Maligned, abused and mis-used, toners are among the least understood items in the skincare aisle. But Ingeborg van Lotringen thinks it’s time to give them another chance.
Ask the average person what their idea of a skincare regime is and they will say ‘cleanse, tone, moisturise.’ They won’t actually practise such a routine – most of us have no idea why you would have to ‘cleanse, tone and moisturise’. We just think that maybe we should, because the phrase has been hammered into our brains for generations.
Back when face cleansers weren’t the most sophisticated – think Pond’s Cold Cream or a nice 1980’s mineral oil-based cleansing milk, moved around your face and rubbed off with a dry cotton pad – a toner’s USP, on the face of it at least, made sense. It was ‘to remove all traces of cleanser residue’ and ‘treat oiliness’.
1980’s Toners (or ‘tonics’) were pretty effective at the former, being, as they were, rather lethal alcohol solutions. They also made mincemeat of any oil slicks, but unfortunately, only for a bit. Oils would come back with a vengeance after every use, with added redness and irritation over time, thanks to the barrier-stripping powers of the alcohol and astringent, ‘refreshing’ (read: irritating) menthol and eucalyptus essential oils. No matter what your skin type, it couldn’t fail to get pretty parched with regular toner use. I’ve still got a 25-year-old bottle of Johnson & Johnson Clean & Clear Lotion in my bathroom cabinet: I use it to disinfect my tweezers.
That other staple tonic, Clinique Clarifying Lotion, of the brand’s famous cleanse/tone/moisturise ‘3-Step Skincare System’, hasn’t helped rid toner of its associations with uncomfortable-feeling skin. Basically a mild liquid exfoliant for oily skin (its key ingredient is salicylic acid), in its original guise it also contained a hefty dose of alcohol, and was supposed to be used after Clinique’s Facial bar Soap. So you had an alkaline (for it was that) soap, followed by an alcohol-and-salicylic acid solution: not a recipe for hydrated skin. Things have improved since, with an alcohol-free Clarifying Lotion and a sulphate-free Liquid Facial Soap among the options, but judging from the number of people that wince when the 3-Step is mentioned, its inaugural drying prowess didn’t go unnoticed. And the toner took the brunt of the blame.
It’s no wonder, then, that toners were largely consigned to the back of the bathroom cabinet in recent decades – until K- and, latterly, J-Beauty became a thing. The Koreans and Japanese may have an annoying predilection for 10-step skincare routines, but there is a point to those, and it’s balancing, calming and irrigating the skin. Cleansing, even with the very mildest products, causes a slight, temporary imbalance to the skin’s pH (remember that even tap water is more alkaline than the skin barrier, and therefore slightly drying). Thanks to its liquid texture, a ‘modern’ toner of the type long used in Asian countries, featuring humectants, ferments, micronutrients, probiotics, mild acids, anti-inflammatories and anti-oxidants (you could have any or all of the above), is designed to instantly quench skin and re-set its pH to its comfort level of about 4.7. It also supercharges any serums and moisturisers you care to apply after, as the moisture opens channels that helps actives sink in deeper. So instead of freaking skin out, a proper toner is, frankly, its best friend, and over the past three years or so, I’ve come to think of them as indispensable.
They still mightily confuse people though, and that’s partly to do with semantics. The types of toners described above are variously called toner, tonic, essence, softener, lotion, and even ‘face vinegar’, which isn’t helpful. Technically, essences, or skin softeners, are different from toners in Asia, where toners are mildly astringent and wiped across the face, followed by treatment essences that are pressed into the skin. Over here in the West, I would say all these liquids, which vary in viscosity from water-like to slippery gels, are roughly the same thing. You press or wipe them on (the oilier-skinned probably prefer the wipe-off gesture while the dehydrated might prefer the idea of a splash of moisture) after cleansing and before any other skincare. Except if you use a liquid exfoliant, which brings me to another point of confusion about modern toners.
As said, some toners feature a low level of acids (often lactic, which is naturally present in the skin barrier) to help restore skin to its own mildly acidic pH level. But if you’re talking those ‘5% glycolic glow tonics’ or ‘10% acid solutions’, you’re no longer dealing with a toner, you’re applying a liquid exfoliant (in most cases, these products mention exfoliation or resurfacing on the front of the pack). Personally, I wouldn’t use those every day for extended periods of time (peeling skin twice or three times a week is enough), whether the stuff calls itself ‘toner’ or not. If you wanted to use both a liquid exfoliator and a calming, barrier-restoring toner, use them in that order, and make sure your toner doesn’t also have acids in it.
As for me, I’ve become addicted to the instant quenching of my glycerine-and-prebiotic-based favourite toner, which has helped make my skin less reactive and less quick to dehydrate as the day wears on. I’m thrilled to see the wave of toners and essences currently being launched by little boutique brands and massive skincare brands alike; I think these humble liquids can add something positive to any skincare routine. If you balk at the idea to adding another step to said routine, consider that often, toners are so packed with healthy, regenerative actives that they can stand in for a serum. And for those who hate using moisturiser, a toner or essence with humectants can be all the hydration you need. Just keep an eye out for high levels of alcohol, as there are still far too many toners that sneak the stuff in. As a child of the ‘80’s I’m well aware of the decade’s many delights, but its toners weren’t one of them.
Choose your toner
For dehydrated skin
We Are Wild Solid Water, £22
Glycerin, ferments and probiotics irrigate and settle skin in seconds
For sagging skin
Derma-E Firming DMAE Toner, £14.50
Proven elasticity-restorers DMAE, alpha lipoic acid and vitamin c make this a truly toning toner that battles enlarged pores to boot
For lifeless skin
Aurelia Brightening Botanical Essence, £10
If you have no sensitivity to essential oils, this anti-inflammatory, ferment and probiotic-rich mist will add a bit of glow
For dull skin
Nanette de Gaspé Essence Noir Tonic, £65
Superfruits, ferments and niacinamide balance and restore, but a powerful acid complex gives this peeling and brightening properties that require careful dosing and a high SPF during the day.