Toners are a hotly debated topic right now in skincare for a few reasons: First of all, the best formula really depends on your specific skin type and your biggest skin concerns. Second, there are certain ingredients you definitely want to avoid (cough, alcohol!). And finally, there are differing opinions on the best way and time to apply them.
That said, according to skin experts like celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau and dermatology physician assistant at Facile Lena Metcalfe toners can offer some seriously amazing benefits as long as you're working with the right formulas. Being that it's officially dry skin season, choosing options with the right balance of hydrating ingredients (and nixing complexion-drying alcohols) is imperative for reaping max ultra-glowy results. To get the full scoop on toners, we asked Rouleau and Metcalfe to answer all of our burning questions and to recommend the very best toners for dry skin as a cherry on top. Keep scrolling!
What Are Toners, Anyway?
As Metcalfe explains to us, toners are water- or alcohol-based solutions designed to gift the skin with extra hydration or active ingredients to address a variety of skin goals.
"Back in the day, toners were mostly alcohol-based, but not the good, moisturizing types of alcohol," she shares. "These alcohol-based toners can be over-drying and stripping, which disrupts the skin barrier and can cause rebound oiliness. They feel great for people with oily or acne-prone skin because they make your skin feel extremely tight and clean, but they are one of the worst things you could be doing to your skin."
Fortunately, most toners on the market these days don't contain the worrisome types of alcohol (think alcohol, denatured alcohol, ethanol, methanol, benzyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol), and are now available in more gentle and strategic formulas. As far as the benefits toners can offer, Rouleau says the right formulas can boost hydration (leave it on damp after cleansing!), balance your skin's pH, remove drying salts and chlorines found in tap water, enhance the results of your entire skincare regimen, and last but not least, support your skin's natural protective barrier.
"I don't believe toners are a be-all and end-all for great skin, and they certainly aren't something everyone NEEDS in their regimen, but they can be helpful for some, especially those who prefer a multi-step skincare routine," confirms Metcalfe.
When and How Should Toners Be Applied?
First and foremost and for optimal results, toners should be applied immediately after cleansing both morning and night—apply the formula with a cotton round or toning cloth (we're obsessed with these eco-friendly cloths from Rouleau's namesake line!) and wipe over the entire face. For extra hydration, leave the skin damp and immediately follow with your serum and moisturizer.
"Anything you apply after cleansing your skin is more potent because the water allows it to absorb more efficiently into your skin," Metcalfe confirms. "Water-based toners actually enhance this process because you are adding another layer of water to your regimen, so the next product you apply will be even more potent—an amazing perk for dry skin types."
Plus, using your toner right after cleansing helps remove any residual excess dirt, makeup, or oil lingering on the skin.
Ingredients to Avoid and Ingredients to Include:
As Metcalfe explained earlier, water-based toners with additional moisturizing ingredients like hyaluronic acid are the absolute best for dry skin and gentle, calming ingredients that are rich in antioxidants (like green tea) can also do wonders for a parched or irritated complexion. Rouleau also recommends keeping an eye out for moisturizing phospholipids, brightening and barrier-strengthening vitamin B3 (aka niacinamide), and other omega 3-, 6-, and 9- rich oils like black raspberry, blackberry, and so on.
As far as ingredients to avoid, alcohols are strictly prohibited and you may want to avoid high concentrations of exfoliating agents like glycolic or salicylic acids. "As much as I love these exfoliators, at high concentrations, they can be a bit too irritating for dry, sensitive, skin," says Metcalfe.
Also, make sure you're not relying on your toner to do all the legwork for moisturizing—you still need your serums and face cream, folks!
"You must layer a good moisturizing cream on after the toner, or if you use an active ingredient serum you would layer that on after the toner and put your
cream on last," instructs Metcalfe. "You also want to stick to a moisturizing, creamy cleanser so that you aren't stripping your skin too much."
And for those with extremely sensitive skin, Metcalfe recommends skipping a toner altogether to avoid unnecessary exposure to potentially irritating ingredients like botanicals and exfoliants.
Expert- & Editor-Approved Picks:
I'm a huge Goop stan, and this pore-refining (yet hydration-rich) toner, is one of my all-time favorites and a permanent fixture on my vanity. It does have some exfoliating benefit, so tread carefully if you're super sensitive, but as someone with an easily-irritated complexion, I find the mix of detoxifying malachite, moisturizing hyaluronic acid, brightening vitamin B3, plus cell-sloughing glycolic and phytic acids to be just right.
A fan favorite from Rouleau's namesake line of skin saviors, she says this serum-infused toner (which is similar to an “essence”) efficiently delivers hydration deep within the intercellular matrix of the skin. Essential hydrating ingredients include phospholipids, brightening niacinamide (vitamin B3), and a delicate mix of oils rich in omega-3, -6, and -9 from black raspberry seed and blackberry.
Agent Nateur is one of the most luxurious and efficacious brands in natural beauty and skincare space. And, this pearl- and rose-enriched toning elixir could arguably be one of the best players within its all-star roster. Hyper-moisturizing, the strategic and gentle ingredient list helps to plump, firm, brighten, and diminish the look of redness, pores, and fine lines or wrinkles.
"I like this toner because it has a lot of calming ingredients and antioxidants, so it’s great for sensitive skin while also having very mild exfoliating ingredients like white willow bark," shares Metcalfe.
According to Rouleau, this is one of her favorite toners to recommend for dry skin types. "It's fortified with vitamin B12 and ginseng root extract to help increase energy molecule production and increase blood circulation to bring a fresh-looking glow to the skin," she tells us.
"I love this toner," Metcalfe adds. "It has a very basic ingredient profile, and is great for dry, sensitive, irritated skin."
I've heard great things about French skincare brand Darphin and have actually had my eye on this beloved toner (an especially great option for dry skin!) for a while now. However, after seeing how much Swedish pop star Zara Larsson loves it, now my parched skin REALLY has to have it.
"This is another great option for those with dry or more sensitive skin who are looking for mild exfoliation," Metcalfe tells us. "It’s full of fruit extracts to provide the skin with antioxidants and has some evening primrose oil to help promote skin hydration."
Acne-prone folks, this hydrating toner is for you! "A multi-action toner to clear clogged pores, limit blackhead formation and prevent breakouts all while providing skin-nourishing hydration," Rouleau confirms.
According to Metcalfe, this toner from Indie Lee is one of the best for dry skin because it has hyaluronic acid to hydrate and attract water to the skin along with nice, calming ingredients like aloe, chamomile, and cucumber extract which help soothe a parched complexion.