Skin Care 101: What Are Toners?

By April 6, 2015

Been getting lots of questions about toner. They really set the tone for the rest of your skin care routine (bad but relevant pun), so let’s talk about it.

What I used to think about toners before living in Korea: 

An expensive bottle of water that makes my skin feel so dry and tight that it stings. How to use: dispense toner onto cotton pad and swipe at your face until you see brown and/or gray streaks (impurities, dirt, makeup, etc.) on the cotton pad. Effect: cleans your face and makes it nice and…red.

What I now think about toners after living in Korea:

A well-formulated toner is a bottle of hydrating goodness that sets the foundation for my other skin care products. How to use: No cotton pad necessary. Just sprinkle it in hands and gently tap it all over until my skin soaks it up. Effect: My skin feels soft and supple after one use, miles away from dry and tight. In general, you want to use your products in order of their consistency, so apply toner immediately after cleansing your face (because it’s the lightest formula in your routine). For the most effective absorption and reaping all the benefits of your products, start with the thinnest formula first and work your way up to the thickest and creamiest.

So what are “toners” anyway?

Traditionally in the West, toners are used after cleansing to reset the pH balance of your skin after using an alkaline cleanser (a pH of 8-9) so that the skin can revert back to the normal/healthy slightly acidic pH of 4-5 (more on pH here). Many also are meant to remove any additional residue or debris from the face, so if you see a dirty brown streak on your cotton pad, that means it’s working. This notion is beginning to change, especially as Korean philosophies pick up steam here.

To browse some of the best Korean toners, check out Soko Glam’s curation of toners. 

Why would cosmetic companies make cleansers alkaline anyway?

A lot of people used to think alkaline cleansers were more effective at cleansing, but with new advances in skin care formulations, many cleansers are now effective without being too alkaline. Thank you, R&D people!

In Korea, they refrain from using the word “toner.” The product’s often called a “refresher,” “skin softener,” or simply “skin.” I applaud this choice—”toner” sounds utterly tedious and mundane.

When I met and interviewed Paul Kang, Senior Vice President of Amore Pacific skincare research, (out of excitement I was squealing inside but maintained the appearance of utmost professionalism throughout — I think) he told me that the use of “skin” really lays the foundation for the rest of your skin care routine.

Using a “refresher,” or “skin softener” does reset your pH balance and cleanse to some extent, he said, but very gently, and that’s honestly not the most important function any way. So what’s the important part? Oh, I’ve got three for you.

First, it delivers much needed nutrients.

According to Paul, your skin is naturally in a more fragile condition after a cleanse, so delivering nutrients like antioxidants and amino acids will swoop in to protect it.

Second, it preps your skin for the rest of your skin care routine.

Let me help you visualize. If your skin is like a dried up sponge, when you add liquid on top, will the sponge soak it up? Maybe after a long binge session of House of Cards Season 3, but it’ll take a lot longer to absorb. However, if the sponge is damp and you put on the same liquid, it will absorb much, much faster. Your deeply hydrated skin just made everything more efficient!

To all you oily skin types that think hydration is not meant for you:

As an esthetician-in-training, I see that almost every client who walks in the door for a treatment is dealing with dehydrated skin, whether their skin type is oily or dry. Dehydration means lack of moisture (water) in the skin (not oil!), so don’t shy away! The dry and tight feeling after toner sounds appealing (like you’ve beaten your oily skin into submission for a short while) but is not always the best answer.

Korean products from cleansers to sleeping packs (and even makeup) focus on hydration, cooling and moisturizing. I’m seeing more and more Western companies jumping on board with toners that are not astringent, and instead focusing on these elements too: I was floored when several product managers of very prominent Western cosmetic companies came out to the #UOxSokoglam event and told me that they are using Korean beauty tenets as inspiration for future lines, and even using my blog posts as a means to get that inspiration.

Share your toner/skin/refresher recommendations and skin stories below!