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The Science of Skincare - Toners

What are the products that our skin actually needs and which are the ones we don't? Which products are just marketed to us with false claims to get us to spend our money?


Are toners one of the unnecessary ones? Lets talk about them.


“Tonic water” came out in the 1900s around the time of eau de toilette and was used to soothe the nerves or take the fatigue out of tired muscles. Ingredients at the time included alcohol, witch hazel, tincture of benzoin (all of which are antiseptics and astringents), plus glycerin and fragrance like rose water or other perfumes.


"Astringents" were always a baseline ingredient because they cause skin contraction and promote blood circulation to the surface. It was only discovered later on that these ingredients helped heal blemishes due to their antiseptic properties. However, these had a high alcohol concentration and led to a drying effect, and so to differentiate the products, “toners” became mainstream labels for the same concoctions with a lesser alcohol content.


Still, at this point, these products were fairly simple in ingredients. Nowadays they have targeted specific benefits for anything your skin might need.

  1. Cleansing ingredients to remove residue left on your skin. Quite often our cleansing process is surprisingly insufficient in clearing our skin of products and pollutants and this not only hurts the appearance of our skin, how it feels and how makeup lays on it in the short term, but also can build up and clog our skin in the long term.

  2. Rebalancing the pH - we spoke about pH and why it is so important to maintain your skins natural pH levels in our last post so check that out for further information.

  3. Hydrating the skin - think of the skin like a sponge - if you pour water onto a dry sponge it will simply sit on top of it, but if you pour it onto a wet sponge it will absorb the water better and that’s exactly how our skin works. The hydration we apply to our skin following toner is better absorbed when our skin is already somewhat hydrated. Toners shrink the appearance of pores with this overall hydrating effect - pores do not actually open and close as was once believed, but the plumper your skin is the tighter the pores will look.

  4. All of this combined works on the epidermal layers of the skin to target signs of damage and aging - without proper pH protection, hydration and cleansing our skin's defenses are down and it can more easily lose its natural moisture, lipids, and natural oils, plus stand exposed to germs, bacteria, toxins, pollutants, and free radical damage

Toners today come in all consistencies - runny and liquidy to thick and lotion like. They can be applied to a cotton swab and wiped over your skins surface, or poured into your hand and splashed on. The difference in these methods is only what you wish to gain from this step - the swiping method will, of course, provide gentle exfoliation and wipe away surface debris, but will also absorb a lot of the product and use it up faster. The splashing essence method will allow you to keep all the product in your skin for maximum benefit, but won’t provide last-minute cleansing benefits.


You can also use both methods back to back to get the best of both worlds. The rule of thumb with skincare for adequate absorption is to start with your runniest product and end with the thickest - within each category of product. So when using two toners, we would choose the runnier consistency first, followed by the thicker one second.


Now lets break down skin concerns and which toners to try for each.


Oily skin is complicated because you’ll want a more astringent toner - while still staying away from alcohol. There are so many astringent and antiseptic options besides alcohol, that it’s over-drying effects then are truly unnecessary. Look for ingredients like witch hazel, tea tree oil, AHAs like glycolic/lactic acid or BHAs like salicylic acid. AHAs are gentle chemical exfoliants that can break down the oils on the upper layers of your skin and promote skin turn over to reveal a renewed complexion, while BHAs penetrate deeper layers to target deep pore build-up that will inevitably have come up and revealed itself over time. Anytime you feel like a breakout is coming up use salicylic acid and it will penetrate deep to the core of the breakout to kill the bacteria before it has a chance to come to a head. Toner suggestions:

  • Ole Henriksen Balancing Force Oil Control Toner - Ole Henriksen used to suffer with cystic acne himself and in trying multitudes of products that left his skin feeling stripped he created his toner which cured him. This one contains not only AHAs and BHAs, but also green team, eucalyptus, kelp and Irish moss which all help calm irritated skin, awaken the senses, and absorb excess oil and refine pores. It will also leave you with a beautiful matte finish if that's something you look for.

  • Innisfree Bija Trouble Skin Toner - contains salicylic acid and Torreya seed extract to help control blemishes

If large pores are an issue these products will work great for you as well because the AHAs will help draw moisture to your skin thereby plumping it and making your pores appear smaller, and BHAs will help unclog your pores which can sometimes appear larger because they are clogged up.


If you have dry skin you especially want to avoid drying ingredients like alcohol and you want to opt for something more hydrating, like a splash essence, or a thicker lotion-like consistency toner, as well as ingredients such as glycerin and hyaluronic acid. Some suggestions:

  • SKII Facial Treatment Essence - from one of the best selling skincare brands in Asia, this product is iconic and has been in the market unchanged for about 35 years. It contains over 90% Pitera. This ingredient is cool. Back in the 1970s scientists discovered a striking contrast between the wrinkled aged faces of aged Sake brewers and their soft youthful hands. They started researching over 350 yeast strains that were present in the sake fermentation process, the same ones that the sake brewers' hands were submerged in. This is a huge secret of Asian Glass Skin - it gives the skin an element of translucency, softness, and smoothness.

  • Fresh Deep Hydration Facial Toner - contains rose fruit extract, rosewater, and angelical leaf extract all of which help nourish and retain hydration. It also is just a beautiful product physically to use - it's infused with real rose petals within the bottle so it is just a pleasant experience

  • Thayer’s Witch Hazel - a best seller and amazing for all skin types in fact. It contains witch hazel and Aloe Vera as a baseline and then each product as a different additional ingredient like rose petal extract, lavender, coconut water, or lemon, depending on what you desire.


If you have normal to sensitive skin you're looking for something to hydrate and refresh the skin, and maintain your balanced pH. Any gentle or mild toner will do, especially those that contain humectants to draw water. Specifically for sensitive skin look for more natural plant-based ingredients such as chamomile or aloe vera.

  • The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution - This product is great because not only is the formulation pretty simple, but it contains glycolic acid and AHA for exfoliation, Tasmanian Pepperberry Derivatives to help offset irritations associated with AHA use, and Ginseng root and Aloe Vera to soothe and promote radiance.


If you have dull skin or discoloration, AHAs are incredible, especially lactic acid, but also looking for toners with vitamin C and brightening enzymes like from papaya will leave your skin very happy.

  • I love the Ole Henriksen Glow 2OH Dark Spot Toner and cannot say enough good things about it - I use it nightly and I notice instant radiance and smoothness. The scent is so soft and dessert-like that its very soothing to the senses and in the morning my skin looks plump like a babies - my fine lines are gone, my dark spots have faded 10 fold and any minor texture I have has completely vanished, especially around my nose and I swear I saw these benefits after even just one use.


All in all, are toners going to make or break your skincare routine? Probably not, but if you find that you’re doing everything right and you're still not satisfied with your routine or results, then adding in a toner can help boost the benefits of the products you're using so you’re getting a full bang for your buck, and if you’re like me and your skincare routine is just as big a part of your self-care and meditative routines as anything else, then adding in a nice soothing toner will not only make you feel thoroughly cleansed and treated, but those few extra seconds of TLC will translate to a much greater serenity. You absolutely do not have to spend a tonne of money on them either, they generally do the same whether they’re low end or high end and it just comes down to the brands you support, the ingredients you look for and what works with you!

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