About a year ago, before I started writing about beauty, the word “toner” struck a vague sense of fear into my heart. Visions of alcohol-laden, harsh astringents crossed my mind; forget promises of dried-out pimples and smoother skin, I was sure I'd be covered in crusted acne and flaking skin.
But the days of skin-care terrors like those are far behind us, and the toners you can find now are—for the most part—light, hydrating, and pH-balancing, gently clearing away any leftover face wash or makeup and replacing your skin with essential moisture lost during the cleansing process—and you can thank the rise of Korean beauty for that.
I asked Charlotte Cho, founder of the Korean beauty website Soko Glam, about the resurgence of toners in American skin care, and she told me she believes it’s partially due to the popularity of K-beauty products and routines in America.
“Traditionally, toners in the West are used to reset your skin’s pH after using an alkaline cleanser with a high pH level,” she told me. But as Korean brands like Etude House, Saturday Skin, and Peach & Lily have caught the attention of American skin-care enthusiasts, Westerners “are beginning to use Korean brands as inspiration to formulate products that have hydrating, cooling, and moisturizing elements.”
A quick glance at Sephora’s newest toners confirms Cho’s assertions. Fresh’s Rose Deep Hydration Facial Toner, for example, boasts glycerin, rosewater, and hyaluronic acid to “remove residual impurities... and soften skin.” Milk Makeup’s Matcha Toner (which we’ve written about here) claims its inclusion of green tea, kombucha, and “cactus elixir” help calm and hydrate the skin. And Korean brand Erborian’s Bamboo Matte Lotion says its use of bamboo brings moisture to the skin’s surface, while its “powdery phase” (most likely silica) “absorbs the oil without drying out skin.”
A far cry, then, from the harsh acne toners of our teen years. Nevertheless, we’re left with the question: Just how much do you need a toner, anyway?
After cleansing, Cho told me, “your skin is naturally more fragile, so you need nutrients like antioxidants and amino acids to protect it.” Toners, with their light, watery consistency and gentle inclusion of beneficial ingredients, not only allow your skin to more readily soak up whatever serum or moisturizer you apply next, they also act as a kind of booster shot as their hydrating properties are pressed into the skin by occlusives like oils or moisturizers.
Renee Rouleau, aesthetician and founder of her eponymous skin-care brand, agrees. “New-school toners allow for extra hydration and nutrients to get into the skin because water penetrates faster than oil,” she told me. “They also make skin more permeable so that the serum or moisturizer you use afterward will work better.” Many young women, she said, are more concerned about “aging smartly,” preparing and protecting the skin against pollution and the elements rather than getting to a certain age and looking back (although that, also, remains a fixture in the skin-care obsessive’s arsenal).
In other words, think of toners as a kind of vitamin for your skin—not 100 percent essential for survival, but helpful enough that you may want to consider finding one if your skin is lacking.
So what should you look for in a toner, should you decide to add one to your routine?
“Look for SD alcohol- or denatured alcohol-free toning options,” to avoid drying out and irritating your skin, says Jeni Sykes, head of skin care for the popular NYC facial bar Heyday. For an oily face, “look for witch hazel or radish root ferment as antibacterial, oil-wicking ingredients. If you're on the dry or sensitive side, look for toners with aloe or apple cider vinegar bases.” And if you’re at a loss, adds Rouleau, make sure you’re wiping, not spraying, your toner and choosing one “for your skin type and that's alcohol-free.”