Do You Really Need To Use A Toner In Your Skincare Routine?

Illustrated by Olivia Santner
Dear Daniela,
Do you really need toner in your skincare routine? I’ve heard so many different things about it. Some say it’s a must and others say it’s something you only need every couple of days. I’m so confused, please help!
Joni, 18
Whether you’re a diehard beauty junkie with a cupboard bursting with SkinCeuticals or more of a 'splash of water and a bit of Nivea' woman, you’ve no doubt heard the 'cleanse, tone, moisturise' mantra. It infiltrated most of our adolescent skincare routines. Toner came along in our travel washbags like that pair of sandals you probably won’t wear but always pack, and was used daily in the same way you take a multivitamin without being quite sure what you need it for. In fact, I don’t think there’s been a marketing message so powerful since "Beanz meanz Heinz".
I think toner has a fairly loose definition these days as anything applied on a cotton pad and wiped over your face post-cleansing, whereas before, a toner was a product strictly designed to get your skin to optimum pH for product absorption. I asked Dr David Jack, an aesthetic doctor and owner of the most comforting Scottish accent known to mankind, for his take. "There’s no real hard science reason to use toner, especially considering that most skincare products are now formulated to take care of the pH thing on their own," he began. "I’m not a huge advocate for them with my clients because 'toner' covers such a broad spectrum that it’s hard to know exactly what benefits are being offered. Plus, a lot of them are quite drying."
What Dr Jack is referring to by "quite drying" is that a fair few toners are high in alcohol. I'm not sure if yours is, Joni, but check the label and see if 'alcohol denat' is listed in the first five or so ingredients. Alcohol is aggressively stripping and should be avoided at all costs. There are a few reasons you might use a toner, but if your reason for using one is antioxidants or peptides, heed Dr Jack’s words: "If the toner is your only source of key ingredients like hyaluronic acid or vitamin C, I’d suggest a serum or gel instead. It’s really hard to get the right consistency with such a watery product on a cotton pad, and people rarely apply them all over."
Where I think a toner can be useful is in the form of a leave-on exfoliant. Even if your cleanser claims to be exfoliating, you do wash that off, so there’s a limit to how much good it can really do, and physical scrubs aren’t for everyone. Personally, I love something just to slough off any dead skin cells or residual grime, and give my skin a little extra pep. Plus, I don’t think many of us are as good at washing our faces as we think we are, and by that I mean that if you take the time to wipe a cotton pad over your face post-cleanse, you might be surprised to find there’s a fair bit on there. That includes cleanser! It’s actually harder to rinse off all your cleanser than you’d think, unless you’re doing Neutrogena ad splashes every night, and if you are, man, your bathroom should probably have a slip hazard sign.
As someone who wears makeup and is partial to self-tanner, the toning stage is a failsafe for me to get every last bit of foundation out of my eyebrows and hairline, plus keep the rest of my complexion glowing. The other thing I like toner for is when I’m giving my skin a little pamper session ahead of a night out. A generous pump of some kind of essence or toner massaged into damp skin makes any serums or makeup you apply after really slide on in a very satisfying way.
Do you need it? No. Might you want it? Sure! Is that good enough a reason to buy? In my books, yes!
Good luck,
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