When I first started putting together a skincare routine proper, one of my nuttier decisions included omitting toners altogether because they’re just water. Oh, what a skin sin! I am now positive that toners must be the one good thing you can never have too much of. Although to be fair, I will admit they do seem like rather bland, unexceptional products that look, feel and perhaps even perform like water. I’ll take that as one of the biggest cons: that for something so terrific, toners are deceptively unassuming. So if you’re unfamiliar with, or on the fence about toners: it’s time to get in! From the many ways to use toner, their multi-tasking qualities and our picks for every skincare need, here’s why toners are quietly the secret to superb skin.
A Cross-Section Of Toners
Despite being such a dedicated fan of toners, I realised that I didn’t actually know exactly what they were. For a long time my answer to “What’s so great about toners?” would probably have been…“Yes.” Bummer.
So to get into proper (and more scientific) definitions, toners are generally fast-absorbing liquids. Typically used after cleansing and before moisturising, they help to remove leftover dead cells (and other excess debris, such as traces of oil and makeup) from the surface of your skin, rebalance your skin pH and deliver a quick hydration boost.
Although that’s really only the beginning. Depending on the ingredients in your toner, of which the combinations are plenty (think acids, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, soothing botanical extracts…all that good stuff), toners can value-add your skincare routine in multiple ways!
The “Toner” From Your Past: Astringents
While astringents have their own benefits, they are definitely not designed for everyone. So it’s quite possible that these OG “toners” were the stuff of nightmares for you too. Like toners, astringents are water-based and used the same way (after cleansing, before moisturising), but the two are fundamentally different. Astringents are made to remove excess oil from the skin. Hence, they usually contain a far higher concentration of alcohol and other acne-fighting ingredients like Salicylic Acid. This means astringents can be very drying. So while you can’t quite overdose on toners, the stripping ingredients in astringents means you can definitely use too much of them for your own good.
That said, there are skin types which can benefit from the use of astringents, such as oily and acne-prone skin. But with all the bad press surrounding alcohol in skincare, it might be safer to always proceed with caution. A general rule of thumb: Steer clear of astringents if you have dry and/or sensitive skin and/or are intolerant to alcohol in skincare. Read more about whether or not astringents are suitable for you and how to use them correctly here!
How To: Your Toner’s Many, Many Possibilities
From the basics, to the fun stuff. Made even better because toners are often at the lower end of the price range for skincare and there seems to be one for everyone. (Psst: I am also positive this list is non-exhaustive.)
1. Cleanse, Balance, Prep
The classic. Probably the best-known, most popular method of using toner in its best element. Soak a cotton pad with toner, and swipe it across your face after cleansing. This helps to gently remove leftover impurities from the skin’s surface, rebalances the skin’s pH and preps it for the rest of your skincare routine. If you have dry skin that shrivels up post-cleansing, this will be like reviving a dry sponge. The instant boost of hydration resets your skin to enhance the absorption of any skincare products that follow. So if there’s only one way you’d like to use a toner (although I believe this to be a completely hypothetical situation), this is an unchallenged choice!
A cult favourite from Kiehl's, this soothing toner is a universal pleaser with its alcohol-free formulation, that is also devoid of synthetic drying agents. Best suited for normal to oily skin types, the calendula-powered complex promises to soothe, refresh and balance with its 5 irritation-reducing compounds (Quercetin, ‘a’ Amyrin, ‘b’ Amyrin, Oleanic Acid and Lupeol). A great and basic option for everyday!
2. As A Refresher
One of my personal favourite skincare hacks is to use a toner like you would micellar water. The possibilities are endless. I’d soak a cotton pad with toner and swipe that across my face in the morning — which works wonders in taking off any overnight grime and resetting the skin (especially if you don’t intend to wash your face that morning). Or if I’ve perspired a lot — perhaps post-workout — or when I’m working from home on a hot afternoon and become a light bulb by midday. If you love sheet masks but can never get your skin to fully absorb the leftover essence, a toner-soaked cotton pad can do the trick in gently wiping off excess essence, while retaining the suppleness of post-masking skin*. A surprisingly marvellous skin fix — I honestly don’t think you can go wrong with this one.
*I picked this up from Korean Makeup Artist PONY’s skincare routine with Harper’s BAZAAR. Watch her work her magic here!
For using your toner like a refreshing water, you'll probably want to opt for a lighter, more watery formula that won’t leave behind any stickiness. Something that performs but absorbs seamlessly, like Chantecaille’s Eau Rose de Mai Pure Rosewater. Made from 100% Rose de Mai (including the total extract from its petals and all its essential oils), this multi-purpose elixir is gloriously simple. Particularly potent for fatigued skin, use it to tone, balance and reinvigorate. While Chantecaille's Pure Rose Water may be well on the pricier end, it's an unmatched luxury if you're looking to splurge on a multi-purpose toning solution.
3. As A Face Mist
Anyone remembers the hype around replacing your entire skincare regime with just facial mists? Toners are wonders, and facial mists aren’t too far off themselves. If you find cotton pads too tedious, wasteful or abrasive (especially for delicate skin types) and dispensing your toner into your palms too messy, then a toner-mist will be a dream. They combine the convenience of facial mists with the skincare goodness of a toner. The result? An addictively efficient way of using your favourite toner, in even more ways.
While you can decant your toner into a mist bottle, you could also save the trouble by getting a mist-type toner that already ticks all the boxes! Glowfully’s newly launched Hydrating Toner Mist is packed with an army of hydrating and nourishing ingredients, including triple Hyaluronic Acid, Tomato Extract (rich in Vitamin C), Aloe Vera and Bioflavoids (an antioxidant). The oil-free, slightly acidic toner delivers a potent dose of moisture, while restoring the skin’s optimal balance. Especially great for sensitive, acne-prone skin and perfect for on-the-go, this fine mist is also excellent for layering your skincare.
4. For Layering
You might have heard of the Korean “7 skin” trend for glass skin (which involves patting on 7 layers of a hydrating toner) making its rounds in the community last year. Arguably the hallmark of Korean skincare, layering has been credited as the trick to supple, lucent skin. That said, the Korean approach to layering up on deeply hydrating products could be a tad too much for Singapore’s perennial humidity. The technique can be modified by swapping out the heavy stuff for more lightweight solutions and cutting back on the layers. Try patting on (thinly) 2 to 3 layers of a watery hydrating toner everyday, or whenever your skin is feeling extra parched!
To reap the full benefits of toner layering, opt for toner essences -- a new breed of toners that synthesise the lightness of toning products with the nourishing properties of an essence. Dr Jart’s Hydra Solution Biome Essence is a hydrating essence developed for hypersensitive skin. The straightforward formula tones, hydrates and builds resilience by normalising the skin’s biomes for a smoother, more supple complexion.
5. For Gentle Exfoliation
Evidently, the wonders of toners have inspired a proliferation of hybridised (and elevated) versions. Think toner-mists, toner-essences… And likely one of the most ingenious, toner-exfoliators. I think personally think toner-exfoliators are a boon for anyone new to chemical exfoliating, or those with sensitive skin but love using resurfacing acids. It’s the best of two worlds: toners with added AHA/BHAs allow you to gently resurface and refine your skin, while still enjoying the comfort of a toner. Alternatively, you can also dilute AHA/BHA products with a hydrating toner (that should ideally not contain AHA/BHA) for a milder solution. An incredibly useful hack for easing a new chemical exfoliator into your skincare routine!
An aptly named heavyweight, PSA’s Heroine toner contains 6% Mandelic and Lactic Acid, along with botanical extracts (Licorice Root, Pomegranate Extract, Kombucha, Centella Asiatica) to delicately retexturise skin and tighten pores, while simultaneously calming irritation and replenishing moisture. Good proof that toners can be high-performers too, this one promises to ‘amp up your skin to clearer, more brilliant new heights.
An uncomplicated but potent clarifying toner, Zyu’s Revitalising Tonic contains Witch Hazel and Salicylic Acid to combat clogged and enlarged pores, while reinvigorating dull skin. Loaded with other powerhouse ingredients including Rose Damascena (anti-bacterial, balancing), Pyrus Malus Fruit Extract (antioxidant, chemical exfoliating) and Saccharide Isomerate (moisture retention), this delicate toner also works to soothe and restore skin.
6. As A Toner Mask
Truth be told, I took a long time to jump onto the toner mask hype because it seemed like an awful waste of a good product. While it’s inevitable that toner masking will deplete your toner supply, I must say that if you’ve never tried it– you’re missing out! Toner masking is incredibly easy: simply drench some cotton pads in toner and lay them across your face. You can be as targeted as you like; pop the cotton pads over your T-zone, cheeks, or do a full face (they also work great for de-puffing your eyes).
I think the value of toner masks lie in how they fulfil the simple purpose of toners superlatively well. Think refreshing, soothing, retexturising, prepping…all the good works, but amplified. Toner masks are also more fuss-free, since they don’t have the same heaviness as essence-soaked sheet masks. It’s no wonder so many people enjoy popping one into their morning skincare routine. There are even extra-large, multi-layered cotton pads made for the purpose, if you decide to make toner masking a permanent ritual (which is highly plausible)!
Toner masking is also a good chance to whip out that extra fancy toner for extra goodness. AHC’s The Aesthe Youth Toner is a moisturising and refining solution brimming with a powerful Youth Complex, developed from 17 amino acids, biomimetic water complex and Narcissus Tazetta Bulb. Apart from illuminating and rejuvenating tired skin, the aqueous formula also features lower molecular weight Hyaluronic Acid for an enhanced moisture delivery system.
And there you have it! If you needed a compelling reason for why toners aren’t just water, here’s 6! After skin serums, the next skincare product I own the most of is toner. While newer toners are starting to feature more skin-loving properties/functions, they remain — for the most part — simple and highly accessible. Combined with their remarkable versatility and ease of use, I think toners are the most basic, but useful essentials to keep in your routine.