Cheat Sheet – Toners

Toners of old are the Marmite of the skincare world.

You either do – or you don’t.

Unlike Marmite (it’s not for me) – I absolutely DO when it comes to toner. I have a constant working plethora of toners on the go at any one time. I use them like a wardrobe – picking and choosing what I feel my skin needs on the day.

I do understand why people have been put off. The traditional beauty hall speak of ‘Cleanse, Tone, Moisturise’ is not really applicable these days.
When I talk about toner I am not referring to some alcohol-laden mixture of water and witchhazel. We’ve all moved on. Personally, I do not want something that burns when applied. A tingle, however, is appropriate.

Think of toning as the second stage of your routine after cleansing. Cleansing should clean your face. Surely that’s the point?
Toning was traditionally used two ways: either with alcohol-laden products to ‘tone’ the skin – i.e. dry out the epidermis and give the appearance of shrinking the pores – hence the tightening and ‘toning’ of the skin, or with a water/glycerin mix that was used to ‘remove’ the last traces of makeup. Thankfully, cleansing has moved on so much that this is now a redundant way of using what essentially, has become a legitimate second stage of your routine.

Toners – the myths.

  • Toners remove the last trace of your make-up and residue of cleanser
    If your cleanser doesn’t remove all of your makeup and clean your face you need a new cleanser, not a toner.
  • Toners close pores
    Pores are not doors – they do not open and close.
    A toner with alcohol may temporarily shrink and tighten the area of the skin around the pore – thus giving the appearance of the pore shrinking – but it’s not. It’s ultimately drying out your skin which will eventually make you oilier as the skin over-compensates.
  • Good toners contain alcohol as an astringent – when you can’t feel it on your face anymore – it’s time to step it up a notch!
    This is utter nonsense. Why not just use nail polish remover and be done with it?

Once you dismiss the above as the nonsense/old wives’ tales that they are – you can begin to see toners in a new light.

Think of a toner as the condiment part of your sandwich: yes, you can make a sandwich using just bread and ham/cheese – but how much better does that sandwich work with butter/mayo? It binds it all together and facilitates the process.

Toners, for me, have these basic functions – all of which add value to your daily skincare routine:

  • Balancing
    Cleansing – no matter what you use – adjusts the ph level and temporarily confuses the natural acid mantle of the skin – same as cleansing any part of the body – hence the need for conditioner after shampooing – even the need for fabric conditioner/tumble dryer sheets alongside your Ariel. Static anyone?
    A good toner will gently reset the balance. Your skin is obviously capable of doing this by itself – but it will take it about half an hour to do so – and in that time oily skins will continue to pump oil on top of dehydrated skins and dry skins will shut down – hence the ‘tight’ feeling after cleansing on very dry skin.
  • Exfoliating
    A ‘lotion’ (as more and more products used at the toning stage are now known as) used at this stage that contains acids is the most effective way to exfoliate the skin without the use of beads/grains/apricot kernels etc. I have always referred to these as ‘acid toners’.
  • Hydrating
    The Number ONE skin condition is DEHYDRATION.
    We are almost universally dehydrated – despite spending more money on skincare than ever before. The skin is constantly deprived of moisture by surrounding elements be it weather/dry office environments/central heating/air conditioning/travelling – and that’s without factoring in lifestyle – diet/sunbathing/smoking etc.
    A good toner (lotion) can act as a humectant – attracting moisture from the air and trapping it in the top layers of the skin. And I mean toner – not just a water spray. The body is not capable of absorbing water on its own – if it did we would swell up and drown in the bath.
    Try taking that bottle/tin of water and spray your arm – watch it drip away. A tin of water is refreshing but nothing more – and will actually dehydrate your skin further as the moisture in the air attracts the moisture on your skin – and pulls it away from you.
    What you’re looking for is mists that contain things like hyaluronic acid and glycerin. They calm the skin, absorb nicely and act as a conductor for the products that follow. Usually serums..
  • Penetration
    As mentioned above a good toner will help in the absorption of products put on top of it – and has the added bonus of saving you money as you will need half the amount (in my experience) of serums/gels/creams that you would normally use.


A quick word on application and usage. I generally use two toners. 
I apply an exfoliating toner first – either on cotton wool or on the pads it comes in – and then I spray with a mostly hydrating toner before I apply my serum/oil/next stage.
The exfoliating toner will contain acids – the strength of which depend on my skin on the day – the hydrating toner will contain things like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, algae or aloe vera. A mixture of softening and moisturising/hydrating.

Begin to think of toners as the first step in the moisturising process – not the final step of the cleansing process – hence names like balancers/lotions/fresheners – and you will fall in love with them as you feel the change in your skin. Don’t take my word for it – do your own test using toner on one half of your face only for a couple of weeks – you’ll feel and see the difference.