When it comes to your daily skin care routine, you probably have your main steps down: cleanser, serum, moisturizer, and SPF. What you may be missing out on, though, is an extra cleansing, pH-balancing toner.
However, toners have historically gotten a bad rap for one specific ingredient: alcohol.
“Alcohol is the reason that toners have gotten a bad reputation through the years,” says Dr. Corey L. Hartman, a board certified dermatologist and the founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham. “Alcohol is a harsh astringent that causes excessive dryness and triggers rebound oil production. If it makes your skin feel too tight after use, then move on to another product.”
If you forgo formulas made with alcohol, toners can act as an integral part of your skin care routine. They help your skin maintain a balanced pH.
Aggressors, like pollution, oil production, and makeup, can shift your skin’s natural pH (roughly 5.5), adjusting the skin’s moisture levels and sometimes even leading to long-term environmental damages. Toners mimic your skin’s natural pH to rebalance it for a healthy finish.
Beyond this, toners can help get rid of impurities left behind after your first cleanse for a brighter, more even complexion.
“Toner helps remove any trace amounts of dirt, oil, or impurities from the skin that could lead to clogged pores and breakouts,” Hartman says.
If you steer clear of toners formulated with alcohol, you’re off to a great start. But there are a few other things you should know before adding a toner to your skin care regimen.
A good place to start when selecting your toner is determining your skin type. Common skin types include dry, oily, combination, normal, and sensitive. Once you’ve resolved this, you can start narrowing down exactly what your skin needs and what to look for in formulas.
Hartman notes that people with dry skin should never use a toner with alcohol due to its harsh astringent qualities that cause excessive dryness. Instead, those with dry skin should look for hydrating ingredients, like glycerin, hyaluronic acid, rosewater, or aloe.
“These ingredients add moisture to the skin while balancing the skin’s tone,” he explains.
If you have oily skin, he says ingredients, like hydroxy acids or sulfur, can help clear pores, reduce oil production, and chemically exfoliate. Hydroxy acids include alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), which are both skin exfoliants that can tackle inflammation, wrinkles, or dullness by removing dead skin cells and unclogging pores.
For those who have skin that’s easily irritated, Hartman points to calming ingredients, such as niacinamide, aloe vera, and vitamin C “to reduce inflammation and ensure that the toner doesn’t dry the skin out too much.”
Once you’ve nailed down your skin goals and the ingredients that can help, you’ll want to come up with a budget, so you aren’t shopping outside your means. Luckily, there’s something for every skin care need at a variety of price points.
We spoke with industry pros, ranging from beauty editors to dermatologists, to get their professional take on the best toners out there for all skin types.
We also paid attention to:
- $ = under $15
- $$ = $15–$30
- $$$ = over $30
Avène Eau Thermale Gentle Toning Lotion
- Price: $$
- Best for: dry or sensitive skin
- Key ingredients: natural silicates, thermal spring water
This bi-phase toning lotion uses two separate formula compositions (natural silicates and spring water) to gently reset the skin’s pH after cleansing and help your complexion appear even and radiant.
The toner does it all without irritating the skin. In fact, it actively soothes the skin, so it feels supple and soft and appears more even and glowing.
On top of all this, it also helps protect your skin from environmental aggressors, such as pollution and sun exposure, making it a great addition to your morning skin care routine.
Best for sensitive skin
Renée Rouleau Elderberry Soothing Toner
- Price: $$$
- Best for: oily, combination, acne-prone, mature-looking, and sensitive skin
- Key ingredients: elderberry fruit extract, sodium PCA
Packed with all kinds of good-for-you ingredients, such as elderberry fruit extract, sodium PCA (a naturally occurring hydrator), and biosaccharide gum-1 (an all-natural protectant from pollution and UV rays), this formula helps calm and refresh the skin.
Sodium PCA is a water-binding agent that attracts and retains moisture in the skin. Meanwhile, the biosaccharide gum-1 hydrates by keeping water between the cells and forms a non-occlusive film to protect skin from harmful UV rays.
The elderberry fruit extract is packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties that helps skin look plump and healthy.
Best for dry skin
Lancôme Tonique Confort
- Price: $$$
- Best for: normal, dry, combination, sensitive, and oily skin
- Key ingredients: acacia honey, sweet almond oil, hyaluronic acid
Any sort of lotion-like toner is great for dry skin, but this one is extra-hydrating thanks to key ingredients, like honey, sweet almond oil, and hyaluronic acid. While the hyaluronic acid and oil deliver extra moisture, the honey calms any irritation.
When used consistently, you can expect to see a more even skin tone and a brighter complexion.
Best for oily skin
Pixi Glow Tonic
- Price: $$
- Best for: combination, oily, acne-prone skin
- Key ingredients: glycolic acid, aloe vera, ginseng
Thanks to glycolic acid (an AHA that exfoliates the skin for a brighter, more even skin tone) this pick from Pixi exfoliates and purifies the skin to help diminish breakouts and retain its moisture barrier.
The ginseng energizes skin cells for a rejuvenating boost, while the aloe soothes and hydrates to help avoid any unwanted irritation.
All in all, it’s a well-balanced formula that will help leave your skin looking radiant with regular use.
Best drugstore buy
Thayers Rose Petal Facial Toner
- Price: $
- Best for: oily, sensitive, or dry skin
- Key ingredients: rose water, witch hazel, aloe vera
Dubbed as a classic by beauty editors and customers, this witch hazel toner has been an affordable favorite for years. The toner has over 68,000 Amazon reviews, and users swear by this toner’s gentle yet effective formula.
Witch hazel has been shown to soothe skin while also fighting acne, thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties. It also acts as an astringent to help tighten the appearance of pores.
Whamisa Organic Flowers Toner Deep Rich
- Price: $$
- Best for: dry, sensitive, or normal skin
- Key ingredients: aloe vera, wild-grown artemesia, oat kernel extract, Damask rose flower oil
Korean beauty and skin care brands have risen in popularity in the United States over the past few years, and this toner from Whamisa is a great example of why they’re so popular.
Made with 97.4 percent organic ingredients, such as aloe vera, the toner helps skin appear revitalized with a brighter, plumper effect.
The toner boasts a fun, bouncy texture, which is unlike any other toner included on this list.
Best natural formula
Savor Beauty Hydrating Toning Mist
- Price: $$$
- Best for: oily, acne-prone, or combination skin
- Key ingredients: lavender, tea tree, rose, neroli blossom, lemongrass
This toner is made with all-natural ingredients. Lemongrass and tea tree oils help fight breakouts, and neroli blossom helps balance the skin’s sebum. To top it off, soothing lavender helps reduce surface-level redness.
Unlike the other toners on this list, this product features a spray applicator, making it great for a rejuvenating midday pick-me-up. You can even spritz it on after you apply makeup to set it.
Best multitasking formula
Fenty Skin Fat Water Pore-Refining Toner Serum
- Price: $$
- Best for: all skin types
- Key ingredients: niacinamide, cactus flower, green tea
This toner-serum combination is the ultimate two in one. Made by Fenty Skin (Rihanna’s skin care brand), this toner works to improve the appearance of dark spots and pores with ingredients like niacinamide (a form of vitamin B3).
The toner also aims to reduce redness while hydrating and defending the skin against environmental aggressors.
“It’s a new cult favorite, because it combines a toner and a serum to deliver a brightening and toning effect without stripping away too much oil,” Hartman says.
Best for acne-prone skin
Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner
- Price: $$
- Best for: combination, oily, or acne-prone skin
- Key ingredients: glycolic acid, grapefruit, aloe vera
A toner with an AHA exfoliant, like glycolic acid, is a must-have for those who experience regular breakouts.
Similar to the Pixi Glow Tonic, this affordable favorite from Mario Badescu balances the purifying benefits of glycolic acid with the soothing abilities of aloe vera. Its exfoliating capabilities help unclog pores for a smoother, brighter, more even complexion.
Best budget buy
Vichy Pureté Thermale Perfecting Toner
- Price: $$
- Best for: all skin types
- Key ingredients: glycerin, volcanic water
Another Hartman recommendation, this is “an affordable, gentle toner that removes all the residue and none of the essential oil.”
Similar to the Avène toner, this gentle pick leaves skin glowing and soft to the touch.
The key ingredient, volcanic water, is packed with 15 minerals, such as bicarbonates, chloride, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron. These ingredients work together to strengthen the skin’s barrier for protection against external aggressors, like the sun, pollutants, and weather, while also rebalancing the skin’s natural pH.
The toner step of your routine should always come immediately after cleansing and before applying serum or moisturizer.
If your skin can tolerate it, Hartman says you can use a toner every day. If you have sensitive or dry skin, though, you might want to incorporate it just 2 or 3 times per week.
When applying, Hartman recommends simply pouring the liquid into a clean, dry hand and patting it all around your face. Folks often opt for applying the formula using a cotton pad, but a lot of liquid is soaked up this way, so you actually waste most of the product.
When you figure out what your skin type is, you can choose a toner that helps you achieve your skin care goals —whether it’s hydration, pore cleansing, or redness reduction. Regardless of your skin type, you should avoid toners that contain alcohol.
By adding a toner into your routine, you can brighten and even your skin, while ensuring your skin’s pH remains roughly in its natural state. Seems like a must-have to us!
Emily Rekstis is a New York City-based beauty and lifestyle writer who writes for many publications, including Greatist, Racked, and Self. If she’s not writing at her computer, you can probably find her watching a mob movie, eating a burger, or reading an NYC history book. See more of her work on her website, or follow her on Twitter.