When you’re shopping for skin care products that bring out the best in your skin, one item you’ll usually find in most skin care lines is a facial “toner.” But what is a toner, and do you really need it?
What Do Toners Do?
Toners were originally developed to remove soap scum from your face back when lye-based soaps combined with hard water left a sticky residue after cleansing. Today, few people use lye-based soaps and hard well water, so the original use for toners is gone.
Also, toners used to be primarily made from alcohol. You’d swab it over your face with a cotton ball, and supposedly whisk away accumulated grime, oils, and perspiration. You could use it after a workout, or whenever you needed to freshen up.
Back then, using an alcohol-based toner could be addicting because it felt good! But while the cooling sensation of the evaporating alcohol would feel refreshing, the downside for anyone with sensitive or dry skin is alcohol is incredibly drying! Alcohol is also an irritant that can trigger a flare-up for those with rosacea, eczema, or TSW. The drying action of alcohol-based toners is not helpful for those with acne either. It can make it hard for skin to expel waste products or inflame and irritate existing break-outs.
The good news is that now toners have evolved to do other things and can include a water or glycerin base that doesn’t dry your skin, but still give you a deeper sense of clean.
Unfortunately, petroleum jelly is often the worst thing you can use on your skin if you have a chronic skin condition such as eczema, TSW, acne, rosacea or psoriasis. The oils and waxes block skin pores, which means it does not allow the skin to breathe. It also does not allow the skin to vent heat and perspiration, which is necessary to regulate body temperature and alleviate many symptoms of inflamed skin.
Do You Need a Skin Toner?
A skin toner is not absolutely necessary for healthy skin or everyday skin care. A good skin cleansing and moisturizing routine is enough.
However, toners can be helpful for people with oily skin or markedly plugged pores. They can also be a way to add active ingredients like retinoids, antioxidants, pH balancers, and exfoliants to your everyday routine. That’s why facial skin toners can be designed for special use purposes. For example, in an anti-aging routine, a toner may contain an alpha hydroxy acid such as glycolic acid for exfoliation.
Medicated astringents are popular with acne patients based on salicylic acid and may contain menthol or camphor, which create a tingling feeling. Dry skin formulations often contain propylene glycol (careful if you are sensitive to petroleum products) and water to act as a humectant moisturizer. That means it attracts water to the skin, which you can then trap in place by applying a moisturizer.
Watch out for Witch Hazel
IA more natural product touted as a replacement for toner is witch hazel. While it is a plant extract, it’s often distilled in a solution of denatured alcohol and so brings with it the same problems as other alcohol-based toners. There are also tannins and polyphenols in Witch Hazel that are drying and some that can create a sensitivity over time.
Better natural options to try are a bit of diluted apple cider vinegar or plain rosewater. These can help clean and refresh your skin, but won’t strip essential barrier protection.
Read the Label
Other names for skin toners are astringents or clarifiers, but the concept and functions are the same. If you have a chronic skin condition or sensitive skin, look for toners that are fragrance-free, alcohol-free, and made for dry and/or sensitive skin. If there is the slightest hint of irritation, take a break to see if the toner is the culprit and try another brand.
If you find a skin toner that you like, one that leaves your skin feeling and looking better without ingredients that are drying or irritating, go ahead and incorporate it into your daily skin care. Just be sure not to substitute a toner for thorough face washing each day and remember to moisturize after using a toner.
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About the Author
Olivia Hsu Friedman, LAc, Dipl.OM, DACM, Cert. TCMDerm, is the owner of Amethyst Holistic Skin Solutions and treats Acne, Eczema, Psoriasis, and TSW. Olivia treats patients via video conferencing using only herbal medicine. Olivia is Chair of the Board of Directors of the American Society of Acupuncturists, serves on the Advisory Board of LearnSkin, and is a faculty member of the Chicago Integrative Eczema Group sponsored by the National Eczema Association.