial Toner
So back in the day, like in the Biblical times, a toner acted a lot like a cleanser. It would often be a tonic that contained a blend of herbs and oils. Was it really cleansing? Probably not but it smelled good and people believed that it would help make them more beautiful. Historically, we have always loved swiping a scented water across our faces.
Over time, these face tonics became more “medicinal” in use and as a result were more astringent. Medicinal is in quotes because it was just marketing. There was absolutely no medical reason to be putting this astringent concoction on your face but people believed that it helped them to look younger for longer, tighten their pores, prevent wrinkles and other things it didn’t actually do. In fact, they were just called “astringents” then or “astringent tonic”. These astringent tonic recipes usually involved lots of water mixed with alcohols, witch hazels, borax and vibes. Crazy times!
And then came the FDA.
What we generally now know as facial toner is the result of a crackdown by the US FDA in the 1940s. In 1938, US Congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetics act which extended control of the FDA to include oversight into cosmetics and therapeutic devices. Prior to this, the world of beauty was completely unregulated in the US. Skin tonics, astringents, and the like were one of the first products the FDA decided to come down on because they widely used medicinal claims in their marketing and had no scientific or medical proof to substantiate their claims.
So what did the cosmetic industry do to circumvent the law? A rebrand. After dropping the medical claims and giving the liquid a shiny new name (“Toner” or “Facial Tonic”), we have the product that you know today as the second step in a skin care routine. Since then Toners have had at least two additional rebrands (“Essence” and “Freshener” comes to mind). Whatever the name you know it as today, it’s still the second step after cleansing in your skin care routine or the scented water our ancestors loved.
The Real Reason to Use a Facial Toner
Despite what the historical context of astringents or facial toners says, this liquid does absolutely nothing to shrink, refine, or do anything to your pores. There are a few other valid reasons one may opt to use a facial toner though.
The primary reason for using a facial toner is to restore the skin’s pH but ONLY if you may be using a very active, prescription cleanser that would dramatically shift your pH to begin with. In the past, cleansers could be formulated to be a little harsher on the skin. In 2022 and beyond, it is very unlikely that you’d be using such a cleanser unless you have a more severe form of acne or some other medical condition that requires a harsher face wash. Facial cleansers made today are generally formulated to be pH balanced no matter what skin concern they are targeting. However, if later down your routine you may apply a serum or something that alters the pH, it may be smart to apply toner following that. This all depends on the product of course.
Another major reason for utilizing a facial toner is your plumbing system. If you believe your dwelling has “hard water”, using a facial toner (on a cotton round) can help to remove any residue you’ve gotten from hard water on your face. You know you have hard water if, after cleansing, your face feels incredibly tight within seconds and like a fine film is over it. That fine film is the trace minerals and salts from the water. (In California, I feel like everyone experiences this.)
Lastly, if dewy and glowing skin is your go-to look then facial toner is your secret weapon. The key to dewy, glowing skin is hydration and the best way to get your skin hydrated is with a toner. This is also the key for those with very oily skin. Keeping your skin hydrated helps balance oil production. Personally, applying toner with your hands/fingertips or using a mist does the best job of achieving that dewy look.
What is the Best Toner to Use?
The best facial toner to use for everyone is almost always going to be a hydrating toner. For those with active breakouts, the best toner to use is going to be a hydrating toner with antiseptic and antibacterial properties. Face Reality’s Moisture Balance Toner is probably the top toner I recommend especially for my acne clients because it checks all the boxes.
If aging and hyperpigmentation is a primary skin concern then a hydrating toner with antioxidants and tyrosinase inhibitors (but no exfoliants!) is a smart choice. The Acwell Licorice pH Balancing Cleansing Toner is great for that.
Whatever you do, please STOP using exfoliants as toners. The Paula’s Choice 2% BHA, Biologique Recherche P50 Lotion are the top two culprits that come to mind. Everyone is overusing those.