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What Does Toner Do?

What Do Face Toners Do?

Face toners are water, or oil based skincare products that are used after cleansing the face. Toners are the same as essences.

How toners work and their benefits for skin depends upon what cosmeceutical ingredients they contain and which type of toner they are.


Ten things toners can do for your face:

  1. Help remove make-up, sunscreen, and sebum
  2. Remove any detergents left on skin after cleansing
  3. Add a layer of water to the skin before applying moisturizer
  4. Pull water to the skin's surface from the environment
  5. Kill bacteria on the skin or change the microbiome
  6. Exfoliate the skin by lowering the skin's pH
  7. Prepare facial skin for the serum that follows it
  8. Clear pores to prevent comedones
  9. Target skin concerns such as inflammation, pigmentation and aging
  10. Treat acne

Not all toners have all of these benefits.

Keep reading to learn how medical grade toners can help your skin.

However, there are 16 different skin types and many do not need a toner!

So learn about toners before you buy.







Types of Toners

There are many different types of toners:

  • alcohol-based
  • hydroxyacid exfoliating toners
  • humectant based
  • micellar water based
  • oil-based
  • water based

Although oils and micellar waters are not technically toners, they are often referred to as such, so they are included on this toner list.

Cleanser vs Toner?

Cleansers have surfactants in them that lift dirt, oil , make-up and sunscreen off of the skin.

Toners can also cleanse the face using alcohol, oils, water and other ingredients.

Toners with detergents in them are also face cleansers.

Micellar water is technically a cleanser because they have detergents in them, but sometimes they re classified as toners.

Oils used as cleansing oils are also sometimes called toners.

Trying to decide if you should use a cleanser or a toner?

It depends upon your skin type. We can tell you what products are best for your skin type if you take the quiz.



Alcohol-based toners

Alcohol is an antimicrobial and will kill bacteria on the skin.

Avoid alcohol-based toners when you have dry skin.

Note that fatty alcohols are not the same as alcohol. Dry skin types can use fatty alcohols.

Good medical grade alcohol-based toners:

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Astringent Toner- has salicylic acid to clear pores and reduce inflammation. Will sting irritated skin. Do not use if you have retinoid dermatitis.

SkinCeuticals LHA Toner- This hydroxyacid low pH toner has AHA and BHA. Do not use if your skin is red, stings, or is peeling.

Humectants in Toner

Hydrating Toners

Hydrating products have humectant ingredients that pull water to the skin's surface and hold it there.

These products work best in a humid environment.

In a dry climate, they should be combined with an occlusive ingredient or followed by a face cream or oil in the skin care routine.

Skin care products with hyaluronic acid can increase absorption of other products in the skin care routine, but HA serums are more effective than HA toners.

These products may feel sticky to oily skin types, so are usually preferred by dry skin types.


Dermatologist-recommended hydrating toners:

These are my 5 favorite toners that my patients like:

  1. EltaMD Skin Recovery Toner- Contains glycerin. This is a better choice for sensitive skin types and when beginning retinol.
  2. Medature Energizing Q Toner- HA hydrates. Aloe and cucumber soothe skin while CO Q 10 gives cells energy. Good for retinoid beginners.
  3. Murad Hydrating Toner-Witch hazel , natural moisturizing factor, glycerin. Not for skin that stings, rosacea, nor retinoid beginners.
  4. PCA Skin Hydrating Toner- Glycerin, panthenol and evening primrose extract. Has a small amount of phenoxyethanol which can cause stinging and is not considered a clean ingredient.
Hydroxyacid Toners

Hydroxyacid Toners

Hydroxyacid toners exfoliate, smooth the skin's surface, increasing light reflection, and give you glowing skin.

They also lower the skin's pH, fight acne-causing bacteria, shrink pores, and treat fine lines and wrinkles.

Our dermatologists recommend using these treatments 2-3 times a week.

Never use hydroxyacids if your skin is stinging, inflamed, peeling, or when you are beginning a retinoid.

Use caution if you have sensitive skin such as rosacea.

Try to limit the number of exfoliants in your skin care routine to 3.


These are the 4 best toners for glowing skin:

  1. PCA Skin Nutrient Toner- Uses pumpkin enzymes and lactic acid to exfoliate. May sting because it has cinnamon oil and ginger.
  2. PCA Skin Smoothing Toner- Lactic and and Citric acid. This is more exfoliating than the PCA Nutrient Toner.
  3. Peter Thomas Roth Anti-Aging Triple Acid Peel - This should only be used 2-3 times a week. It is more of a peel than a toner. Do not use on irritated skin.
  4. SkinCeuticals LHA Toner- This exfoliating low pH toner has glycolic acid and salicylic acid. Do not use if your skin is irritated from a retinoid. Best for oily skin types.



Soothing Toners

Soothing toners have anti-inflammatory ingredients to decrease skin redness.

The 3 best toners to calm sensitive skin:

  1. Medature Energizing Q Toner- Aloe and cucumber treat skin redness while Co Q 10 is an antioxidant. Hyaluronic acid hydrates. Good for all skin types.

  2. Obagi Nu-Derm Toner- Witch hazel, aloe, panthenol, allantoin, glycerin, borage seed oil, and calendula.

  3. SkinCeuticals Phyto Corrective Essence Mist- Has HA and glycerin but also has phenoxyethanol which is not considered a clean ingredient.

Acne Treatment Toners

Acne treatment toners can work several ways:

  • Decrease acne causing bacteria with alcohol, antimicrobials such as silver and benzoyl peroxide, or probiotics.
  • Decrease inflammation with ingredients such as sulfur and salicylic acid.
  • Clear pores with salicylic acid or retinoids.
  • Regulate desquamation and keratinization.

These are some of our favorite acne treatment toners:

Our favorite medical grade toner for acne is:

SkinCeuticals LHA Toner- This exfoliating salicylic acid clears pores and is perfect for acne-prone skin. Use with caution when beginning a retinoid. Best for oily skin types.

Water-based vs oil-based toners

Most true toners come in a water-based liquid form that may be infused with skin-soothing ingredients like green tea, chamomile and aloe.

There are also gel based toners with hydrophilic ingredients like hyaluronic acid

Some toners are oil based.

What do Hyaluronic acid Toners Do?

Hyaluronic acid toners

What do HA toners do for the skin? 

HA toners are water-based.

They have many benefits such as:

Hyaluronic acid toners increase absorption

Why use a toner?

There is really no need to use a toner.

In fact, most of the skin care routines that I design for my patients do not have toners.

However, some people like the refreshing feeling that a toner provides.

I usually use toners for my teenage patients with oily skin or acne, however, I usually choose to apply the toners with individually wraps pads they can carry to school in their back pack.

For most skin types I suggest using a serum instead of a toner to save yourself an extra skin care routine step.

Side Effects, Dangers and Downsides

Toners are safe unless you use the wrong toner for your skin type.

Dry skin type can hurt their barrier, turn on inflammatory pathways, and irritate skin if they use an alcohol-based or hydroxyacid toner.

Allergic skin types will react to toners that have ingredients they are allergic to.

Rosacea skin types may flush from cinnamon, ginger, menthol and essential oils in toners.

Is alcohol in toners bad?

Dry skin types should avoid alcohol in toners because it can dehydrate the skin.

Fatty alcohols in toners are OK to use.




Research Studies

One study (1) compared the clinical benefits of using a comprehensive skin care routine (cleanser, toner, eye cream, serum, day & night cream) versus a simple one (cleanser & day cream) found that an advanced routine outperformed a simple routine. They saw improvements in superficial hydration, deep hydration, skin roughness, mean pore area, melanin heterogeneity, and crow’s feet wrinkle depth. However, these cannot be directly attributed to the use of a toner.

Another study (2) evaluated the anti-sebum efficacy of a guava toner. The study found that the guava toner significantly reduced oiliness of the forehead and nose better than the vehicle toner which did not contain guava.


Toners may not be right for you.

Take the quiz and let us help you build a skin care routine with products that really work.


Level up your skin care knowledge with medical advice from dermatologists

What do toners do for your face?

Toners were originally invented to remove soap residue from the skin.  Now that cleansers are more high tech and do not leave this residue, the function of a toner depends on what ingredients it has in it.  Some have alcohol to kill bacteria, while others have antiaging or soothing ingredients.  Most toners are best for oily skin types.

References from Scientific Publications and Peer Reviewed Studies on Face Toners:


  1. Messaraa, C., Robertson, N., Walsh, M., Hurley, S., Doyle, L., Mansfield, A., ... & Mavon, A. (2020). Clinical evidences of benefits from an advanced skin care routine in comparison with a simple routine. Journal of cosmetic dermatology, 19(8), 1993-1999.
  2. Pongsakornpaisan, P., Lourith, N., & Kanlayavattanakul, M. (2019). Anti?sebum efficacy of guava toner: A split?face, randomized, single?blind placebo?controlled study. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 18(6), 1737-1741.
  3. Timudom, T., Chaiyasut, C., Sivamaruthi, B. S., Tiampasook, P., & Nacapunchai, D. (2020). Anti-sebum efficacy of phyllanthus emblica l.(emblica) toner on facial skin. Applied Sciences, 10(22), 8193.
  4. Muhsinin, S., Salsabilla, D. Z., Mardhiani, Y. D., & Jafar, G. (2023). Formulation and Evaluation of a Turmeric Kombucha Facial Toner with Potential as an Anti-Acne Agent. Journal of Drug Delivery and Therapeutics, 13(1), 68-75.

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