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Why toners are probably less beneficial to your skin than you think

Cleansing and toning have long been the compulsory foundation of any skincare routine, but it is time we revisit this dynamic duo.

While we relate to the luxury of wiping fragranced water across our face too, toners are steadily gaining flack for being a pointless and potentially harmful step in a skincare routine. Pegged as more sensory than beneficial, the purpose of toners is begging to be revisited.

Let us lay down the pros and cons so you can be the judge.

What do toners do?

Toners are typically associated with two main benefits: rebalancing the skin after a wash and to “prep” the skin for all the skincare that is coming after. Some toners also have active ingredients like chemical exfoliants, which can help with skin renewal, though most formulas tend to be addled with astringents, stripping alcohols and fragrances.

The problem with the formula

An increase in skincare literacy has shown us that the trio of ingredients we listed above are the unholy trinity for your complexion. Instead of “reblancing” the skin, these highly drying ingredients tend to compromise your skin’s pH levels and moisture barrier.

These negatives then make your face more prone to a whole host of issues, including chronic dryness or overt sebum production in the long run. Astringents and fragrances are also never ideal for people with sensitive skin, as it can cause aggravation.

Myth #1: Toners rebalance the skin

Now, a case against the claims. Toners are used primarily to rebalance the skin after a wash, but we’ve pointed out how its harsh formulations fall far short of doing so. Don’t just look at this casual relationship to shelve your toner, though. We need to address the myth at the root of the problem, which is that your skin needs to be “rebalanced” after a wash.

best low ph cleanser
One of the most popular low pH face washes.

What is supposedly being balanced? The pH of your skin. Healthy skin has an acidic pH, and one key goal of skincare is to maintain this. Any movement towards an alkaline end is going to result in breakout-causing bacteria having plenty of surface area to wreak havoc. With this in mind, many new generation face washes tend to have their pH carefully labelled on the bottle, and this number will always be neutral or less than 5.

Low-pH face washes are a must for healthy skin. The whole point of using them is to balance your skin, so following up with an astringent toner is really undoing all the benefits of this first step.

Myth #2: Toners prep the skin for the rest of your routine

This is not technically wrong. Having moist skin (think post-shower) does help product absorb more rapidly into the skin. But, water suffices just as well. Having slightly damp towel-dried skin and going in with the rest of your routine is more than enough to facilitate product absorption, and you do not need fragranced waters to do so.

So, do I give up on toners entirely?

best toners
Krave Beauty’s exfoliating toner is a good one.

It really depends on what you’re getting out of the product. If it is to rebalance or prep your skin, then ditch it as you’re far better off investing in a low pH cleanser to do the job.

However, not all toners are a skincare bane. There are a fair amount that use active ingredients such as glycolic acid to gently exfoliate the skin after a wash, or hyaluronic acid to deeply hydrate. These then tend to function as lighter treatments for the skin, if you will. Just remember to keep an eye out for harsh ingredients like heavy concentrations of fragrances or witch hazel as the goal is to fortify, not compromise your skin.

Photos credited to respective brands.

Beatrice Bowers
Features Editor
Beatrice Bowers writes about beauty, drinks, and other nice things. When not bound to her keyboard, she moonlights as a Niffler for novels and can be found en route to bankruptcy at your nearest bookstore. Don't tell her boss.