Toners are a bit like the Chandler Bing of the skincare world: nobody knows exactly what they do for a living. Think about it. What does it even mean to “show” someone’s skin?
“Traditionally, toners were used as a mop product,” explains dermatologist Dr. Renée Beach from Toronto. “Cleanings left a bit of soapy residue and didn’t wash away completely. So initially, toners were meant to make this cleaner.”
The term has since evolved to mean a myriad of things. Scroll through the toner section of the Sephora site and you’ll come across potions that promise to do everything from smooth texture to controlling oil or boosting hydration. “I think now, frankly, they’ve become an unrecognizable product,” says Beach. The question is: do you really need one? Read on for the answer.
What does the word “toner” actually mean?
“I don’t know if it was initially to ‘soften the skin’ or to lighten the skin in some way,” Beach said. “The skin’s pH is around 5.5, so there was an idea that using a toner could help restore the skin’s pH to that level.” This is important because the pH of the skin is associated with homeostasis, which means that the barrier is most stable, with the barrier functioning optimally and you have a healthy level of bacteria to protect the epidermis. The point is, however, “whether that’s actually being done with the products on the market right now is highly debatable.”
Is it essential to restore the pH of the skin after cleansing?
“Depends on what cleanser you use,” says Beach. “Let’s say you’re using a syn-det abbreviation for synthetic detergent cleanser, they’re already designed to mimic the pH of the skin, so in that capacity you wouldn’t need to restore the pH because nothing has been disrupted.” in the first place.” Examples of synthetic detergents are something gentle like Cetaphil or CeraVe.
Do all toners do the same?
“No, and I think that can be traced back to the fact that we’ve moved away from what a toner was initially,” says the pro. Indeed, today many toners contain ingredients such as AHAs (such as glycolic and lactic acids) or BHAs (such as salicylic acid) to help remove dead skin cells and smooth the skin, making them more like exfoliants. Others may contain acne remedies. “So it depends on what is advertised as toner.”
Some toners claim to improve the absorption and performance of subsequent products in your routine. Is there any truth in that?
“If your routine relies on your skin being moisturized by a product to increase absorption, then sure,” says Beach, although you could achieve a similar effect with water, she notes. “Or if your toner contains a sunscreen, can it enhance the sunscreen you apply next? Sure. So it’s possible.” But in crafting a skincare regimen, Beach says she prefers each product to complement rather than improve upon the others. “Each step is a separate step with different properties and objectives.”
Some toners these days are more like liquid exfoliants. Can they be beneficial to the skin?
The good news: Dermatologists recommend chemical exfoliation — the kind provided by toners containing glycolic, lactic, or salicylic acids — over the mechanical kind: Think gritty scrubs or washcloths. The latter type can cause micro-cracks in the skin. “It’s easy to overdo it, leaving the skin raw, irritated, and in a worse state than you started with,” says Beach. “So I think that could be an advantage of having a toner with a little bit of salicylic acid in it, so it offers some exfoliating properties without as much irritation as a microcrystalline product. But then again, it still takes away from the essence of what a toner is. For me you make a serum and just try to call it a toner.”
Are there any ingredients you don’t want to combine with these types of toners?
If you follow an exfoliating toner with more AHAs or BHAs, you could risk irritation, the doc says. “Especially if you have retinol or prescription retinoid on board, that’s too much. There may be an odd skin type that can handle it, but I think you’re probably trying to do too much.
Using a retinol or prescription retinoid and leaving it on overnight will already give you plenty of chemical exfoliation, so there’s no need to add an exfoliating toner to your regimen. If you cannot tolerate retinol or retinoid or cannot use these ingredients because you are pregnant, then AHAs or BHAs, which are much more pleasant for different skin tones, could be good substitutes.
“They can also be a great option for people who use their retinoid three nights a week, but want to do something a few more nights a week.” In that case, you would alternate between the two and make sure you don’t use an exfoliating toner on the same nights you apply a retinol. “We are always tiptoeing over the line between efficacy and irritation.”
Okay, so the crucial question now: do we really need a toner?
“I hate being a party pooper and I know people love their routines and their multiple steps, and I’ll be honest, I do multiple steps too. But I wouldn’t be completely honest if I said I use a toner,” says Beach. She also advises her patients not to use a toner. “I think they’ve been marketed as an essential step in the routine so that people have another step in their regimen.” Instead, what she likes to do, and encourages her patients to try, is a follow-up cleanser with micellar water to gently remove any residual makeup or pollution on the skin.
However, there is one circumstance where she says she will reach for a toner and that is if she gets quite a bit of acne. “I go for one that contains either salicylic acid or glycolic acid because I want that extra boost of skin exfoliation,” she explains. “So I’ll use it then, but I use it expressly because I want to calm the acne without having some sort of thick layer on it.”
But other than that, you don’t really need a toner, she says. “To be honest I don’t know of any derms they have in their office. We all sell products because we want patients to have direct access to what we recommend, and in all the offices I’ve worked at, we’ve never had toner.”
Buy the advice
Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser, $16, amazon.ca SHOP HERE
The mild cleanser: A best seller for a reason, this ultra-gentle cleanser removes impurities without disrupting the skin’s pH balance. It is safe to use on even the most sensitive skin.
Bioderma Sensibio H2O Micellar Water, $14, shoppersdrugmart.ca SHOP HERE
The micellar water: It doesn’t get more classic than Bioderma’s Sensibio H2O micellar water. Many people like to use it before their cleanser to remove makeup, but try Dr. Beach and apply after cleansing to remove any residue.
Farmacy Deep Sweep 2% BHA Pore-Cleansing Toner, $36, sephora.ca SHOP HERE
The salicylic acid toner: If you, like Dr. Beach, if you want to curb some breakouts, look for a product enriched with salicylic acid to help reduce congestion. It also helps control oil and swirls in papaya enzymes for an extra boost of exfoliation.
Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner, $24, sephora.ca SHOP HERE
The Gylcolic Acid Toner: If retinol refuses to play well with your skin or you’re looking for something to use on the nights you don’t, consider getting a dose of chemical exfoliation via a glycolic acid toner. It can help smooth out the texture of your skin so it reflects light better and looks more radiant.
Shani Darden Mini Retinol Reform, $39, sephora.ca SHOP HERE
The retinol serum: A retinol serum provides all the chemical exfoliation you need. This famous facial facialist-to-the-stars, Shani Darden, is also laced with lactic acid for an extra skin-soothing effect. Fans of the product swear by its ability to reduce the appearance of lines, even out tone and texture, and make skin glow. The full size bottle is pretty pricey, but this mini version lets you try the formula out before committing to the real thing.
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