Perhaps the most misunderstood member of the skincare regimen, toners have been master shapeshifters for a very long time. Also known as astringents, mists, hydrosols, distillates, hydrators, tonics, pH balancers, essences, etc., toners are applied after cleansing and before serums. As you can tell, the function of a toner can really be customized to your skin's needs, but is this second step necessary for your skin?
The answer is a bit more complicated than yes or no. I believe toning is an excellent way to give your skin a gentle nudge in the right direction, as well as prepping the skin to receive your subsequently applied products such as serums and moisturizers better. Are they absolutely critical? Nah. Not really.
Back when I was growing up and purchased what little skincare I used from drugstores, products like Sea Breeze and reigned the shelves. These astringents were intended to strip the skin of unwanted congestion with alcohol, leaving skin tight and dry, and prone to more oily outbursts to compensate.
Diving into history, essences containing rose petals soaked in gin, egg whites, lemon, and other edible ingredients were used in the Victorian era to brighten and moisturize the skin. Nowadays "toner" is an umbrella term for a liquid formula to be applied after cleansing, to enhance the efficacy of your skincare routine. For example, they can include brightening or firming actives, or hydrators such as hyaluronic acid.
These can also be the step in which you exfoliate your skin. Many toners on the market contain alpha or beta hydroxy acids in gentler percentages to dissolve dead skin and allow for daily exfoliation. I typically recommend only using these as a part of your routine 2-3 times per week, even if the directions say otherwise.
How do I use a toner?
Following cleansing, a toner can be misted generously over the face and pressed in while hands. This is especially nice with tonics and hydrosols that contain botanical ingredients like rose and lavender. The aromatic experience alone can really set the tone for your skincare ritual (no pun intended). Exfoliating acid toners are best applied with small cotton rounds. You can add a small amount of water to the cotton if you are easing your skin into a new product, then apply several drops of toner and press press press into skin, moving from chin upwards and back, and continuing to forehead. Don't forget neck and decollete!