Posted on Monday, February 9th, 2015
Toners were once de-rigour in skin care routines. They fell out of favour in the 90s and are now gaining popularity once more in the form of facial spritz’s and sprays.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of do you need a toner, it will depend on your skin, your environment and the other products in your routine.
Researching and understanding the ingredients in a toner is key to making a truly strategic decision. Are your other products providing everything that your skin needs? Or, does the toner you’re considering come with ingredients and benefits that you’re not getting from other products? Does the toner contain ingredients, such as alcohol, that you don’t want in your routine?
Toners don’t fulfil the role they were originally designed for.
Toning, stimulating or freshening the skin after cleansing was recommended as far back as the early 1900s and grew in popularity throughout the twentieth century.
This was fuelled by a belief that pores were opened and closed by muscles and that if they relaxed and opened during cleansing, then they needed to be closed again with an astringent to avoid clogging-induced blackheads and pimples.
The three-step cleanse, tone, moisturise routine emerged in the 1960s with the role of toners touted as ‘clarifying’ and ‘refining’ the skin, terms vague enough to avoid troubling the advertising regulators. Bar soaps were the most popular cleansers at the time and they left a residue that alcohol-based toners helped to dissolve. They were also alkaline, so toners were seen as helpful in ‘balancing’ skin back towards its natural acidity.
Now that modern cleansers are formulated to match the skin’s PH and leave minimal residue, and our understanding of pores and the functioning of skin has evolved, these traditional needs are no longer relevant.
Further reading: A great overview of the history of toners here.
This been answered succinctly by Paula Begoun in her book The Original Beauty Bible.
“What well-formulated toners can do its help reduce inflammation, add antioxidant, skin-identical ingredients, and cell-communicating ingredients to skin, soothe skin after cleansing, help remove any last traces of makeup, and impart some lightweight moisturizing ingredients to skin. “
A toner can still play an important role post-cleansing.
Immediately after cleansing, your skin is flooded with moisture as the cells in the outer layer attract and absorb water and swell.
Unfortunately, the ability of these cells to regulate this water can be altered, or even destroyed, by the detergents in cleansers. Although this means that more water is allowed in, and there’s increased moisture and swelling of the cells at first, this increase is temporary and the moisture plunges as the water evaporates, leaving the skin dehydrated.
A toner can help at this point by adding moisture and keeping the skin protected, hydrated and ready for a moisturiser’s occlusive ingredients (those providing a physical barrier) to help seal some moisture in.
When it has a lot of moisture, the skin is more porous and has increased absorption ability. So, by keeping the outer cells from drying out, a toner can also help allow for better penetration of other ingredients, either in the toner itself, or in the product you apply next.
Note, we’re referring to the skin’s upper layers of cells, not deeper penetration, which in its role as barrier, the skin is designed to resist.
While opening and closing pores is no longer a thing, and ‘toning’ has fallen out of fashion as a beauty term, it is still possible to achieve a temporary tightening of the skin by using a toner with astringent properties (natural options include witch hazel and orange blossom hydrosol). These may work by causing a contraction in tiny blood vessels in the skin.
If you’re pressed for time and don’t need to remove makeup, sunscreen, or heavy pollution or grime, a toner in combination with a cotton pad to wipe your face may be the perfect one-step routine. You are removing cleanser residue and left-over grime, while treating your skin.
Or this can also be a second-cleansing step, known as the double-cleanse.
While the original three-step cleanse, tone, moisturise routine has the toning step in the middle, this doesn’t have to be the case. If you choose a toner with ingredients to help reduce inflammation or do other things such as balance sebum or support cell regeneration, you can add this step at any stage in your routine that suits. ie. as a stand-alone spritz, instead of moisturising (if your skin is oily), as part of a home facial treatment, mixed with dry exfoliants or to supercharge a mask.
Read on for our toner question checklist and our take:
If your skin is dehydrated, a toner is likely a useful product for you as long as it doesn’t contain alcohol or other potential drying ingredients (many toners do).
Adding back a surge of moisture after cleansing can help your moisturiser, oil or serum penetrate better and depending on the product you use, may also help your skin retain moisture better over time.
If you’re a beauty purist and keen on products with minimal ingredients performing one specific role in your routine, ie. you use a very simple cleanser (or oil cleanse) and/or use pure oil to moisturise, a strategic toner choice may be very beneficial to treat any specific issues your skin is showing. For instance, to calm redness or help to balance sebum.
If you’re already in a multiple product routine -i.e moisturiser, eye cream, serum, other treatment products – a toner may be overkill.
If you are often in skin-stressing dry-air environments, such as offices or aircraft, or suffer through dry Autumns or Winters, a spritz of a simple toner like rose water as and when your skin needs a moisture boost, may help.
This may be a case where a toner is useful strategically in certain situations, rather than as a staple in your routine.
If you’re already using a moisturiser that contains water (i.e that’s made by emulsifying water and oil), you may not need the extra moisture a toner can provide.
If you’re using a pure oil (i.e. no moisture) the moisture in a toner may be beneficial.
A toner may be perfect for you after cleansing, especially one that helps to balance sebum.
Many toners come with alcohol and a host of other potential irritants including fragrance. These may contribute to the skin health issues you’re trying to solve and are best skipped.
A hydrosol is the enriched water produced when flowers or other parts of plants are distilled. They make great toners. Here’s why:
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