Toners: Most of us are familiar with these astringent liquids thanks to our teenage (and for the unfortunate few, beyond) acne years. They are the pore-gunk-dissolving and dead-skin-disappearing step in your oily-skin arsenal. But they can also be harsh AF on your skin — especially when you graduate into your "adult" years (i.e. when you can no longer chug beer, inhale nachos, and get two hours of sleep without slowly dying on the inside). Well, you no longer have to choose between your Sea Breeze and a blackhead constellation map on your face — may I present, the non-toner.
Traditional astringent toners, explains dermatologist Jeannette Graf, MD, "contain drying ingredients such as alcohol." The alcohol has antibacterial benefits, which, since we know acne is caused by the p. acnes bacteria, is a good thing. For fighting the acne, at least. She notes that most of these astringents can be balanced out by witch hazel to minimize the drying. (So if you're going to stick to your astringents, make sure witch hazel is also listed on the label.)
She also notes that these toners should be pH-balanced and contain other ingredients that are proven to help control acne (like salicylic acid), as well as those that will prevent irritation and flaking.
A non-toner(™), on the other hand, skips the alcohol and uses less drying ingredients — many of which are more natural or botanical-based — that also have antibacterial properties, without the irritation and moisture-sucking pitfalls.
Holistic skin expert Tammy Fender says ingredients like lavender — which, she notes, equalizes sebum production — and thyme, "nature’s antibiotic," can provide the acne-fighting benefits of alcohol. For those with dry skin, she recommends floral-based toners with a botanical-blend base to rehydrate. "The rose is a power rejuvenator — and rosewater does wonders," she says.
Fender says her preferred method of non-toner application is to dab it on a cotton pad and lightly sweep it over the face, prior to applying moisturizer. "In my purse, I also carry a small travel-sized spritzer bottle of Bulgarian rosewater, which I use as an instant pick-me-up several times throughout the day."
Sarah Lee, cofounder of Korean beauty hot spot Glow Recipe, notes that K-beauty is rife with multitasking products that tone and shrink pores, while cleansing, exfoliating, or hydrating — or all three. "Korean women are all about powerful hydration and treatment benefits infused in all steps of skin care. Hence the innovation and growth in the essence category, which has expanded to essence toners or treatment toners and [has] become a staple for most Korean women," she says.
And if you're not looking to buy even more beauty products, Fender notes that there is a way to get the benefits of a non-toner at home. "I think occasionally using a very mild, water-based solution of apple-cider vinegar, blended with a touch of lemon juice and honey, can rebalance the skin, while providing astringent and antibacterial properties. Cucumber water is also great for rehydrating fatigued skin," she says.