Do You Really Need Toner In Your Skincare Routine?

Photographed by Erin Yamagata

Since its induction into the beauty mainstream in the ‘90s, toner has been a yes, duh step in skincare routines long and short for its extra cleansing, skin re-balancing benefits. But these aren’t the ‘90s, and we’re here to give you permission to skip that step. That’s right, you don’t need to use a toner. 😱

If your cleanser is doing its job.

This might come as a shock to all my toner loyalists out there who have dutifully been patting, pressing, swabbing, swiping — hell, soaking — your face in the stuff between cleansing and moisturizing. If you swear that your toner is the reason your skin glows like neon lights, consider this: your cleanser might slacking. Because if your cleanser is really working (i.e. cleansing without messing with your skin’s pH level), toner is just a redundant step and extra expense.

I Don’t Really Know What Toner Is…

Or what it does, for that matter. Sound like you? Same. And I doubt we’re alone. I see the word toner, and I think ab-chiseler. But toner of the skincare varietal definitely isn’t doing for my face what squats do for my glutes. Regardless, I’ve been using it morning and night because it’s essential. Which is essentially baloney. By definition, all toner is is a fast-absorbing liquid or liquidy lotion, mostly water with a quick hit of other stuff like preservatives, extracts and often times alcohol. It’s meant to be a follow-up to your face wash as a double whammy cleanse to make double sure your skin is impurity-free. You can toss toners into three categorical buckets: 1) Fresheners, usually alcohol-free and the most mild, so sensitive skin is more into them. 2) Tonics, with some alcohol and generally OK for normal, oily or combination skin. 3) Astringents, the harshest alcohol-laden toners that you definitely do not need, no matter your skin mood. Although today’s toners promise an infinite range of praise-be miracles, their original purpose was threefold: 1) Rebalance skin’s pH level (or acidity — more on that a few paragraphs down). 2) Remove the last traces of oil, sweat and makeup that your cleanser missed. 3) Close pores. But pores aren’t doors that can be open and shut. Nor are the cleansers of today doing a slapdash job like those of yesteryear. Once hailed as the holy grail of skincare essentials to complete the glow job, toners are now relics of a skincare era past and on their way to retirement.

So How Did We Get Here?

Toners haven’t exactly gone the way of the dinosaurs. They’re still oversaturating faces, vanities and budgets everywhere. They first surfaced as a sort of backup in response to the filmy residue cleansers left behind thanks to commonly used petrochemicals (chemicals derived from petroleum or natural gas). On your face wash label petrochemicals frequently show up as paraffin wax, mineral oil, toluene, benzene, polyethylene glycol or any hard-to-pronounce word with butyl. Petroleum-based products leave a film on the surface of the skin, thus the need for toner to remove it. That’s no longer the case. Many of today’s cleansers operate sans petro. Another common reason toners have been touted as a must-have is because they help rebalance skin’s pH. Many cleansers, both past and present, are formulated with a pH balance higher than skin’s comfort zone. Toners help bring skin back to neutral.

Hold Up, You Lost Me at pH...

Ever try alkaline water? Alkaline refers to the water’s pH level. pH level is a numbered scale from 1 to 14 that measures how acidic or alkaline something is. A low pH level, like three, is highly acidic. A high pH level, moving into double digits, is very alkaline. A neutral pH level rests right at seven. According to pure hype, higher pH and thus higher alkaline in your drinking water is a good thing because it neutralizes acid in the body. Say what you will you about the merits (and adjusted price point) of alkaline water, your skin has a definite happy place on the spectrum right around pH level 5.5 on the more acidic side. A lot of cleansers are formulated with a pH level closer to seven to try solve for skin producing excess oil, but often leaving skin out of balance with its optimal pH level (in plain speak, too dry). With a slightly acidic bent or at skin’s ideal pH level, toners step in to rebalance skin and in the process prevent harmful bacteria from multiplying in more alkaline conditions. But, again, with the growing number of pH-balanced cleansers making their way to the market, the usefulness of toners is almost a moot point. Plus, they continue to rely on astringent ingredients like alcohol that strip natural oils, especially when wiped on/off with cotton. You don’t really want to lose those natural oils, even if your skin skews oily. They’re partially responsible for maintaining your skin’s natural moisture barrier, which is crucial to keeping moisture locked in and the rest of the outside world (think sun and pollution) out.

But I Like My Toner...

Fair. At the end of the day, using toner is a personal preference, and we’re not here to pressure you out of using something you love (because, really, who knows your skin better than you?). I, for one, refuse to throw out my rosewater toner because I’m a sucker for how it feels on my skin, which lands slightly north of neutral on the pH scale. If you’re going to keep on keeping on with a toner in your skincare rotation, opt for a leave-on formula that’s hydrating — like rosewater — and a pat-and-press method of application instead of stripping away natural oils by dragging cotton over your face. Bottom line, for most people’s typical skin mood, a pH-balanced, petroleum-free cleanser is enough and toner is an optional step that you can shelve to save time and moolah. In fact, instead of thinking of toner in terms of steps, ask if it’s providing your skin with something it needs — exfoliation, antioxidants and hydration — that your other products don’t already deliver. That answer can help you determine whether your toner deserves a top spot on your shelf. BY KATIE JOY BLANKSMA, MIRRA EDITOR

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