What to look for in a toner
Good toner can be incredibly difficult to find. The skincare market is really lacking in well formulated toners that are good for skin. Furthermore, there are nearly no good options if you are looking for a product to help with oily skin and breakouts. Almost every single toning product marketed toward oily, breakout prone skin is terrible. Many toner options claiming to be good for breakouts contain salicylic acid, which is good. Salicylic acid is great for breakouts, blackheads, whiteheads…any kind of clogged pore since it’s oil soluble. But most of them also contain as much as 40% alcohol. Or they’re formulated at the wrong pH (acid exfoliants need to be between a certain pH range to be effective). Many of them also contain other irritating ingredients, like fragrance, menthol, or camphor. Check the ingredients list for these, and if they’re listed…run away.
Toner gets a bad rap because there are so many poorly formulated options. At this point, so many people have had such bad experiences that they’ve written it off as a useless extra step in their skincare regimen. This is too bad, since there actually are some really good ones out there. Once you start looking, you can find some toners that will do wonders for your skin.
You want to look for products that are alcohol-free and free of synthetic fragrance. If you’re really sensitive, you’ll probably want to find something that contains no fragrance at all, natural or otherwise. Also avoid irritating plant-based ingredients, like citrus peel oils, menthol, and camphor (these ingredients are in So. Many. Products.). Rose and lavender can also be irritating for some. But on the other hand, rose and lavender can also provide calming and soothing effects for others. So you need to decide for yourself which side you’re on.
These are some general guidelines to help you select a good toner for yourself. Ideally, a toner will contain some sort of water or aloe, some vitamins and antioxidants (like panthenol – vitamin B, tocopherol – vitamin E, ascorbic acid – vitamin C, CoQ10, green/white tea extract, centella asiatica, resveratrol, niacinamide, etc), some hydrating and moisturizing ingredients (hyaluronic acid or sodium hyaluronate, glycerin, butylene glycol, hexanediol etc), and not a whole lot else. Some will also contain low concentrations of chemical exfoliants in the form of glycolic acid, lactic acid, phytic acid, mandelic acid, salicylic acid, or betaine salicylate. One of the toner’s I’ve listed below is from the brand Indie Lee, which has an awesome list of good ingredients and bad ingredients on their website. It’s very informative.
I have included two lists below. One is of some toners I have tried in the past and liked (for various reasons), the other is of a bunch of toners I have tried and hated/had allergic reactions to (for other various reasons). These lists are by no means exhaustive, and there are so many other good (and bad) options out there. But hopefully this info will send you on your way with more information than you had before.
Some good toner options
I’ve used some good toners in the past. Although I’ve used far more bad ones. These ones are all simple, relatively basic formulas with short ingredients lists. Most of them are 100% fragrance free, with a couple exceptions.
Cosrx Galactomyces Alcohol Free Toner – a nice, basic toner with subtle brightening properties from the yeast ferment filtrate.
Simple Soothing Facial Toner – a good alcohol-free toner for oily skin that contains some astringent properties from the witch hazel.
Kate Somerville Clarifying Treatment Toner – this is a good option for brightening hyperpigmentation and helping to keep skin clear. It doesn’t do a whole lot to help with acne, but that’s what BHA products are for.
Cosrx Centella Water Alcohol Free Toner – another basic option. The centella (or gotu kola) helps calm inflammation and stimulate collagen.
Clinique Even Better Essence – this “essence” is more like a toner since it’s very watery. The yeast ferment filtrate in the formula helps brighten and even out skin tone.
Laura Mercier Flawless Skin Perfecting Water Moisture Mist – this mist has a simple formula but is very hydrating.
Indie Lee CoQ10 Toner – this is a very hydrating option full of antioxidants. Super good for your skin. *naturally fragranced
Cosrx AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner – a great gentle exfoliating option without alcohol. It won’t be as effective as Cosrx’s AHA and BHA essences, but this is a good booster for those products, or a gentler option if your skin is very sensitive but you want to work on reducing breakouts.
Aromatica Tea Tree Balancing Toner – lots of aloe help hydrate and soothe skin, while tea tree oil fights breakouts and helps balance oil production. *naturally fragranced
Juice Beauty Hydrating Mist – a nourishing, antioxidant-laden, hydrating mist. *naturally fragranced
Some not so good toner options
Below is a list of toners I have tested over the years and the reasons I disliked them. Usually the reason is large quantities of alcohol causing burning, skin dryness, and breakouts. There are so many other terrible toner options out there. Please read the ingredients list and don’t use things that contain alcohol in the first 10 or so ingredients.
Fresh Rose Floral Toner – not sure what it is about this toner, but it gave me big red welts under the surface of my skin. I think it may have been an allergic reaction?
Clinique Acne Solutions Clarifying Lotion – so much alcohol.
Clinique Clarifying Lotions 1 – 3 – again, so much alcohol.
Origins United State Balancing Tonic – again with the alcohol.
Peter Thomas Roth Glycolic Acid 10% Toning Complex Clarifying Toner – so much burning when I tried this one. Literally felt like my face was on fire. Probably the alcohol.
Clinique Mild Clarifying Lotion – this had a really weird texture and caused me to break out. Also, it only contains 0.5% salicylic acid, which isn’t really enough to do a whole lot if you suffer from acne.
Jurlique Rosewater Balancing Mist – the second ingredient is alcohol.
Clean and Clear Astringent Toner – alcohol = bad.
First Aid Beauty Vitamin Hydrating Mist – large quantities of citrus peel oils caused me to break out due to allergic reaction.
Biore Blemish Treating Astringent – three kinds of alcohol. Must be some sort of record.
The Body Shop Tea Tree Toner – alcohol + menthol = skin irritation.
Origins Zero Oil Toner – alcohol + all sorts of irritating plant extracts. I have nothing against using plant extracts, just not these ones.
Perricone MD Intensive Pore Minimizer – alcohol.
Neutrogena Rapid Clear 2 in 1 Fight & Fade Toner – so much alcohol (nearly 40% of the formula).
Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Stress Control Triple-Action Toner – seriously Neutrogena, why so much alcohol???
Saltspring Soapworks Rose Elderflower Mist – the sales person at Saltspring Soapworks told me that the brand never uses any kind of synthetic fragrance and everything is natural. She lied. I can’t spray this anywhere near my face without getting red welts and breakouts.
Ole Henriksen Grease Relief Face Tonic – camphor = breakouts.
Have any of you tried any of these products? What did/didn’t you like? Are there any products, good or bad, that you would add to this list?