SKINCARE 101 : Toners Demystified & The Unsung Toning Step 💦💦💦
I hear it all. the. time.
What do I need a toner for?
Toners are so misunderstood. Let me qualify that statement: Toners are so misunderstood among American skincare users. The rest of the world knows the true power of the toning step in any sensible and effective skincare routine — one that's actually organized around improving and maintaining the health of your skin. In fact, toners are the unsung heroes of your routine!
Fortunately, I'm not old enough to know where things went left with America's toners. But it was a long, long time ago. And if I think about the big, classic American skincare brands, who comes to mind? Clinique! I don't mean to point fingers here, but the most popular American toner is, ahem, Clinique's iconic Clarifying Lotion — all 4 of them at the heart of the legendary 3-Step skincare routine. Now, the kids at Clinique may want to split hairs on this and claim that Clarifying Lotion isn't a toner; it's an exfoliator. In fact on Sephora's site, it's classified as a cleanser. Look, it's a toner! T-O-N-E-R. It's step number two after cleansing and before moisturizing. It's a watery liquid you pour onto a cotton pad and swipe over your skin.
And right here is where America's toners went down the drain. Just take a look at the ingredient list (IL) for the wildly popular Clinique Clarifying Lotion — and ingredient number two! Alcohol Denat. aka isopropyl alcohol. Sadly, that's the last thing you want in a toner! As if that weren't damaging enough to your skin, ingredient number four is witch hazel. While it's commonly believed that witch hazel is gentle on skin (more gentle than alcohol, I guess), it's actually extracted from the plant's leaves and bark through a steam distillation method using alcohol in the process. According to the GOAT Paula Begoun, a certain amount of alcohol remains. Read no further than ingredient number 5: menthol. All irritants, far from gentle on your skin — and certainly not pro-skin health.
So let me umm clarify, why denatured alcohol has no business in a toner. Or in any sensible skincare regimen. Denatured alcohol is what's called "volatile". That means it causes a chemical reaction on your skin that disrupts, compromises and degrades your skin barrier. Other ingredients that have a similar damaging effect are the plethora of fragrant plant oils (aka essential oils) like lavender oil, orange peel oil, menthol and bergamot oil. Their wonderful fragrance is released as a result of a volatile molecular reaction. Look, I'm not gonna gloss over my own sordid past. I was a religious Clinique 3-Step user back in 19__ when I was a cosmetics department manager in LA. But I did a lot of things back then that I would rather not put in a blog post! And to Clinique's credit, they did introduce a new alcohol-free version called Clarifying Lotion 1.0 Twice A Day Exfoliator (aka a toner). They get mad props for that! In fact, aside from their alcohol-infused toners, most of Clinique's skin care is very well formulated and very beneficial to your skin — including everything in the other 2 steps!
So what's a toner supposed to do instead of drying out and damaging your skin barrier? A toner is supposed to be gentle, soothing, hydrating. Yes, a toner can clear away residue from your cleanser. But, really? That doesn't sound insane to anyone but me? What residue? If you just washed your face with a cleanser, there should be no residue to remove. And with the Korean "double cleanse," there certainly is no residue left that needs to be swiped away with a toner and a cotton pad. In K-beauty, and throughout Asia, the toner step is all about two things: hydration + absorption.
I'm madly in love with toners. 🖤💜💙 But I only fell in love with toners (after all, I'm American!) through the exciting K-beauty journey my friends at Glow Recipe launched me on. I need you all to imagine for a second that your skin, as plump and full of water as it is, is a sponge. One of the purposes of a sponge is to soak up liquid, right? If you take a dry sponge and use it to soak up water on the kitchen counter, it will do just that after a few moments. But if you take a wet sponge and use it to soak up another pool of water on the kitchen counter, you'll notice that the water is soaked up much faster by the wet sponge than the dry sponge! Water molecules attract other water molecules like a magnet. GO AHEAD, TRY THIS AT HOME!
Now let's return to the bathroom and your skincare routine. In an Asian skincare regimen, the toner is used to hydrate skin — and to aid in the absorption of the potent essences, antioxidant serums and anti-aging moisturizers that follow. A toner being the lightest of all formulas is most quickly and easily absorbed by the skin, particularly right after cleansing when skin is drenched in water. In fact, as I learned from Glow Recipe, I do not dry my face with a towel after cleansing. Why waste all that delicious skin-quenching hydration? I gently pat my skin to stop the dripping, then I apply a nutrient-infused toner like the WHAMISA BY GLOW RECIPE Green Tea Serum Toner which is rich in antioxidants, beneficial plant extracts, and hydrating sodium hyaluronate. Or I apply my new bestie toning mist from Deciem. The Deciem NIOD SUPEROXIDE DISMUTASE SACCHARIDE MIST (SDSM2) is pretty much an out-of-body Nirvana-level experience. With my skin acting as a sponge, these hydrating toners help draw the products I apply after them deeper into my skin. Like a magnet!
So, like me, learn to love a toner! Learn to appreciate the true value a toner can and will have in your skincare regimen. I did, and my skin has never been more hydrated and healthy than it is right now...all these years later.