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A toner is a lotion or a spray designed to ‘refresh’ the skin and remove left over traces of makeup and residual cleanser. A well formulated toner can help to reduce inflammation of the skin, add water-binding agents (humectants) and natural moisturising ingredients to the skin.

Toners can be applied to the skin in three ways:

  • on damp cotton wool and wiped over the skin. (the most frequently used method)
  • as a vaporiser
  • or by soaking a piece of gauze in toner and laying it over the face for a few minutes. This is known as a tonic-gauze facial mask

When it comes to the use of toners, there is little expert consensus. Some in the beauty industry love toners and see them as an essential part of the skin care routine, but most dermatologists believe that a toner is no longer necessary as the ingredients in cleansers have improved dramatically over the years and no longer leave a greasy residue on the skin. Some toners, such as astringents with high alcohol content, can in fact do more harm than good to the delicate acid mantle and the general health of the skin.

Toners can leave the skin feeling tight and smooth. But that taut, “squeaky clean” sensation actually indicates dryness and dehydration. The golden rule for skin care products is that you should not “feel” your skin after their use. Your skin should not be tight, dry, irritated, red, or too oily after using any product. This is a sign that it is not compatible with your skin type.

There are three types of toners available on the market depending on your skin type. These are: Refreshers, Tonics and Astringents.

Refresher is the gentlest of all three of the toners and is recommended for dryer skins. It can be something as simple as scented dematerialized water or contain up to 10% alcohol. A commonly used refresher is rose water. This is generally applied as a vaporiser.

Tonic contains up to 20% alcohol and can be used on oily to combination skin types. This can be applied as a gauze mask or on wiped on with damp cotton wool.

An Astringent contains a high percentage of alcohol, up to 40-60%. This should only be used on a very oily skin and only in the trouble areas. Alcohol dehydrates the skin and removes all of the natural oils (sebum) from the surface. This can actually stimulate over production of the sebum and lead to greater skin problems. Witch Hazel is a commonly used astringent and is applied with cotton wool.

Know your skin type – toners

Combination/Normal skin. Combination/normal skin should use a refresher or a tonic if you feel the need to use a toner.

Dry skin. It is not recommended for a dry skin to use a toner but if you like to use something after cleansing try a refresher such as rose water.

Oily skin. Oily skin is more suited to using a tonic after cleansing or if your skin is excessively oily in the ‘T’ zone you may benefit from using an astringent.

Sensitive skin. Sensitive skin is not recommended to use a toner but if you like to use something after cleansing try a refresher. Use products that don’t contain fragrances or dyes, and are specifically designed for sensitive skin.

Mature skin. Mature skin should use a refresher or a tonic if you feel the need to use a toner.

In the end, the use of a toner is personal preference and comes down to the products that you choose and the health of your skin.

Expert opinion on toners

According to Jeffrey Dover, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine in an interview for “O” magazine in 2006 “Toners just add an extra step and expense”.

Dr. Brandith Iwrin agrees. In her book, “The Surgery-Free Makeover,” Dr Irwin declares the “Toners are generally useless… Though they’re meant to remove “residues,” I don’t think it’s a problem if a few molecules of a gentle cleanser get left behind on your skin after washing! They also supposedly restore the pH balance of your skin (your pH comes from the natural oils and sweat on your skin). But if you’re using a gentle cleanser, it shouldn’t much change the pH balance of your skin, because it’s not removing your natural oil. What’s more, studies have shown that your skin will replenish its natural pH balance in fifteen to thirty minutes after you wash it. If you love toners, it’s fine to use them, but they’re not really necessary.”

On the other side of the argument there is Paula Begoun, the Cosmetic Copâ„¢ and author of who states that “Irritant-free toners are an excellent skin-care option for all skin types. They are fine as a cleansing step after removing the cleanser. Toners can also soothe skin, lightly moisturize it, and provide some antioxidant and anti-irritant protection.” — “The Beauty Bible” by Paula Begoun.