Toner Myth Busting: What Toners Can and Cannot Do

Toner is one of those skincare products that has been around for a long time. (Seriously, it’s even in the Smithsonian Museum.) But that doesn’t mean we know everything about it. Toner has a complicated history: Once upon a time, it was packed with astringent ingredients (meaning they removed oil from skin) and eventually got a bad reputation for being too drying and harsh for all but the oiliest skin types. These days, though, next-gen hydrating toners are enjoying a comeback. Here, what makes them different — and what they can do for your skin.

What is a toner?

If you’re a newbie: A toner is a thin, lightweight formula that’s applied after cleansing to, well, tone skin. In years past, that meant an extra step of cleansing, in addition to drying out skin with astringents or alcohol. “They were formulated to suck up oil and strip the skin — something that we know can not only lead to dry, dehydrated skin, but also trigger acne by tricking the body into thinking it needs to make more sebum,” says Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD, a dermatologist in Westport, CT. “Fast forward to 2020. There are alcohol-free formulations available that have therapeutic benefits — hydration, exfoliation, et cetera — versus solely stripping the skin.”

These newer, more hydrating toners act a little more like essences, moistening skin so that it better allows following ingredients to penetrate skin. Our Watermelon Glow PHA+BHA Pore-Tight Toner was inspired by K-beauty toners, which tend to have a uniquely bouncy feel. It’s a little more robust than the watery-thin toners of the past, adding to the hydrating feel.

Your skin changes daily, so try these 4 ways to use toner based on how your skin is feeling.

What does toner do?

Ultimately, it depends on the formula. While toner was used to remove oil from skin, next-gen toners now balance skin, lightly exfoliate, hydrate skin, and generally prep it for the next steps. For instance, the Watermelon Glow PHA+BHA Pore-Tight Toner is designed to deep-clean pores and moisturize skin simultaneously; while BHA is known for its mattifying effect, it doesn’t strip skin of oil. They also allow for better penetration of any ingredients you layer on top of them.

Does toner “pull” serums into skin?

Sort of. “They don’t exactly ‘pull’ other ingredients into skin, but they can prime the skin for maximum absorption,” Robinson explains. “If the pores are clear your serums will penetrate and absorb better.”

Here’s the thinking behind that, according to Robinson: The skin’s moisture barrier is designed to protect us and block things from getting in. Cleansing, exfoliating, and lightly moisturizing the skin with a hydrating toner wakes up the skin barrier in a sense, creating an environment that’s more receptive to let things in. Ultimately, says Robinson, “water follows water.”

However, that all depends on how you’re moisturizing skin to prep it for better absorption. “If it is hyaluronic acid-based, you may see plumper, more dewy skin,” she explains. Because toners tend to be lightweight and easily absorbed, they’re thus a great carrier of skin beneficial ingredients. However, if it has oils or lipids in it, it’ll have the reverse effect and block those from penetrating — and serums will just sit on top of the skin.

Can you use water to dampen skin instead?

Unfortunately not, because water itself does not pass through the skin barrier and hydrate skin. In fact, “water temporarily soothes skin, but water alone actually dehydrates the skin — think about how your fingers and toes look after a long bath,” says Robinson. (Hint: They look prune-y since your skin has shriveled up.) That said, if water is paired with a humectant, such as hyaluronic acid, that humectant can pull water into skin — thus hydrating it.

Can everyone use toners?

Yes — with some conditions. “I recommend all skin types avoid anything that has alcohol in it,” says Robinson. “This may come disguised as ethanol, denatured alcohol, ethyl alcohol, methanol, benzyl alcohol, and isopropyl alcohol.” She recommends looking for exfoliating acids, such as BHA, if you’re looking for enhanced radiance, as well as humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid to hydrate. You can find both in our Watermelon Glow PHA+BHA Pore-Tight Toner.

Read more about how to make toner work for you: