As Metcalfe explains to us, toners are water- or alcohol-based solutions designed to gift the skin with extra hydration or active ingredients to address a variety of skin goals.
“Back in the day, toners were mostly alcohol-based, but not the good, moisturizing types of alcohol,” she shares. “These alcohol-based toners can be over-drying and stripping, which disrupts the skin barrier and can cause rebound oiliness. They feel great for people with oily or acne-prone skin because they make your skin feel extremely tight and clean, but they are one of the worst things you could be doing to your skin.”
Fortunately, most toners on the market these days don’t contain the worrisome types of alcohol (think alcohol, denatured alcohol, ethanol, methanol, benzyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol), and are now available in more gentle and strategic formulas. As far as the benefits toners can offer, Rouleau says the right formulas can boost hydration (leave it on damp after cleansing!), balance your skin’s pH, remove drying salts and chlorines found in tap water, enhance the results of your entire skincare regimen, and last but not least, support your skin’s natural protective barrier.
“I don’t believe toners are a be-all and end-all for great skin, and they certainly aren’t something everyone NEEDS in their regimen, but they can be helpful for some, especially those who prefer a multi-step skincare routine,” confirms Metcalfe.
First and foremost and for optimal results, toners should be applied immediately after cleansing both morning and night—apply the formula with a cotton round or toning cloth (we’re obsessed with these eco-friendly cloths from Rouleau’s namesake line!) and wipe over the entire face. For extra hydration, leave the skin damp and immediately follow with your serum and moisturizer.
“Anything you apply after cleansing your skin is more potent because the water allows it to absorb more efficiently into your skin,” Metcalfe confirms. “Water-based toners actually enhance this process because you are adding another layer of water to your regimen, so the next product you apply will be even more potent—an amazing perk for dry skin types.”
Plus, using your toner right after cleansing helps remove any residual excess dirt, makeup, or oil lingering on the skin.
As Metcalfe explained earlier, water-based toners with additional moisturizing ingredients like hyaluronic acid are the absolute best for dry skin and gentle, calming ingredients that are rich in antioxidants (like green tea) can also do wonders for a parched or irritated complexion. Rouleau also recommends keeping an eye out for moisturizing phospholipids, brightening and barrier-strengthening vitamin B3 (aka niacinamide), and other omega 3-, 6-, and 9- rich oils like black raspberry, blackberry, and so on.
As far as ingredients to avoid, alcohols are strictly prohibited and you may want to avoid high concentrations of exfoliating agents like glycolic or salicylic acids. “As much as I love these exfoliators, at high concentrations, they can be a bit too irritating for dry, sensitive, skin,” says Metcalfe.
Also, make sure you’re not relying on your toner to do all the legwork for moisturizing—you still need your serums and face cream, folks!
“You must layer a good moisturizing cream on after the toner, or if you use an active ingredient serum you would layer that on after the toner and put your
cream on last,” instructs Metcalfe. “You also want to stick to a moisturizing, creamy cleanser so that you aren’t stripping your skin too much.”
And for those with extremely sensitive skin, Metcalfe recommends skipping a toner altogether to avoid unnecessary exposure to potentially irritating ingredients like botanicals and exfoliants.