Since sharing the beauty secrets of K-pop boy band BTS with the world, I’ve been asked the same question over and over again: “What the hell is toner?”
Members V, J-Hope, and Jungkook made multiple references to the stuff as an essential part of their skin-care routines, yet many people are still unaware of what toner really is — and many people still have misconceptions as to its true purpose.
Sure, many of us slathered a cotton ball soaked with toner all over our zit-flecked faces as teens. However, all of us probably dreaded every second of its stinging, dehydrating destruction of greasiness. The toners BTS are using are nothing like those. In fact, the OG toners of the ’90s were frowned upon by Allure and dermatologists alike for those very reasons.
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In the past, toner was deemed unnecessary, too astringent, and incredibly drying, all of which are definitely not conducive to a radiant and healthy complexion. These days, toners do just the opposite. “They used to contain high concentrations of alcohol to help remove oil from the skin,” Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, tells Allure.
“The newest generation of toners, however, have more than astringent properties, and many of them are alcohol-free. Currently, there are toners on the market to address almost every skin concern and are no longer limited to treating acne and oily skin.”
Skin-care products from Korea have helped completely changed the toner game. “Hydration is the foundation of a great K-beauty routine, and astringent toners that clarify the skin aren’t as popular in Korea,” Sarah Lee, the co-founder of Glow Recipe tells Allure. “The idea is to thoroughly cleanse and clarify via your double cleanse, then use a toner as the first leave-on step that hydrates and treats.”
With all this in mind, both Allure and dermatologists are here to tell you to use actually toners. Let the dewy, glowing skin of BTS be our exhibit A:
So, What is toner?
To put it simply, toner looks like water and acts like water. But I swear it’s not water. It’s packed with so much more than hydrogen and oxygen. Depending on the toner, it also can contain acids, glycerin, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatories.
If you want to talk science, a toner is a fast-penetrating liquid that delivers skin a quick hit of hydration and helps remove some dead cells off the surface of the skin. The result: plump, glowy skin, Lee says. On a makeup-related note, toner is like a primer for the rest of your skin-care routine like serums and moisturizer, New York-based dermatologist Arielle Kauvar tells Allure.
Charlotte Cho, the co-founder of Soko Glam and a licensed esthetician, has the same mindset. “Think of toner as prep for your pores,” she tells Allure. “It brings your skin back to its natural acidic state, sweeping impurities away and helping your skin absorb your skincare products. Your skin is like a dried-up sponge. If you put a thick cream on a brittle dry sponge, it won’t accept it and it isn’t ‘prepped’ for moisture. But if you wet the sponge, the cream will sink in more easily.” Noted.
When should I use it?
The short answer is “it goes after cleansing,” according to Amy Wechsler, a dermatologist based in New York City. She recommends including toner in both your day and night skin-care routines. To get more specific, you should use toner after you double cleanse and exfoliate your skin, both Cho and Chang agree. “A thorough cleanse helps to ‘clear away’ grime, makeup, dead skin cells so that the skin-beneficial ingredients in the toner can get where they need to,” Chang explains.
Oh yeah, and you should use a toner no later than a minute after cleansing. I know that sounds crazy, but it seriously helps. “Most molecules penetrate the skin better when it is wet, so applying active ingredients immediately after cleansing delivers better results,” Kauvar explains.
After applying toner, you can proceed with applying your treatment-focused products like serums, SPF, and eye cream.
How should I apply it?
As for actual application method, Cho likes to sprinkle toner into her hands and tap it directly onto her skin. However, others prefer to dispense toner onto a cotton pad and gently swipe it around their faces, working outwards, she explains.
If you want to get really extra with it, try the “7 Skin Method”. The ultra-hydrating trend took over Korean skin-care routines last year, Lee says, and involves applying toner in small amounts in seven layers. The “7 Skin Method” is so popular that hydrating toners like the Whamisa Organic Flowers Deep Rich Toner have sold out several times. You can see the process in action below.
Which kind should I use?
“Just like when you choose a moisturizer, you would select a toner based on your particular skin need, be it oil, wrinkles, dark spots, or even dryness,” Zeichner explains.
If you have large pores… Zeichner recommends looking for a toner with alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic acid “to remove dead cells that accumulate around the pores making them look prominent.” Try Neutrogena’s Pore Refining Toner or the cult-favorite
If you have sensitive skin… look for a toner with “skin-calming botanicals”, Zeichner says. The Klairs Supple Preparation Toner is the best-seller in Korea, according to Cho. “It provides relief and deep hydration for sensitive skin types,” she says.
If you have acne-prone or oily skin…. Zeichner and Wechsler suggest a salicylic acid-based toner. Or choose one with witch hazel, Cho adds. “That will sweep away excess oil without drying out your skin,” she explains. Try Blithe’s Vital Treatment Essence – 5 Energy Roots or Milk Makeup’s Matcha Toner.
If you have dull skin…. “Toners with natural exfoliants like papaya extracts and lactic acid are great for brightening skin,” Cho says. Also, be sure to avoid any that have alcohol listed as one of the first five ingredients. Try Son and Park Beauty Water, which is Soko Glam’s best-selling toner and doubles as a cleansing water.
If you have dry skin… “Fermented yeast (saccharomyces ferment filtrate) and amino acids will deeply hydrate and nourish the skin,” Cho says. You can find that first ingredient in the Missha Clear Toner, another best seller on Soko Glam.
If you have mature skin… seek out toners with antioxidants and hydrating ingredients, says Zeichner. Specific hydrating ingredients include glycerin, hyaluronic acid, rose water, Sodium PCA, Lecithin, Kauvar adds. Try Caudalie’s Beauty Elixir, which is formulated with rose and orange blossom extract to help hydrate and calm inflamed skin, Zeichner explains.
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