Until recently, I considered toner to be a kiiiind of a B.S. thing—an unnecessary step in the already-confusing world of skincare. But here's the thing: I was SO wrong (beauty editor fail, oops). Once I figured out how to correctly use facial toners and actually made them a regular part of my routine, my skin suddenly started looking really good...like, plump, soft, and dewy good. And because one of the most common questions I get asked by virtually every friend/stranger is about the mystifying world of toners, I hit up the experts to find out exactly how toners work, how to use them on your face, plus the best ones to try for every skin type.
What does toner do for your face?
Provided you use one that’s alcohol-free and made for your skin type (check out some top-rated options below), toner can actually do a lot of wonderful things for your face. Toner has a slightly acidic pH, which helps balance your skin’s own hugely important pH—something that can be thrown off by anything from face soap to pollution, says dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD. “If your skin’s pH is out of whack, it can lead to redness, acne, and dryness,” she says.
A well-made toner will keep your pH around 5.5—which is the sweet spot for healthy, glowing skin. Plus, most toners are also made with good-for-you ingredients, like antioxidants, humectants, and acids to help with issues like dullness, dryness, and hyperpigmentation.
There's more good news: Using a toner post-cleanse can help remove any harsh minerals or chemicals found in tap water that buildup on your skin and, over time, cause inflammation, says celebrity facialist Renée Rouleau. Think of toner as a final rinse for your face and the first step in your product routine. "Because damp skin is more receptive to active ingredients, putting on serums or cream immediately after toning will help them work better," she says.
How do you apply toner?
First things first: You should always apply your toner to clean skin, so before you even think about doing anything else, wash your face and then gently pat it dry with a towel. Now it's time for toner, which you can apply one of two ways depending on the formula:
- If your toner has a thicker consistency, you can pour a little bit onto your finger tips and then apply it to your skin in a gentle pressing motion.
- If your toner has a thinner, liquid-y consistency, grab a piece of gauze or a cotton round (preferably a reusable one, bc sustainability), saturate it with your toner of choice, and then gently sweep it over your skin in upward motions.
And remember, toners are filled with beneficial ingredients that work their magic when they're left on the skin—so leave that shit on, no rinsing.
How often should you use a toner?
You can (and should!) use your toner twice a day—specifically on clean skin before your a.m. and p.m. skincare routines. The only exception? Acid toners (they're basically liquid exfoliators) that are made with AHAs like glycolic acid and/or BHAs like salicylic acid. Acid toners are clutch for getting rid of dead skin cells and excess oil that can lead to dullness and clogged pores, buuut they're potent and, if you overuse them, they can be a recipe for irritation and redness. As a rule, use your exfoliating acid toner three times a week at night, and never before an acid serum or retinol treatment.
Toner isn't just some "fancy" water for your face (something I have definitely said more than once in my life, oops). If you use the right toner for your skin type, apply it post-cleanse with your fingers or a cotton round, and then layer on the rest of your serums, lotions, and creams while you're skin is still damp, toner can be the difference between a meh skin day and a really good skin day.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.