Home / Blog / Do you need toner for skin care? A dermatologist weighs in

Do you need toner for skin care? A dermatologist weighs in

Aug 22, 2023Aug 22, 2023

Thu, August 03, 2023 at 4:40:20 PM EDT

Your skin care routine is personal and somewhat ritualistic. It’s a daily chance to care for yourself — and your skin — in a calming, soothing way. That said, the skin care products you choose are majorly important, especially for your skin’s overall health.

Some skin care products are a given in any routine, like cleanser, moisturizer and sunscreen. Any products branching outside these core steps may seem unnecessary. Arguably, the first to go when eliminating skin care steps (and products) is usually toner — but should it be?

Toner is an oft-misunderstood skin care product that may seem like a waste of money. While creams and serums can feel luxurious, toner often feels like water. And why pay for fancy water when you get it from the tap?

Well, toner’s a lot more than just a refreshing spritz after cleansing. If you aren’t a believer in toner, you may want to rethink your stance, and here’s why.

The Cleveland Clinic describes toner as a water-based skin care tonic used after cleansing but before serums or moisturizers. Indeed, that is exactly what toners are — now. In the past, toners were largely alcohol-based products, and that’s one reason for the skin care product’s rough reputation.

Dermatologist and Sajic Skin Science founder Dr. Dusan Sajic has noticed the recent questioning of toners, saying many dermatologists and customers have begun viewing toners as “superfluous or even harmful.”

“The fear is that toners might strip the skin or cause dryness. This largely stems from their historical use in counteracting highly alkaline, drying cleansers,” Dr. Sajic says, referring to those alcohol-based products of the past. “Toners were but one part of an antiquated multi-cream system. Modern cleansers, however, are formulated to be gentle and balanced while many all-in-one or multi-purpose products have integrated most common toners into the product — without using the word toner — thus diminishing the perceived need for toners.”

Reframing your idea concept of toners — from counteracting agents to ingredient-rich tonics — may shift your perception of the product’s overall value in your skin care routine.

Dr. Sajic says, “The term toner has a much wider definition and can be used for any product that freshens, softens, balances the skin or act as a skin freshener, tonic, balancer or even adaptogen.”

Sounds appealing, huh?

As you can probably guess, Dr. Sajic is pro toner, saying the skincare ingredient is oft misunderstood.

“Despite declining sales and a reputation for being unnecessary, toners can play a significant role in skin care for many of my patients,” Dr. Sajic says. “Toner can play a significant role in skin health and the overall vitality and resilience of your skin. However, it’s not so much about the ingredients per se but ensuring that your overall regimen holistically addresses the seven crucial elements of skin health: optimization of the epithelial barrier, stimulation of growth factors and natural moisturizing factors, structural support, microbiome maintenance, inflammation management, neutralization of reactive oxygen species and toxins and DNA repair.”

Now, those are big, lofty skin care concepts. But basically, you want your entire skin care routine to include products that hydrate, exfoliate, moisturize, protect, balance, firm, heal and soothe. And depending on your skin type, you may want to focus more on some of these areas than others.

According to Dr. Sajic, toners can be essential for microbiome health or DNA repair — in other words, skin healing and balance.

“While popular skin care ingredients like sunscreen, retinol and vitamin C can address aspects such as epithelial barrier health, collagen and pigmentation, they often neglect other critical factors like microbiome health or DNA damage repair,” Dr. Sajic says. “These areas need attention, especially for those who are outdoorsy and love the sun. For more tailored skin care advice, including the potential addition of toner or other specialized products, it’s best to consult with your dermatologist.”

Dr. Sajic adds that toners can help with cleansing or removing excess makeup that dedicated cleansers and soaps cannot, delivering extra hydration, preparing the skin for further skin care steps and controlling oily skin. They can also address issues like acne, scarring, redness and hyperpigmentation.

The benefits of adding a toner to your routine will largely depend on the main ingredients included in your chosen product. When adding a toner to your routine, Dr. Sajic recommends evaluating your skin type and concerns — and considering what might be missing from your current line-up.

“For instance, if you have oily or acne-prone skin, consider toners with salicylic acid or tea tree oil. Dry or sensitive skin may benefit from ingredients like hyaluronic acid, aloe vera or chamomile,” he says. “If skin vitality is a concern, look for toners with antioxidants such as vitamin C or hydroxytyrosol. If you want to repair skin, look for toners that have reparative peptides and DNA repair enzymes.”

For further tailoring, talk to your dermatologist for a specific recommendation. But to get you started, here are some top-rated recommendations that have redefined toners for skin care lovers everywhere.

This top-rated water-based toner by Buttah Skin contains alpha and beta hydroxy salicylic acids to help balance excess oil and unclog pores. The product is also infused with calming aloe, rosewater and lavender, leaving a soothing scent.

The Indie Lee CoQ10 Toner is all about hydration and balance. The water-based formula uses antioxidants, hyaluronic acid, aloe, chamomile and cucumber to help calm, refresh and soften skin.

This antioxidant-rich toner by Dermalogica improves skin texture, fights skin damage and moisturizes dehydrated skin. Active ingredients like vitamin C, hyaluronic acid and collagen peptides support skin vitality and firmness.

EltaMD’s Skin Recovery Essence Toner uses a blend of amino acids to help repair skin damage and a mineral-rich copper complex to help protect against environmental aggressors. The enzyme-rich formula is fragrance-free and water-based, making it especially safe for sensitive and acne-prone skin.

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