Toner: schools of thought and a product comparison

August 25, 2013

I think toners are one of the most confusing skincare products out there. Not because they themselves are complicated, but because of general widespread disagreement over their purpose as well as vague or misleading marketing. I don’t have a background in chemistry or dermatology but this is a subject I’ve spent a lot of time with, and my research has included reading professionals’ opinions, speaking with sales associates, and trying different products.

Toners are intended to be used after a cleanser but before any serums or moisturizers are applied. There appear to be basically two different schools of thought regarding what a toner is supposed to do:

1. A cleansing step that removes lingering dirt and makeup, dries up oil, and minimizes pores

2. A balancing step that lowers pH, soothes irritation, and prepares skin for absorbing moisture

Let’s talk through these two different notions for a moment.

Toner as Cleanser

I’d say this is by far the most prevalent line of thinking that you see when discussing toner. Wikipedia defines a toner as “a lotion or wash designed to cleanse the skin and shrink the appearance of pores”. I think there are a few reasons why this such a widespread view. For one, this kind of product has been around longer, and so I’d theorize that this is the wisdom that mothers are generally passing on to their daughters. Secondly, don’t these goals sound super essential? I mean, don’t you want clean skin and tight pores? I do. So, I think this message is effortless marketing for a product.

Case in point:

Neutrogena Pore Refining Toner
Neutrogena Pore Refining Toner ($7.49 for 8.5 oz)

The Neutrogena Pore Refining Toner is a pretty good example of this kind of product. The word “refine” really speaks to that traditional notion of what it means to “tone”, which is similar to how we think of toning muscles.

Ingredients: Water, Alcohol Denat. (35%), Glycolic Acid, Witch Hazel (Hamamelis Virginiana) Extract, Sodium Pca, Salicylic Acid, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract, Eucalyptus Globulus Leaf Extract, Peppermint (Mentha Piperita) Leaf Extract, Allantoin, Sodium Lactate, PEG 40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Fragrance.

My experience with this product can be summed up pretty quick. As soon as the first application, I could swear I could see a difference in my pores. The improvement in my skin continued for about two days of use, which was pretty exciting, but after that it completely plateaued. The back of the bottle notes that if you experience any dryness or irritation, you should use it less frequently. So, I thought maybe my skin was a little dry and that I’d try just using it once every two or three days instead of every day. I never saw any improvement beyond those first couple of days, and in fact, with continued use my skin slowly crept back to the condition it was before I started using the product. Pore size, blackheads, and oil production slowly increased. I made it a little more than halfway through the bottle before I quit.

As you can see from the ingredients list, this product heavily relies on denatured alcohol. It turns out that high levels of alcohol in cleansers and toners tends to have two main effects: it produces an instant tightening effect, and is drying enough that the skin fights back to a certain extent and increases oil production to compensate for what’s being taken away. I would go so far as to call  a product with this level of alcohol un-balancing. Now, the role of alcohol in skincare is a really big discussion that I won’t completely dive into right here, and it’s counterproductive to conclude that alcohol is evil and you should resist purchasing any skincare product that contains it. There are many different kinds of alcohols that fulfill different functions in skincare formulations, but my personal position at this point is that there are a few main types of alcohol that I look out for on ingredients lists, and I look for whether they’re listed in the first 5 or so ingredients. In terms of which alcohols are most harsh, the main ones to look out for that I see the most often on skincare labels are denatured alcohol, isopropyl, and SD alcohol. I found a cheat sheet about the different kinds of alcohol written by Highland Men’s Care online, and though it is not exhaustive, it’s handy.

Toner as Balancer

Ok, the spellchecker is telling me that “balancer” isn’t a real word, but bear with me. My first exposure to this idea came from Caroline Hirons of Beauty Mouth (if you’re interested in skincare and don’t already read her blog, I recommend it). This idea isn’t anywhere near as popular the first school of thought I mentioned. Many of the toners in this category are often described as “nourishing” and “normalizing”. So, what does “normalizing” mean, exactly? I’d like to narrow that down to a much more specific point. A key function of these products is to lower the pH of the skin. When I was first trying to learn about this, one of the places I stopped was the Clarins counter at my nearby Nordstrom. In general, I enjoy walking into stores and chatting with associates about what their favorite products are. At one point when we were talking, I asked the sales associate what the Clarins toners are intended to do, and she answered very simply that they lower the skin’s pH. Later that night I was looking through the Clarins website a little and noticed that the description of the iris toner formulation, the one intended for combination and oily skin types, makes no mention of this function.

From the website: Alcohol-free toner — with purifying Iris and Sage extracts — removes every last trace of cleanser, leaving combination and oily skin types pristine-clean and perfectly radiant. Skin-balancing formula tones and tightens pores, while helping to normalize surface oils. Preps skin for the Clarins treatments to follow.

So, why not mention the pH? My theory here is the mirror image of my idea about the toner-as-cleanser school of thought. Lowering pH makes for a a relatively dull sales pitch because it’s a bit intangible. The benefits of low pH are certainly not self-explanatory, but I think I can help explain it briefly by drawing a parallel to another part of the body: the urinary tract (I’m not about to get gross, I promise!). It’s the same reason why cranberries (and blueberries, for that matter) work to keep the urinary tract healthy. They’re acidic, and ingesting them in great quantities (or, more conveniently, in capsules) adjusts the pH of the urinary tract. This discourages bacteria growth and helps that part of the body keep itself balanced and healthy. Bacteria can’t live in an acidic environment, but will thrive in an alkaline one. And in fact, many cleansers (especially those that foam) actually raise the pH level of the skin.

Let’s get back to the toner:

Clarins Toning Lotion with Iris ($22 for 6.8 oz)
Clarins Toning Lotion with Iris ($22 for 6.8 oz)

Pictured above is the Clarins Toning Lotion with Iris, which is intended for combination or oily skin. Clarins also offers a Toning Lotion with Chamomile for normal or dry skin for the same price as the Iris formula, $22. I really like this stuff. It actually feels both clean and nourishing. It softens and calms without leaving skin feeling the least bit sticky or greasy. It smells really great, too. If you’re looking for a place to start, this is a really solid toner.

Ingredients: Water (Aqua), Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe Vera) Leaf Juice, Propylene Glycol, Dipropylene Glycol, Glycerin, Oleth-20, Sodium Chloride, Disodium EDTA, Fragrance (Parfum), Sodium Citrate, Panthenol, Alpha-Glucan Oligosaccharide, Phenoxyethanol, Methylparaben, Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel) Water, Psidium Guajava (Guava) Fruit Extract, Iris Florentina (Orris) Root Extract, Glucose, Crataegus Monogina (Hawthorn) Flower Extract, Citric Acid, Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Benzoate, Zinc Sulfate, Sorbic Acid, Retinyl Palmitate, Silica, Linalool, Benzyl Salicylate, Limonene, Hydroxycitronellal, Benzyl Benzoate, Hexyl Cinnamal, Yellow 5 (CI 19140), Blue 1 (CI 42090).

It’s mainly the sodium citrate that’s lowering pH, I believe. One of the challenges of finding toners that lower pH is that, as I’ve mentioned, the products don’t necessarily advertise themselves that way. I try to look at ingredients and see if I can identify any acids that could be helping. A toner I’m using right now actually lists cranberry extract as one of the ingredients. But there are websites like that help analyze ingredients lists, as well. If you’re not one for staring down ingredients, I’d suggest looking for products that are described as “soothing” and “balancing”.

The Bottom Line

Toners tend to be one of those products that many, many people don’t seem to believe to be an important step in their skincare routine, and I think this really stems from confusion over what on earth they’re actually supposed to do. I’ve mentioned marketing strategies a couple of times already in this post, and it’s because I’ve been thinking about how sometimes companies make products that consumers think they need. And I’d bet that those products will always be pretty popular. Personally, though, I’ve adopted the notion that my toner should really be a step that helps my skin balance itself out, and it’s made a huge, huge difference for me.

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