What does toner do? A Singaporean dermatologist on the pros, cons, and necessity of this highly misunderstood skincare product

What does toner do? A Singaporean dermatologist on the pros, cons, and necessity of this highly misunderstood skincare product

Bare necessities

Text: Emily Heng

Image: Instagram | @sonandparkofficial
Image: Instagram | @youthtothepeople

As with most fads, 10-step skincare routines have fallen out of favour in recent times. Instead, minimalism is on the rise, with informed consumers opting for precise formulations and ingredients based on complexion requirements rather than wants. Translation: if it's non-essential to the maintenance of our visage, then we don't want it. It is precisely this sentiment that is seemingly putting blotting papers, BB creams, and as of late, toners, on the back burner.

"The toner is marketed primarily as an extra cleansing step, where it removes debris, skin impurities, and any remnants of makeup," Dr Liew, accredited dermatologist and founder of HM Liew Skin & Laser Clinic, elaborates. "It doesn't 'tone' or 'firm' skin, as misleading as its name might be." And that's not all toners do, either. Does this mean that we actually need toner in our skincare routines? When should we use them? And what's the deal with variations such as toner essences, and the like? We speak to a local dermatologist to get to the bottom of this, unravelling the mysteries surrounding this enigmatic figure (jk) below.

So, what is toner, exactly?

A toner is a type of water that removes dead skin, oil, dirt, and leftover impurities after cleansing. Think micellar waters, rosewaters, and even witch hazel. It is often formulated with hydrogen and oxygen, and can even sometimes contain skin-nourishing ingredients such as glycerin, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatories depending on your toner of choice.

When should you use toner?

Dr Liew advises that toners be used after cleansing and before serum. U.S. dermatologist, Arielle Kauvar, recommends using it no later than a minute after cleansing in an interview with Allure. "Most molecules penetrate the skin better when it is wet, so applying active ingredients immediately after cleansing delivers better results," she clarifies.

What is the best way to apply your toner?

"It really depends on the consistency and texture of your toner," Dr Liew points out. "Most toners come in solution form, so I'd recommend using a cotton pad and gently patting at the skin. Make sure not to scrub at your face as it might then irritate skin."

Is there a difference between toners and essences?

Yes. Some brands might opt to combine or consolidate either product, but they each serve a different function for your skin. "Essence usually contains active ingredients, such as vitamin C, retinol, alpha hydroxy acid, hyaluronic acid, and such," Dr Liew explains. While toners work to refresh skin by removing all manner of dirt and impurities, essences soothe skin at the cellular level, accelerating natural turnover and encouraging a smoother, healthier complexion.

Does this mean that you should be adding toner to your skincare routine?

Not exactly. "I hardly recommend toners these days as the facial cleansers of today are supremely effective in getting rid of debris and impurities," Dr Liew says. "I would only recommend toner for those who are applying heavy makeup on the regular. If not, I'd say use a gentle cleanser and exfoliate once to twice a week to keep skin fresh and clean. The fewer chemicals you put on your face, the better. This allows for the active ingredients in your serum and moisturiser to penetrate better and reduce the likelihood of allergic reactions."

In the case where you'd like to use a toner, be sure to opt for one suitable for your skin type. "Micellar formulas are preferred as they can remove oil-based makeup easily without damaging the skin," Dr Liew advises. "Watch out for those with high alcohol content and antiseptic such as chlorhexidine or triclosan — those tend to be immensely drying to skin."