Cleanse, tone, moisturise: this was the three-step skincare rule that many of us came to swear by in years gone by. However, subsequent developments in cleanser technology soon saw toners regarded as redundant rather than skincare requisite by many. “Toners traditionally were used to be a means of removing excess cream cleansers left on the skin,” comments top facialist Abigail James . “On one end of the scale, they had a high alcohol content so they would strip and dry the skin. On the other end they were just rose waters, which although were very nice, soothing and calming, weren’t doing much.”
However now, toners are being redefined. More sophisticated in their formulas and more varied in their purposes, they’re forging a valuable place for themselves in the good skincare puzzle. “Technically if you're cleansing your face correctly there won't be a residue left on your skin,” notes Amanda Bell, Pixi’s Resident Makeup & Skincare Expert. “The very drying and astringent quality to toners has been replaced with toners that really treat the skin to create a perfectly prepped complexion.”
Now better formulated to help boost the properties of other facial products put on afterwards and provide benefits in their own right, they’re making a return and if used properly, you may well end up wondering what you did without them. “They may seem like an unnecessary step, but they can be the difference between good and fabulous skin,” says Abigail James. They also no longer adhere to the one-size-fits-all rule, with a range now available to suit different skin types and skin concerns too. “Toners do definitely have a place in your routine and it will totally depend on the key ingredients and effect as to the specific benefit,” she adds. “Not all will suit all skins, so select carefully for your own skin needs.”
With a variety of different toners out there to choose from, the world of toning looks very different from what it looked like a decade ago. Here’s how to cut through the confusion and find the best toner for your skin type and make toner relevant again to your skincare regime.
What are the different types?
“Some will help balance skin pH, some will add an extra boost of hydration and some will be a clever way of exfoliating the skin with mild acids,” explains Abigail. “Some will also have a blend of herbs that can help feed and support the skin too,” she adds.
How should you use a toner? Across all the categories, it should form the second step in your skincare routine. “After cleansing but before your serums and moisturisers apply your toner,” recommends Abigail. “They can actually help your serums and moisturisers absorb more effectively.”
“Some are intended for daily use both morning and night - usually the hydrating types such as Liz Earle Instant Boost Skin Tonic and NIOD Superoxide Dismutase Saccharide Mist [see the below section on the best toners for more details]. Clarifying toners might be once a day or less,” she recommends. “They can have a drying effect so tread carefully, it’s part of their action and what they are supposed to do in order to help balance oil production.
“For the exfoliating ones, I would recommend using them 3 times a week; but listen to your skin - if it likes more or if it becomes sensitive. If the latter, knock it back.”
What’s the deal with exfoliating toners?
Confused about exfoliating toners? You’re not the only one. This particular branch of the toning family tree has become hugely popular in recent times. However nowadays, it seems the line between toner and exfoliator has become all the more blurred. “Exfoliating toners shouldn’t really be called a toner,” says Abigail. “They should have their own name as I feel to the consumer the name is confusing.” She adds, “It has a very different action on the skin to what people will understand as a toner and needs clear labelling regarding its exfoliating ingredients to avoid over exfoliating and stimulating your skin with other exfoliants, (such as retinol etc.) without realising.”
Liquid exfoliators are characterised by the inclusion of most commonly, AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid or lactic acid) or BHAs (beta hydroxy acids, such as salicylic acid) to provide a bead-free alternative to granular exfoliators. It is this category that sees their place in skincare routines rekindled in a particularly unique way.
With a confusing crossover existing in terms of terminology, this is what you need to know to ensure your acid toner doesn’t cause more harm than good.
Exfoliating toners and liquid exfoliators explained
How do AHAs and BHAs work?
Acids and skincare can seem, understandably, a tad frightening for some. However, preconceptions are changing and they offer a more preferable option to granular exfoliators in the long-run comments skincare expert Paula Begoun. “AHAs and BHAs exfoliate in a manner that scrubs simply cannot do; (scrubs are more about an extra cleansing step and only work on the very surface of the skin and when they are abrasive, they can damage the skin’s protective barrier),” she explains. “AHAs and BHAs naturally and imperceptibly without abrasion help skin shed built up layers of unhealthy dull skin cells. This can make a significant difference in reducing and helping to control breakouts, clogged pores, uneven skin tone, brown spots, wrinkles, dullness, and more. Both AHA and BHA ingredients can stimulate the repair and maintenance of essential supporting substances skin needs to look young and healthy at any age.”
AHAs and BHAs exfoliate in a manner that scrubs simply cannot do
Who should use an AHA and who should use a BHA?
“Generally, AHAs are best for normal to dry, sun damaged skin,” explains Paula. “AHAs have strong water-binding ability and can help improve skin’s moisture content. BHAs can do that, too, but have unique benefits that make them suitable for normal to oily, combination, and breakout-prone or redness-prone skin: they're mildly antibacterial, naturally anti-inflammatory and, because BHAs are oil-soluble, they can penetrate further into the pore lining, where clogs, bumps, and breakouts begin.
“Many people find that alternating between AHA and BHA products works best, but this isn’t essential—you can experiment with both and see which one causes your skin to respond the best.”
What other ingredients work best?
With acids covered above, hydration-wise Abigail highlights aloe vera, hyaluronic acid, vitamin E and cucumber among her favourite ingredients, with the latter possessing particularly soothing properties.
Toners of yesteryear could also prove to be pretty drying thanks to their high alcohol content. However, nowadays a legion of alcohol-free alternatives is providing a much less stripping selection to choose from. “Alcohol isn’t great and generally I would avoid it,” Abigail comments. “However in some organic ranges, organic grain alcohol is actually used to extract the herbs as it is often used in herbal medicine." She adds, "It is seen as an aid to help the herbal, more plant-based ingredients penetrate deeper into the skin. That would be the only time I would ever consider using a toner with alcohol. It’s drying, stripping and no good for the surface of the skin.”
The best toners
Intrigued? Give one of these must-try toners a go featuring some of Abigail’s top picks and our tried and tested favourites too:
“Good all round for natural hydration,” says Abigail and it’s one of our favourites too thanks to its cocktail of aloe vera, chamomile and cucumber.
DHC Skin Softener , £27.50
Containing aloe and royal jelly among other replenishing goodies, this top toner gives a noticeable boost to dry and mature skin types.
Refreshing yet hydrating, this lightweight spritz containing arnica and cucumber gives early morning and post-travel skin a moisture filled lift.
Milkier in texture, this conditioning pick containing moisture-boosting ingredient squalane preps skin perfectly leaving it smooth, supple and tightness-free.
Best for dry to combination skin types, this award-winner enriched with camomile, alpine herbs and linden gently soothes and smooths in one fell swoop.
Combination, oily and breakout-prone skin types will benefit most from this toner. Re-balancing and re-hydrating, it offers the best of both worlds.
Biologique Recherche P50 , £55
Abigail’s pick, this particular choice has been touted for its epidermal prowess in the acid stakes for providing effective exfoliation and boosting skin’s regenerative powers too. It's not available to buy online in the UK but you'll find it at EF Medispa .
Containing 2% salicylic acid to unclog pores and increase radiance, this leave-on exfoliator works a treat for oilier skin types in particular.
Pixi Glow Tonic , £18
A great buy for a whole host of skin types, it’s no wonder this golden elixir containing 5% glycolic acid has cultivated such a cult following. “It is alcohol-free and contains a high quantity of aloe vera which is very calming and soothing,” explains Amanda Bell. “It is also packed with other botanical extracts that work in perfect synergy with it, ensuring that the texture of the skin is improved and skin is smoother, fresher and in perfect condition.”