The traditional function of a toner is to help remove any residual cleanser and makeup. By dispensing the toner onto a cotton pad and sweeping it over the skin, it also helps restore some much needed hydration. Remember the swelling and shrinking of the corneoctyes that was discussed in the last section? What about the graph of the skin’s repair cycle?
Clearly, the most pressing substance that the skin needs after cleansing is water. And since the stratum corneum’s (SC’s) ability to retain water is directly linked to its lipid and protein contents, it would make sense that adding emollients, humectants, occlusive agents (all of these will be discussed in the Moisturizer section (LINK)), and of course water, would solve the problem, right? And guess what type of skin care product contains these components? Toners! But does that automatically mean they are necessary in the ideal skin care routine?
The Original Purpose of Toners:
As we learned in the cleanser section, until the last two decades or so, the most common type of cleanser was the bar soap. But it had quite a few problems. Bar soaps back then:
- Were overly harsh due to the potent surfactants used;
- Altered and increased the pH of the skin (when used regularly, as a cleanser should be);
- And left a residual layer of soap “scum” on the skin.
It was for these reasons that toners needed to contain some amount of alcohol and were claimed to “balance” the pH of the skin.
Is There a Need for Alcohol in Toners?
As we learned when discussing heavy-duty solvent-based cleansers (like eye makeup removers), which contain comparatively low amounts of surfactants, these types of cleansers break down oil, debris, and makeup by dissolving and wearing down that layer into lots of tiny molecules that are mixed into the solvent, and then rinsed away. Think of how water destroys a sand castle. It’s a similar concept.
In toners, the most commonly used solvent (other than water of course) is alcohol. Well specifically, denatured ethanol. (The denaturant is some agent(s) that makes the ethanol bitter to the taste, and nontaxable…) It helps remove any leftover makeup; but primarily, the soap “scum” that (true) bar soaps leave behind. Furthermore, alcohol is also the prime solvent choice because it makes the skin appear brighter and tighter, which many people seem to enjoy.
These days however, even the most inexpensive cleansers won’t leave a residue, and that includes several syndet soaps, too. The range of quality cleaners available on the market today, completely obliterates a need for true bar soaps, at least for personal care.
So there’s no need to include alcohol in toners!
Not to mention that alcohol, when used on a regular basis on naked skin (direct contact), will make the skin more sensitive and prone to drying, inflammation, and itchiness–reactions that can also occur from using true bar soaps! It’s true that alcohol can help increase penetration and therefore enhance the efficacy of certain ingredients like glycolic acid, but there are better ways of doing so. But that’s a discussion for another day.
Do Toners Serve to Balance the Skin’s pH?
As mentioned above, until the last two decades or so, the most common type of cleanser was the bar soap. It gives a very alkaline pH of anywhere between 9.0 and 11.0. And while the skin has an inherent buffering system that regulates the pH of the skin (every weak acid/base has a buffer region that approximately ± 1 pH from its pKa), that pH is determined primarily by the free fatty acids present in sebum. Guess what happens to most of the sebum when you cleanse with a bar soap? It goes down the drain! There goes (most of) your buffering system. This is the point in time during which the pH of the skin is most susceptible to change. And thanks to the bar soap, the pH of your skin will undoubtedly increase significantly, perhaps as much as one full pH unit or more.
These days however, virtually every cleanser (that’s not a bar soap) is altered so that the pH is slightly acidic; some more so than others. For example, specialized cleansers with hydroxy acids give even lower pH values, when formulated properly. So the issue of having to deal with a pH change is pretty much irrelevant now.
I repeat, the purpose of a toner is NOT to “balance” the pH of the skin, because the use of alkaline soaps is no longer the norm. Besides, a leave-on chemical exfoliant will be far more effective at correcting the pH of the skin. But we’ll get to that in another series of this publication. However, most skin care companies (to make a quick buck) still perpetuate this antiquated notion, which understandably causes a lot of confusion. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t see someone commenting that toners help “balance” the skin. Fortunately, none of you are one of those people now!
“You bet I’m not. So are you saying that toners are not necessary, then?
To answer that question, we need to discern what toners these days are SUPPOSED to do, now that we know the two most commonly voiced reasons of using them are obsolete.
The True Purpose of Toners
As technology and knowledge about skin care evolves, we and our perception must follow suit. These days, toners should serve two functions. They should function as:
- The first line of defense after cleansing in the sense of acting as super light moisturizers;
- And penetration enhancers, as they increase hydration, which keeps the corneocytes–the dead skin cells of the SC, from drying out, while remaining porous; thus exhibiting a heightened susceptibility to most topical agents.
But are these functions exclusive to toners?
Toners as Super Light Moisturizers
As you will see once again when you read the Moisturizer section (LINK), I define “moisturizers” as any leave-on product that contains an occlusive agent, which pretty much makes it an all-inclusive category. The only distinctions I make are for chemical exfoliants and sunscreens (moisturizers with SPF), and those are really just notable subcategories of moisturizers. I defined them like this in an attempt to create a more easily understood standard that’s simple, but elegantly so. NOT doing so, would only create more confusion, contradictions, and exceptions. For example, someone with very oily skin could consider a more emollient and slightly thicker toner, like the Paula’s Choice RESIST Advanced Replenishing Toner as a moisturizer. But a person with dry skin would be like, “Uhhh no.” *snap snap* But really, the types of ingredients used in “toners” and moisturizers” are the same. Between products, these ingredients may vary in terms of concentration, combination, or whatever. But ultimately, they are present for the same FUNCTION or REASON: to protect the skin as well as keeping it hydrated and soft to the touch. Hence, they are all moisturizers.
Therefore, toners are simply moisturizers that contain more water and less occlusive agents than most others. Sure, they may contain some non-vehicular beneficial ingredients such as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, but so do more “standard” moisturizers. And while it can be claimed that toners also assist with removing any residual cleanser and makeup, it’s really the cotton pad or whatever tool is used, that is doing most of the work. It’s the frictional force of the cotton pad and your fingers, rather than the solvent in the toner (after all it’s basically just water), that’s responsible for the enhanced removal. Similar results can be achieved by using just a slightly damp cotton pad. Besides, a good cleanser should rinse without depositing residue, while liberating the skin of oil and makeup, AND not cause excessive dryness.
“Okay that makes sense. But what about this enhancing penetration thing you mentioned?”
Toners as Penetration Enhancers
Remember this picture?
After the initial cleansing and the excess oil and makeup is removed off the skin, the corneoctyes will swell due to increased water absorption. Then, the overall water content plunges, as the skin is less able to retain its water content. It is at these two maximal and minimal points where the skin is most vulnerable to foreign invasion, which can be anything from Staphylococcus aureus to L-ascorbic acid. Obviously, the mechanisms by which that occurs is different. At the maximal point of water concentration, the skin is more porous, which allows more foreign material to “go with the flow.” At the minimal point of water concentration, the skin exhibits a decreased lipid content, which inhibits its ability to prevent foreign material from passing through. But the results are the same: more foreign material can pass through the skin–the SC specifically of course.
Since one of the main purposes of topical (skin care) products is to send beneficial ingredients into the skin, penetration enhancement is certainly not a bad concept. However, we obviously don’t want to have to dry the skin in order to do this. So, our only other option, is to increase the overall water content of the skin (to an extent) in order to allow for increased penetration of topical agents. Keep in mind that this increased level of water, if sustained, is not a good thing either. Why do you think a healthy SC is made up of a fixed amount of water (~15%)? It’s because that’s the optimal amount, give or take since obviously, this number will vary between different climate regions and societal behaviors.
“But can’t my ‘regular’ moisturizer do the two things mentioned above, too?”
Toners Versus Moisturizers
You there, are absolutely correct! A moisturizer can certainly be the “first line of defense,” rather than a toner, which again, is basically a super light version of the former. Moisturizers can just as easily (if not better) reduce transepidermal water loss (TEWL) by the use of occlusive agents and humectants, while emollients soften the skin, and antioxidants (and the like) help protect the skin from free radicals. Furthermore, moisturizers have their own penetration enhancers in terms of water, since most moisturizers are made up of ~70-85% of water anyways. Not to mention, other penetration enhancers can be used as well.
Now, we can answer the final and possibly most pertinent question.
Are Toners Necessary?
They are NOT necessary, because there is NOTHING that a toner provides that a “regular” moisturizer CAN’T! Unlike with sunscreens, it’s really up to the user and what his/her preferences and practices are when it comes to deciding if a toner is appropriate to include in his/her daily skin care routine.
That being said, can you receive ADDITIONAL benefits from using both?
Well, it depends on a variety of aspects that each person has to factor in when building the ideal routine. I’ve listed a few examples down below to help get those neurons firing.
Ask yourself the following types of questions:
- In terms of ingredients I’d like to include in my ideal routine (the “best” ones will be discussed in other parts of this Ideal Routine page; an overview can be seen here) Does a specific toner contain an important ingredient that thus far, is missing from my routine?
- Along this same line of thinking: Can I not find a moisturizer that contains this missing important ingredient?
- Is even worth finding a moisturizer or reconfiguring my current routine to include this missing important ingredient, if I can instead get it from a toner?
- Would and does including this toner in my routine, make a meaningfully impact?
- Would: On a theoretical level, is the missing important ingredient present in a high enough concentration to be beneficial?
- Does: After implementing the use of this toner for a good amount of time, has it made a difference to my skin? What about compared to just using water?
- Other than the physical benefits discussed above, does using a toner (or a “milk” as referred to in several Asian countries) elicit a positive emotional response?
- What about a possible placebo effect?
- Would removing the toner step cause me to worry or doubt the efficacy of my routine?
It is my hope that after reading through this and asking yourself those kinds of questions, you’ll be able to decide if there’s a need to further complicate your routine by adding a toner. Rest assured however, that as long as you apply your regular “moisturizer” soon after cleansing (this is why dermatologists recommend doing so, in order for the moisturizer to be “effective”) and it contains non-vehicular beneficial ingredients, the TEWL will be minimal and the skin will be more protected. Adding a toner wouldn’t really have a significant effect. Furthermore, you can have your chemical exfoliant be in a liquid toner-like form, and that can be your “toner” or “moisturizer” depending on your cognitive definitions and topical requirements.
So are toners necessary? As it turns out, the answer is, “No.” It really is up to the individual.