I use the word “elusive” for both its connotation (I remain not 100% certain I need to use toner in the first place) and its denotation (I have struggled far more to find a good toner than I have for any other product). Let’s talk about these two statements, and then I’ll tell you what has worked, thus far, for me.
Do I need to use toner?
Yeah, I’m really not sure. You can find plenty of arguments saying you do and plenty of others saying they’re pointless unless you have REALLY oily skin. So, to me, it comes down to an issue of personal preference. I do think it’s important, though, to point out that you can find plenty of toners that suit the needs of combination and dry skin types – we’ve come a far way from the alcohol-based toners of the past. Personally, I like toner because it feels like a good transition from washing to treating my face. Toner picks up the residue that washing leaves behind, both from your pre-washed face and from the cleanser you’re using, and provides a beautiful blank canvas for the rest of your routine. As such, I consider toner to be more a part of the cleansing step than of the treating step.
What’s the best toner for me?
This is a bit more difficult for me to answer, because honestly, I’m still figuring it out for myself. Many toners are too harsh for any skin type other than very-very-oily. Much like washing your hair, cleansing your face strips it of oils, and overdoing the stripping can be more detrimental than you’d think. You never want your skin to feel tight from cleansing – that means you’ve overdone it, and your face will respond with hyperproduction of sebum to equalize.
All that is a long way of saying that most toners I’ve tried leave my skin a little TOO squeaky clean. I’ve tried basically every well-reviewed toner available at Sephora (to include some “daily peels,” which are really just toning cloths with anti-aging benefits), and have systematically passed on Origins Zero Oil (which left my skin absolutely parched), Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel (which had too many chemicals and left my face feeling raw, and also was WAY pricey), and Bliss Steep Clean Toner Pads (dried out faster than I could use them).
My Current Toner Routine
Essential-C Toner | Murad
I use the Murad Essential-C Toner in the morning after washing my face. As its name might suggest, it’s packed with vitamin C, which provides much-needed brightening in the morning and also attacks dark spots while I make my way through the day. It also smells very faintly of oranges, which is a great pick-me-up at 7am. It’s a spray-on toner, which is my first foray into that particular genre, and I’m torn on my opinion of its delivery: on the one hand, the spray can feel very refreshing (also great first thing in the morning) and leaves my skin with a dewy-but-not-greasy texture, but on the other hand, the spray means it’s serving less of a “prep for treatment” purpose than a toner applied using a cotton ball would. Ultimately, I don’t feel like it’s hindered by its delivery method, but it’s worth noting.
Un-Wrinkle Peel Pads | Peter Thomas Roth
I mentioned earlier that the concept of a “daily peel” was basically a toner loaded with alpha and beta hydroxy acids, and PTR’s Un-Wrinkle Peel is the motherload. You wipe it on, wait three minutes, and then splash water on your face before moving on to your serum. The composition isn’t all that different from the Dr. Dennis Gross peel I rejected, but it is much less harsh on my skin. It is also packed with vitamins and chamomile to nourish and soothe your skin. Definite winner, guys, and it often comes as part of a value pack, which is an added bonus if you’re building your skincare system.
Given that I’m still figuring this particular product out for myself, I’m also considering two options from Renee Rouleau for my next experiment. Her Balancing Skin Tonic promises deeply cleaned pores, and her Elderberry Toner boasts anti-aging properties. I’m definitely interested to see if the rumors are true.
How to use: Toner comes after cleansing and before serum in your routine; consider it a stage-setter for your treatment products like serum and moisturizer. I’d recommend getting your hands on some specialty toning cloths (Renee Rouleau’s are well-reviewed, as are Shiseido’s). Cotton balls are effective, but will soak up a ton of product and will leave bits of cotton on your face, so the extra few dollars can be a worthwhile expense.
Next time on Know Your Face: masks!