What Is Toner, Anyway?

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What’s in a name? That which we call rosewater by any other name would smell as sweet—but can you tone with it? And, more importantly, what’s a toner anyway? If there’s one thing that really gets my blood boiling, it’s marketing lingo that turns into industry-wide misnomers. Take toners, for instance. Let’s get one thing straight about them right here: toners don’t work for pores the same way that barre does for your muscles. You can’t tighten, shrink, or “tone” anything about your pores—for that to happen they’d need to be connected to a muscle, and they aren’t. The only thing you can do for pores is keep them clear of any debris that might be emphasizing their appearance.

You may be wondering: if a toner doesn’t tone, what does it do? In the most classical sense, a toner is supposed to remove the last bit of dirt or bacteria on the skin—for an aesthetician, this preps the skin for extractions and makes sure the bacteria in a pimple doesn’t spread. However, you’ve just got to read a couple Top Shelf interviews to see how the word toner has simply come to refer to the liquid part of your skincare routine—after cleansing, before serums or moisturizer. Another misnomer!

Labeling something a toner doesn’t tell us anything about what it actually does. That can range from something that takes off your makeup, to something that exfoliates, balances pH, or hydrates. Do you need to use it? Well, yes—some more than others. Let me break down some of the most mentioned ones for you.

Micellar Water

Use if: You need to take off your makeup
You know how water and oil don’t mix? Well, they do in micellar water—thanks to an added ingredient known as a surfactant. One end of the molecule is hydrophilic, meaning it loves water. The other end loves oil—it finds and surrounds the oil molecules in the water, forming a little ball. These balls are called micelles, and they’re the reason micellar water takes off makeup so well. The oil in the micelles dissolves oil-based makeup, while the water base keeps it from feeling greasy. , micellar water was invented in France in the early 1900s so Parisian women wouldn’t have to wash their face with harsh water coming from old pipes. We still love it in 2019 because it’s effective and doesn’t strip skin. But don’t be fooled, micellar does nothing more for skin than a good cleanser would.

Rosewater

Use if: You have sensitive or reactive skin
Most likely found in spray or mist form, this pretty liquid is a darkhorse toner. Rose essential oil is to have antibacterial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. That means it fights to reduce and calm breakouts, and works with your SPF to reduce UV damage and photoaging. However, not all rosewaters are created equal—yours may have anywhere between 50-percent rose oil and just 10-percent.

Tonic

A toner, but witchier. Kidding! Toner and tonic are the same thing—this is just a marketing buzzword. They can be hydrating (like an essence), exfoliating (see below), or cleanser-adjacent, like micellar water. Did it fool you, though?

Witch Hazel

Use if: You really want to
Even witchier than tonic, but an actual thing—it’s a real plant that . The active component in witch hazel that you use for your skin is something called tannins. If you’ve ever done a wine tasting, you may have heard that word before—tannins are also naturally found in fruit, and are to blame for the astringent taste you . It’s also a natural astringent when used on your skin, which can cause and dryness with regular use. Often (but not always!) it’s mixed in a solution with isopropyl alcohol, which can heighten these effects. On the other hand, witch hazel has been shown to have on some subjects. The verdict? Not the worst, but probably not the best either.

Exfoliating acid

Use if: You have skin
The big gun. The main event. The one everyone should be using in one form or another. Regular exfoliation will keep skin bright, help product penetrate better, and clear pores of dirt and built-up sebum. Because the skin is naturally slightly acidic, acid toners help balance its pH. Most formulations of acids will also clean up the last traces of dirt or makeup and, thanks to additions like glycerin, keep the skin moisturized. If you’ve never used an acid, start just two times a week, and slowly work up until your skin is adjusted.

Lotion

Another word for an essence.

Essence

Use if: You need extra hydration with your actives
An essence is full of actives like vitamin C, niacinamide, and fermented (read: more powerful) antioxidants. In your routine, it basically serves the same purpose as a serum, except the liquid format of an essence is supposed to enhance product absorption. Think of it as a nourishing, potent step in your skincare routine. Some of them even include mild exfoliating acids. Is it a toner? Not really. But an essence can certainly simplify the whole toner-serum divide—just get you an essence that can do both.

—Ali Oshinsky

Photo via ITG.