Every so often, I get questions from clients on skincare. Here's an interesting one from my sister: “Should I be using a toner?” Read on to find out.
There are multiple categories of skin care products: cleanser, toner, essence, serum, moisturizer, mask … what else am I missing? The function of cleansers and moisturizers are the easiest to understand. Cleansers remove dirt and oil from your skin. Moisturizers add hydration (or moisture) to your skin. Toners fall into a grey zone in terms of functionality. Some define the function as cleansing of your skin pores. Some define the function as adding more hydration or other additives. Hyaluronic acid and vegetable glycerin are examples of humectants that help with extra hydration while vitamins are other beneficial additives that can be added.
A toner, essence, water, or serum can all provide similar functionality. They are typically used after cleansing and before applying moisturizer and are watery in consistency. Some toners have alcohol in them. These are sometimes labeled as astringent toners. They are marketed as products that "tighten pores". Technically, pores do not open, close, or tighten. What happens is that the skin around the pores tightens because of dryness (alcohol is very drying) giving you the impression that your pores are tighter.
Coming back to the question “Should I use a toner?” - below are three reasons to use one
I personally use real soap to cleanse my body and sometimes my face. The reason is because I made a choice to eliminate plastic from my skin care regimen as much as possible. (Saroya offers a solid shampoo bar that is neutral in pH that can double as body soap, but I prefer real soap because it can be made from scratch from plant oils.) The pH of the soap I make is around 8 so I use an acidic toner immediately after to neutralize the alkalinity.
This toner from Keihl’s has calendula and burdock botanical extracts meant to soothe sensitive skin.
This toner from Neutrogena is just water and butylene glycol and not terribly useful in my opinion. Other than a humectant and panthenol, it has no other nourishing ingredients.
Some toners contain witch hazel, a bark with astringent properties, that constricts skin and gives the feeling of tightening pores. It is debatable if astringents do any good. However, witch hazel extract contains other beneficial skin nutrients such as polyphenols which are antioxidants. But beware of commercial products containing witch hazel as they can contain significant amounts of alcohol which is extra drying.
Saroya makes a botanical toner called Queen of Hungary Water. Apple cider vinegar is used to make a tincture of ten different botanicals selected to manage acne as well provide a bunch of antioxidants. The toner also serves the purpose of balancing the pH of skin (as vinegar is acidic) This product can also be used on underarms to fight body odor as acetic acid, a key ingredient of vinegar, is an effective antibacterial. It’s a truly multi-purpose product.
(You will rarely find skin care products containing vinegar. SW Basics, a natural skin care company sells a toner with apple cider vinegar).
Vinegar is chosen as a solvent for extracting the actives from botanicals. In herbalism, some common solvents are alcohol, vinegar, and glycerin. These solvents are good because they are unfriendly to mold and bacteria while being good solvents to extract the actives. While none of these solvents is ideal (alcohol is too drying, vinegar stinks, glycerin is too sticky), they do a good job of extraction to deliver high doses of actives than would be possible in a cream for example.
In conclusion, consider a toner if you would like to get some new functionality that you aren’t getting from your regular routine. Do not simply pick a product based on the cover - read the ingredients and understand what they can do for you!