What exactly is a toner for? Why should you use one? Many people don’t bother with them these days, perhaps they remember the unpleasant sting of alcohol or suffered dry skin as a result of badly formulated old fashioned toners.
There are many myths perpetuated about what toners are for so I’ll start with those. Toners are not for ‘closing’ your pores – this is a biological nonsense! Pores simply do not open and close like that, and yet they even teach this myth on beauty courses! Alcohol containing toners can give the appearance of smaller pores by drying out the skin, this tightening or “toning” of the skin is where their name comes from. Pore size however, is for life. Sorry!
Toners are also definitely not there to remove the last traces of make-up or of cleanser – if either of those are still sitting on your skin at the end of cleansing you need to fix your cleansing routine STAT! Your cleanser should be removing all of your make-up, if it isn’t doing so then try another.
Traditional skin care, as still taught in colleges around the world, teaches that toners fall into three groups containing varying levels of a simple alcohol. These are “bracers” (up to 10%), “tonics” (up to 20%) and “astringents” (20% to a massive 60%). Astringent type toners are often recommended for oily skin types due to the mattifying (oil removing) effect of the alcohol, and while it is true that the skin does not have a feedback mechanism to tell it to produce more oil to replace that which has been removed; it does have the ability to detect disturbances in surface pH, damage to it’s all important acid mantle and damage to the skins surface that is invisible to our eyes. All of these can be caused by our skin care products:
- Soaps, please don’t use bar soap on your face – it’s incredibly alkaline.
- Cleansers, again due to the nature of surfactants these can be alkaline, neutral pH is the best case scenario and we should look for these more balanced products.
- Manual exfoliators (scrubs) can cause damage that we can’t see – if you look at the grains under a microscope you would see how terrifyingly sharp they can be, and:
- Alcohol containing products, some “bad” types of alcohol strip the skin including types used in toners to mattify or tighten the skin.
How does the skin respond to all this? By producing oil! Oil (sebum) helps restore the natural acidic pH balance, mixes with sweat to reform the ‘acid mantle’ which protects us from bacteria among other things, and of course, oil moisturises the skin. Huge surges of oil as are produced when the skin senses disruption can however lead to blockages and thus blackheads and spots… so you could actually be perpetuating an acne cycle rather than solving one. Surges in oil production do also occur naturally in response to androgens around menses and in response to high levels of stress hormones whenever a person is under stress.
Science is learning more all the time about the good bacteria that live on our faces, just as we have good bacteria in our guts we have good bacteria on our skin and these little critters while being very helpful for keeping our skin in tip top condition and protecting us from bad bacteria are also very vulnerable to over cleansing, to alcohol based products and even to hard tap water (NCBI). When the good bacteria are wiped out or out numbered by the bad ones such as p. acnes, well, a break out is coming your way!
So Why Should I Use a Toner?
So, with all this bad news about toners should you just avoid them altogether? My opinion is no. There are now quite a few good alcohol free toners on the market that can provide multiple benefits as a part of your skin care routine. This point in your routine is also a good place to use a liquid exfoliant (sometimes referred to as an acid toner) along side your regular toner as a non-damaging replacement for your manual scrub. Liquid exfoliants are also better for the environment as they do not put tons of grits or plastic beads into the waterways that our waste water systems are unable to filter out and thus pollute our water table.
So what does a good toner do? If your cleanser has changed your skin’s pH toner can help to rebalance it. That pH change is why your skin might sometimes feel tight after washing – it’s acid mantle has been disturbed, a good toner should speed up your skins readjustment. Toner prepares the skin for the next step in the routine. It’s important to remember that hydration and moisturisation are not quite the same thing. Skin that is dehydrated is lacking water and skin that is dry is not producing enough oil/sebum. The number one benefit of a good toner is aiding hydration, all good toners will contain a humectant which is an ingredient which attracts water to it and thus to the skin. Pretty much everyone in our modern world has dehydrated skin (the many joys of central heating and air conditioning!) and will benefit from this extra hydrating step prior to using a serum or cream – it’s especially useful if you’re going to be applying make-up afterwards. The humectant will keep your skin hydrated for longer and mean you don’t feel the need to apply as much moisturiser. Toners can also provide other useful ingredients you might be more used to finding in serums such as hyaluronic acid, vitamins like panthenol (B5) and niacinamide (B3), and anti-oxidants.
All About Alcohol
Alcohol is, however, not all bad – it’s not even just one substance! In fact retinols, vitamin C, AHAs and BHAs (the acids found in liquid exfoliants) require a certain amount of one type or other in order to work. Because it can act as a penetration enhancer it allows the active ingredient to get through into the skin and be absorbed, otherwise the product wouldn’t be able to work at all – the key is in what type of alcohol is in a product.
There are four types of alcohol you might find in cosmetics: simple alcohols, fatty alcohols, sugar alcohols and aromatic alcohols:
- Simple alcohols are often derivatives of ethyl alcohol (ethanol), this is the kind of alcohol you would find in your cocktails! Ethanol provides anti-bacterial properties and is used to sterilise whole uninjured skin prior to venepuncture (blood taking) or injection in a medical setting. This is the type of alcohol that dries out your skin and damages your skins acid mantle as a result which leads to the skin producing more oil in order to repair its self. Look in the ingredients for: ethanol, alcohol denat. (sd alcohol on US origin products), isopropyl alcohol.
- Fatty alcohols are non-drying and have emollient properties, unlike the watery simple alcohols these tend to have a thick waxy texture. Look for: cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, behenyl alcohol, capricylic alcohol, decyl alcohol, lauryl alcohol, myristyl alcohol, isostearyl alcohol, oleyl alcohol.
- Sugar alcohols are as the name suggests derived from sugar but they are not related to alcoholic drinks! Many are used in the food industry as sweeteners – you will likely have heard of xylitol which falls into this group. Sugar alcohols used in cosmetics often form humectants or slip agents and some are: butylene glycol, hexylene glycol, propylene glycol and any other glycol you might find. Phenoxyethanol is also an alcohol, it is a glycol ether often found in creams and sunscreens as a slip agent.
- Aromatic alcohols are similar to simple alcohols but have a pleasant fragrance and is produced naturally by many plants – these make up part of the essential oils you can purchase individually or which are now included as a part of many cosmetics, benzyl alcohol, vanillyl alcohol and anisyl alcohol are the most common.
On a shopping trip to Boots I investigated the toners on offer. These are the best toners I found there plus two I already had at home:
Elemis ‘Soothing Apricot Toner’, Elizabeth Arden ‘Hydra Splash Alcohol Free Toner’, No. 7 ‘Soft & Soothed’, Simple ‘Kind to Skin Soothing Facial Toner’, Boots Own brand ‘Sensitive Gentle Toner’.
That’s just 3 good toners I found in an average sized store out of 13 in total! All of the rest had high levels of bad alcohols including one from an anti-aging range! I’ll review each of these in separate posts properly and when I do I will update this post with links to the reviews. They cover a good range of prices so there’s something here to suit everyone.
So what of the “bad” toners I found? Many were very old fashioned formulas or targeted at oily skin types (read astringent) but one that surprised me was Boots Botanics ‘Rosewater Toning Spritz’. Putting a modern hydrating toner in a spray bottle is a wonderful idea so I was very disappointed to see that this wasn’t a modern toner. The second ingredient was denatured alcohol – I don’t care if it is “organic” and paraben free or any other buzzword you care to name, I won’t be misting that on my face Botanics! This toner has a very old fashioned formula and will suck moisture out of the skin, it’s also quite heavily (to my nose) fragranced with rose and contains the irritant citronellol. It’s time some manufacturers came into the 21st century on things other than the packaging!
Review links will appear here as I add them:
- Elemis “Soothing Apricot Toner”
- Simple “Kind to Skin Soothing Facial Toner”
- Elizabeth Arden “Hydra-Splash Alcohol Free Toner”