What Does Toner Do for Your Skin?

A woman with rosy cheeks wipes her face down with toner on a pad.

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You wash your face, you moisturize, but do you use toner?

Toner is often the middle step in a daily skincare routine. If you remember, as a teenager, you might have swiped your skin with some stinging liquid and a cotton ball, hoping to erase your acne. That was some of the earliest toner available.

These days, there's a wide range of products that fall under the toner label. The umbrella term can include skin fresheners, tonics, bracers astringents, clarifying liquids, flower waters and humectants — and they all do different things, depending on the type. Whether or not you need one in your skincare routine is up for debate, say dermatologists.

The changing face of toner

An Indian woman wipes her face down with toner.

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"Way back when, toners were essentially synonymous with alcohol and were for the purpose of removing oil from the skin," Boston-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ranella Hirsch tells MNN. "There has been an increasing awareness that reducing oil via astringent is rarely the suitable approach and, these days, there are all kinds of toners. Some are alcohol-free, which would never have happened back then."

In addition to making the skin less oily, those early toners were used to return the pH of the skin back to normal after using soap, says Dr. Sandra Marchese Johnson, board-certified dermatologist based in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

"What we know, however, is that type of toner is no longer needed since we have gentle cleansers, and those alcohol-based toners actually cause the skin to make more oil."

What today's toners do

A woman wipes her face with toner on a cotton pad.

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Newer toners promise dewier, balanced skin. They don't have alcohol and act more like beneficial water.

"To put it simply, toner looks like water and acts like water. But I swear it's not water," writes Allure's Devon Abelman. "It's packed with so much more than hydrogen and oxygen. Depending on the toner, it also can contain acids, glycerin, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatories. If you want to talk science, a toner is a fast-penetrating liquid that delivers skin a quick hit of hydration and helps remove some dead cells off the surface of the skin."

There are toners that promise to address all types of skin care needs.

"More novel products function almost like a primer and provide better hydration," says Hirsch.

Toners loosely fall into three general categories: traditional toners or tonics, astringents and fresheners, according to HowStuffWorks.

  • Traditional toners/tonics include oils, moisturizers and any extracts that soothe your skin. They may contain a small amount of alcohol and a humectant to moisturize.
  • Astringents have higher levels of alcohol. These are older-type toners that work to remove oil and tighten pores and skin.
  • Fresheners don't have alcohol. They are mostly water and a humectant.

How to use toners

A Korean woman puts toner on a cotton pad.

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If you're adding a toner to a three-step beauty routine, it goes after cleansing and before moisturizing. Unless directions say otherwise, apply it after your skin is still wet from rinsing to make it more easy for ingredients to penetrate your skin.

For people with a serious commitment to skin care, Korean beauty routines have become more popular. They require a little more time and devotion.

The "7 Skin Method," which is popular in Korea, involves applying toner to your face seven times. Yes, seven. The toner step happens after you cleanse and before you moisturize.

"By layering your toner multiple times, your skin gets to absorb more of the hydrating ingredients, ultimately giving you hydrated and healthy skin," Young-Ji Park, founder of Korean beauty skin-care brand Purpletale, tells Allure.

Here's a video that explains the 7 Skin Method:

If that's a little too ambitious for your morning schedule, don't fret.

"There are people who follow a classic model as you see in Korea, as an example, where they might be amenable to seven or eight steps to achieve their skincare prep," says Hirsch. "By contrast, many women really need to get their day going with two or three steps."

What dermatologists say

A white woman with a towel in her hair wipes her skin with a cotton pad.

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Some people love toner and say they couldn't live without it. Others say it's an unnecessary step.

"Most dermatologists do not think a toner is needed," says Johnson. "I don't think there are many benefits. I encourage patients to think about their skin and what they what to accomplish with their skin care. If their skin is dry, choose a product that is more greasy. If their skin is oily, choose a product that is thinner like a serum."

Instead, she advises a gentle cleanser (like Cetaphil, Cerave, Aveeno or Neutrogena) followed by a treatment product, if needed, and a moisturizer, if needed, topped off by sun protection.

"I do not really like toners, astringents, exfoliating lotions," Johnson says. "Most of them either dehydrate the skin (because of so much alcohol), have a lot of fragrance (which is irritating to the skin) or are not needed (just an extra step without benefit to the skin but adds extra time and cost to your skin care routine)."

New York board-certified dermatologist Rachel Nazarian told the Huffington Post that she doesn't use a toner and doesn't think they add anything to skin care.

"They certainly don’t enhance my skin care. These days, a lot of the toners are different ― they’re not alcohol-based, but they’re more the Korean sense of a toner, where they’ll prep the skin for better absorption. They’re basically wetting the skin, so when you wet skin, things absorb better. I just put a lot of products on after the shower after I wash my face, so I don't feel the need to ever pay for a toner."

Hirsh also doesn't believe toner is a necessity.

"For the great majority of people, toner is a nice, not a must," she says.