What Is Toner? A Derm Explains How To Choose & Use Toner!

Expert Advice

We bet that everyone – at some point – has questioned whether toners are worth their money, but the truth is, toner is an underrated skincare step that doesn’t get the hype it deserves. So today, we’re setting the record straight on what toners are, what they do, their benefits, different types of toners, and how to choose a toner to fit with your routine and skin type.

Of course, we had to get the scoop straight from the experts, so we reached out to Dr. Joyce Park, board-certified dermatologist at Skin Refinery, and content creator @teawithMD. She’s even spilled her top toner tips and shared her recommendations on products for all skin types.

What is a Toner?

Toners are water-based elixirs that fall under a “category of liquid skincare products [to] help moisturize, exfoliate, or cleanse the skin,” says Dr. Park. They have a water-like consistency and contain tiny but potent ingredients that help smooth, calm, hydrate, and brighten the skin.

The truth is, toners have come a long way in recent years. Dr. Park tells us, “Toners were originally invented to help reset the skin’s pH after harsh soaps made the skin more basic. [They] lower the pH of the skin back down to a more acidic level, which is the skin’s happy place.” The good news is, “Nowadays, cleansers are more elegant and no longer disrupt the acid mantle of the skin.”

What Does Toner Do?

Toners perform once last cleansing sweep of your pores to help remove any leftover residue of oil, dirt, and makeup (which commonly get trapped around the hairline), plus any skin-irritating chlorine and minerals from your water.

Do You Need a Toner?

Yes and no, because the answer depends on the rest of your skincare routine. Adding a toner is a beneficial step, but it’s not always necessary to have as part of your morning and evening routine – although you can if you want to!

Dr. Park believes “toners are helpful if they add something new that nothing else in your skincare routine does. This could be a special ingredient like exfoliant, AHA or BHA, or a humectant, like hyaluronic acid.”

For example, you might like to use a toner as part of your evening routine to make sure your skin is a totally blank and balanced canvas before starting your evening routine. However, in the morning, when you have no makeup to remove, you might choose to go straight from a gentle cleanse to a vitamin C serum (obvs followed by moisturizer and sunscreen!).

Types of Toners

Toners typically fall into two categories:

1. Hydrating Toners: These contain mega-hydrating ingredients like glycerin, hyaluronic acid, rose water, and aloe vera, skin-building ceramides, and niacinamide, which boost moisture levels for a plump complexion.

Best for: All skin types, especially normal to dry skin.

When to use: Hydrating toners can be used both morning and night after cleansing.

2. Exfoliating Toners: These often contain exfoliating acids like AHAs (lactic, glycolic or mandelic acid), BHAs (salicylic acid), PHAs (an extremely gentle acid), or enzymes, which help clarify the skin by exfoliating the skin and detoxing pores. They also help to brighten the skin by improving the appearance of dark spots and post-pimple marks, and retexturize and revitalize dull skin by removing dead skin cells.

Best for: Normal, combo, oily, and acne-prone skin types. Dry skin can also use exfoliating toners, and should look for those that balance gentler exfoliating ingredients – like lactic acid, enzymes, PHAs – with hydrating ingredients as well.

When to use: Gentle exfoliating toners can be used morning and evening. More powerful exfoliating toners can be reserved for nighttime use and shouldn’t be combined with using other exfoliators or retinol.

Ingredients to Avoid

Dr. Park recommends avoiding “overly drying ingredients like alcohol or witch hazel, especially if you have dry or sensitive skin. I would also avoid essential oils or strong fragrances if you have sensitive skin, eczema, or if you’re prone to allergies.”

How to Choose the Right Toner

There are clearly tons of formulas out there, but don’t panic! Dr. Park advises to “Choose the type of toner that matches your skin type and skin needs.” She continues, “If you have dry skin, look for a toner that contains more moisturizing ingredients like glycerin or hyaluronic acid. If you have more oily or acne-prone skin, look for toners with exfoliants like AHA or BHA. If you have sensitive skin, look for toners with more soothing ingredients like aloe vera.”

The secret: Listening to your skin is always key, so you could consider having two toners: a hydrating toner for mornings or for when your skin feels a little irritated, dry or sensitive; and an exfoliating toner to use in the evenings or when you feel your skin needs a good detox.

Dr. Joyce Park’s Toner Recommendations:


For dry or mature skin: Paula’s Choice Advanced Replenishing Toner, $26

For dry skin: LANEIGE Cream Skin Toner & Moisturizer, $33

For sensitive, oily to combination, or acne-prone skin types: Glow Recipe PHA+BHA Watermelon Glow Toner, $34

How Should I Apply Toner?

Toners are usually best applied by saturating a cotton round with the formula and gently blotting the skin. Some toners are available in spray form, which can help minimize waste (bonus points) and make for convenient, easy application. K-beauty formulas, like the Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow Toner, tend to have a more viscous consistency, which means they can be applied directly to the skin and patted in with your hands.

How to Choose the Right Toner

Here’s our ultimate guide to picking the perfect toner for your skin type:

The Best Toners for Dry or Sensitive Skin

Ingredients to look for: Hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, niacinamide, green tea, rose water, cica
Ingredients to avoid: Harsh ingredients like alcohol, salicylic acid, witch hazel, fragrance, essential oils

“If you have dry skin, look for a toner that contains more moisturizing ingredients like glycerin or hyaluronic acid [and] if you have sensitive skin, look for toners with more soothing ingredients like aloe vera,” advises Dr. Joyce.

1-Toners-for-Dry-&-Sensitive-SkinSource: Versed Skincare, Fresh

Versed Skincare Baby Cheeks All In One Hydrating Milk, $18: A vegan skin-conditioning toner drenched in algae extract, bamboo extract, and coconut water that hydrates, replenishes, and balances your skin’s pH levels.

Fresh Rose & Hyaluronic Acid Deep Hydration Toner, $45: This alcohol-free toner is packed with nourishing rose extracts making it a winner for sensitive skin. 

The Best Toners for Normal or Combination Skin

Ingredients to look for: Nourishing and brightening ingredients like niacinamide, ceramides, glycolic acid, polyglutamic acid

A lightweight formula that gently hydrates, tones, and nourishes is ideal for normal to combination skin. Derms also recommend changing your toner depending on the seasonal demands of your skin, as normal and combination skin can be easily affected by the weather. Look for something lightweight, packed with vitamins and protective antioxidants for summer, and a more nourishing formula for the winter months.

2-Toners-for-Normal-&-Combination-SkinSource: LANEIGE, Fenty Skin

LANEIGE Cream Skin Toner & Moisturizer, $33: A moisturizing toner that strengthens, nourishes, and soothes skin with specialized white tea leaves and a Cream Blending Technology™.

Fenty Skin Fat Water Niacinamide Pore-Refining Toner Serum, $30: This vegan, alcohol-free toner tightens the appearance of pores, softens dark spots, brightens, and plumps the skin with a combo of oil-balancing niacinamide, Barbados cherry, and cactus flower.

The Best Toners for Oily or Acne-Prone Skin

Ingredients to look for: AHA, BHAs, PHAs, and calming ingredients like chamomile
Ingredients to avoid: Alcohol

Dr. Joyce says, “If you have more oily or acne-prone skin, look for toners with exfoliants like AHAs or BHAs” that penetrate deep into pores to remove any debris, oils, or bacteria that could otherwise lead to a breakout. Natural ingredients like antioxidant-rich ginseng, rose, or chamomile can help calm and soothe inflammation.

3-Toners-for-Oily-or-Acne-Prone-SkinSource: Slurp, Peach & Lily

Slurp Decalt, $58: This pore-penetrating decongestant uses salicylic acid and polyhydroxy acid to combat blackheads, whiteheads, tiny bumps, and acne while balancing oil production and smoothing the skin. It’s a game-changer!

Peach & Lily The Good Acids Pore Toner, $39: A gentle pH-adjusting toner that nixes pores with AHAs and salicylic acid while nourishing botanical extracts like cape lilac, eggplant, turmeric extracts, allantoin, and aloe soothe and nourish.

The Best Toners for Mature Skin

Ingredients to look for: Niacinimide, ceramides, glycerin, peptides,
Ingredients to avoid: Alcohol

As your skin matures, your natural collagen levels deplete, making the skin less supple and drier, so look for toners that moisturize and plump. Hunt for toners infused with hydrating heroes and strengthening actives that firm and even tone and texture. Look for hydrating exfoliators, like lactic acid, which help smooth the appearance of fine lines and brighten the skin.

4-Toners-for-Mature-SkinSource: Alpha-H, Paula’s Choice

Alpha-H Liquid Glycolic Acid 5% Exfoliating Treatment, $56: An overnight exfoliant that supports collagen production and skin cell renewal to promote firm, healthy skin. 

Paula’s Choice Skin Recovery Enriched Calming Toner, $23: This hydrating milky toner helps mature skin recover from moisture loss with antioxidant-rich plant oils that soothe, nourish, and protect.

For more tailored skincare, check out how to find the right moisturizer for your skin type. Oh, and if you have anything else you’d like us to address, pop it in a comment below.

Disclaimer: Every product we review has been independently selected and tested without bias by our editorial team. Although some brands allow affiliate links, we never take payment to review products, so we may earn a commission if you purchase a product by clicking on one of our links.