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What Should a Good Toner Do For You?

Forget old-school astringents. The new wave of toners is less about harsh stripping and more about new acids and replenishing the skin

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There are many myths about toners, used to remove dirt and oil from the skin, that have been debunked over the years. “There weren’t a ton of options for treating blemishes or congestion many years ago, when harsh astringent toners were prevalent,” says celebrity aesthetician and skincare entrepreneur Shani Darden, whose best-selling Sake Toning Essence combines the best of a toner with the benefits of an essence. “A common—though very wrong—idea was that in order to treat blemishes, you needed to dry the skin out. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Drying out the skin can actually exacerbate breakouts.” Alcohol in toners was a major culprit.

“While toners of the past contained alcohol for the purpose of drying out excess oil and treating acne breakouts, we now recognize that alcohol is far too harsh on the skin,” says Dr. Dendy Engelman, dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at the Shafer Clinic in New York City. “Today’s formulas are created more consciously to nourish—not strip—the skin.” Different formulations now target skin types and concerns. “Today, toners are created with ingredients that offer even more benefits to the skin, not just toning,” says Amanda Macino, Valmont’s director of training for North America. “They are skin type–specific, including for dry skin, which wasn’t always the case.”

The newest crop of toners have different skill sets and ingredients for a variety of skin types. “They are not one-size-fits-all, because nowadays, toners are more of a counterpart to serums,” says Emily Parr, co-founder of skincare brand HoliFrog. “I’m seeing toners with exfoliating acids or enzymes, others with a plethora of antioxidants and even more that focus on hydration. Toners are far less about toning and more about delivering a set of actives to the skin that are not present elsewhere in your regime.”

“Toners are not universal and they do not do the same thing across the board.” – Emily Parr

HoliFrog’s new hydrating and disinfecting Utopia Microflora Toner features hypochlorous acid, black bee honey ferment, apple cider vinegar and sunflower sprout. “I became increasingly intrigued with hypochlorous acid and its benefits for everyone from eczema sufferers to acne-prone people like myself,” says Parr. “Its ability to act as an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory really excited me, so I knew that a toner would be the best fit for this ingredient in our lineup.”

Used after the cleansing step to flood the skin with active nutrients, toners are meant to balance, hydrate and brighten the skin so that it is prepped for the products that follow. “A toner should be used when there is an active set of ingredients that are not being delivered in your serums or moisturizer,” says Parr. “There is no one universal toner that everyone should be using after they wash their face, because it’s a function of the active ingredients in the toner and the active ingredients in the steps that follow the toner.” Toners also shouldn’t be used to break down makeup. “I recommend that everyone use toner—not for removing makeup, but for rebalancing your skin and giving it an extra dose of clarifying, brightening and hydrating benefits,” says Dr. Engelman.

Click through the gallery above for a look at some of the newest toners available.