Skincare Routine

The beauty world is divided on whether toner is an unnecessary or vital skincare step. The answer lies somewhere in between.

While skin toners traditionally were alcohol-rich astringent products that zapped oil and blemishes, new formulations are more nourishing than drying and come with various skin-benefiting ingredients. Here’s how a toner can transform your daily routine:

1. It’s a Cleanser’s Best Friend

Cleanse, tone, moisturize—these three steps have been at the core of many skin-care regimens for decades. But is toning necessary, or should we ditch it and focus on other products? We reached out to beauty experts to get their thoughts.

“Toners have traditionally been used to remove any residual dirt or makeup residue that may still be on the face after cleansing,” Krupa Koestline, a clean cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants, tells mbg. But today, there are tons of toners that do much more than just clear away the last traces of dirt and grime. Many are formulated with ingredients like rose water and hyaluronic acid, which reign supreme in the skincare world for their ability to deliver supercharged hydration, bind moisture, and plump and brighten the complexion.

As for frequency, “it’s important to use a toner twice daily after cleansing,” says dermatologist Amy Wechsler. “Once you cleanse your skin, it’s time to rebalance and prep it for serums and moisturizers.”

Dr. Zeichner agrees and adds that toners are especially helpful for anyone using strong retinol treatments or BHAs. “A toner helps remove excess oil, dirt, and dead skin cells, while also helping balance the pH of the skin,” he notes.

“I also recommend a toner for those who want to reduce the appearance of large pores, blemishes, and blackheads,” he continues. “Oily skin often gets clogged by excess oil, sebum, and dead skin cells,” which can lead to breakouts and blackheads. A toner containing astringent ingredients can help reduce the appearance of large pores, while anti-inflammatory agents and hydrating humectants like shea butter and aloe vera can soothe irritation and keep the skin hydrated. Look for a mattifying toner formulated with niacinamide, salicylic acid, or glycolic acid for oily skin types.

2. It’s a Moisture Prep

Traditionally, face toners were astringent products that soaked up excess oil and helped rebalance the skin’s pH levels. These days, they’re much more nourishing, and most contain a host of brightening and hydrating ingredients like chamomile extract or hyaluronic acid. These types of toners work as a base layer that preps your skin for serums and moisturizers. Just make sure to avoid harsh astringents that can strip the skin of its natural oils, which leads to more oil production as your body tries to compensate for it.

For those with oily skin, a balancing toner can help restore the natural acidic state of your pores so that when you apply a product that’s a little heavier (like a cream), it won’t feel greasy or heavy on the skin, says Charlotte Cho, co-founder of Soko Glam and licensed esthetician. She compares it to putting a thick cream on a dry sponge—the sponge won’t absorb the product well, but when you wet it, it sinks right in.

If you have normal to dry skin, a hydrating toner can be just as important to your skincare routine, especially during cold weather or in dry climates. Using one infused with barrier-supporting ingredients like rose water will help soothe and hydrate your skin all day while also helping reduce discoloration and wrinkles. Generally, these types of toners are a good choice for twice-daily use—but always keep your skin type and the ingredients in mind before deciding how often you want to reapply.

3. It’s a Pore Minimizer

For those with oily skin, a pore-minimizing toner can help prevent the appearance of pores and fine lines. Look for a formula containing niacinamide to target blackheads and glycolic acid to exfoliate and reduce the size of pores. Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Pore-Reducing Toner (shop it here) is a lightweight face gel that’s packed with these ingredients and more. It even contains silica to reduce the appearance of pores and curb unwanted shine without drying your complexion.

Another great way to amplify the effects of a toner is to layer it with your serums and moisturizers. “Skin needs hydration, protection, and exfoliation in order to be healthy, look young, and feel great,” Shah says. “Toners are a perfect way to get your skin ready for the rest of your routine.”

But don’t mistake the word “toner” for a one-size-fits-all product. Many of us think of toners as those drying alcohol-heavy formulas we know from our skincare kits, but today’s toners come in all different forms and contain a variety of nourishing ingredients—think: exfoliants, vitamin C, anti-aging peptides.

Although toners aren’t quite as necessary as they once were, almost any type of person can benefit from incorporating them into their daily skincare routine. Choose a gentle toner with an appropriate frequency for your skin type, and make sure it works to complement the other products in your regimen. Whether you’re looking for a pore-minimizing formula or a skin-brightening toner, shop the expert-approved options below to find your match. And if you’re in need of a new cleanser or moisturizer, take advantage of these Sephora and Nordstrom promo codes for some major savings!

4. It’s a Brightener

Depending on what type of toner you choose, you can find one that lightens skin tone for a more even complexion or hydrates your face and body for a radiant glow. You can use these toners as a standalone product or pair them with other skin-care staples like serums and moisturizers for a more enhanced effect.

If you’re thinking of adding a toner to your skincare routine, Dr. Shainhouse says it’s important to be careful with how often you use it and which type of toner you opt for. “If you go overboard with toner, it could strip the skin and cause irritation,” she explains. “I recommend using it twice a day—once after cleansing in the morning and once before bed at night.”

When choosing your toner, make sure it’s right for your skin type and needs. “If you’re going for a brightening toner, look for a formula with ingredients like lactic acid and vitamin C,” says Covert. “These help to exfoliate and remove impurities from the skin, resulting in a radiant glow.”

For oily or combination skin, she suggests trying a toner that contains polyhydroxy acids, like this one with mandelic acid and lactic acid, to remove excess oil. It’s also packed with birch extract to soften the skin and improve tone, while niacinamide helps control redness and soothe the complexion.

If you have sensitive skin, she recommends this soothing toner that’s made with aloe and botanicals to help protect against free radical damage. This toner also contains licorice root extract, which has natural astringent properties that help to reduce inflammation and swelling. “This is a great product to use after cleansing in the morning and evening before applying your moisturizer,” she says.

5. It’s a Booster

Toner is a super-powerful skincare tool for boosting your other products, says New York-based dermatologist Arielle Kauvar. "Think of it as a prep step for your skin to better absorb serums and moisturizer," she says. If your skin is dry and thirsty, “a toner can help rehydrate the skin by delivering a quick hit of hydration and helping remove any dead skin cells," she notes.

Generally, toners have a light, fast-penetrating liquid formula and are best applied with a cotton pad (reusable ones are a great option as they are more eco-friendly) to avoid irritating the skin or clogging pores. They're also formulated with ingredients like polyhydroxy acids to gently exfoliate, control oil, and reduce redness and irritation, as well as soothing botanicals and glycerin to calm and soften the skin.

Toner should be used immediately after cleansing and before applying any serums or moisturizers. Then, "a toner can remove any leftover makeup or dirt from the skin, which could lead to breakouts," explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rebecca Marcus. Plus, it can help balance the skin’s pH level and bring it back to its natural acidic state, which can prevent future breakouts.

But if you're not convinced that a toner is necessary (it certainly isn’t as vital as a cleanser and daily SPF), it’s worth trying a few out to see if they work for you. Just make sure to choose one that works with your skin type and concerns, as a general rule of thumb is that you want a toner that doesn't contain alcohol. (That's because alcohol can strip the skin of its essential oils and make it more reactive.) And don’t forget to always test any product on a small area of your skin first.