In a skin care regimen, the purpose of a toner is often fuzzy and unclear. Are they necessary? What are the benefits? Who needs to use a toner? Here’s a quick guide to the landscape of toners.

First, let’s differentiate between a toner and an astringent. There are such things as astringent toners, but not all toners are astringents. Astringents help to degrease the surface of the skin and often have anti-microbial benefits. Again, some toners can have astringent properties, but not all toners are astringents. A good astringent toner should be alcohol-free and not uncomfortable to use. Alcohol-based astringents are often too drying and do more harm than good in a daily home-care regimen. (Professionals may use alcohol to prep the skin prior to certain treatments, such as dermaplaning or as peel prep.) Toners such as Epionce’s Purifying Toner (recently featured in Allure Magazine) is an excellent example of a toner with astringent properties that’s excellent for combination-to-oily or breakout prone skin–it’s antimicrobial as well as antifungal. (Back acne-sufferers often can benefit greatly from a toner like this!)

Dry and normal skin types can benefit from the use of hydrating toners, which help to replenish water levels in the skin and are easily absorbed because of their light, watery texture. The Japanese and French sometimes call such toners “lotion,” and I’ve even applied the Japanese “lotion-mask” technique by saturating gauze with hydrating, soothing toners and layering it across the skin. (Asians go nuts over “lotion” toners, and they’re considered more essential than by people in the States.) I currently employ the use of a water pulverizer that sprays pulverized molecules of these toners across the skin during facials, which increases absorption. At home, simply apply after cleansing and prior to your serums for an added boost.

Now, do you spray directly? Or do you apply with cotton? I always apply with cotton (please use pads and not cotton balls–the balls soak up way too much product and creates too much waste!). I believe that tap water leaves behind mineral residue that affects the absorption of my products. (Just think of the hard water stains on your cups after washing! That’s what’s on your face after rinsing!) This is actually the reason why French women use micellar water to cleanse their faces–they don’t want tap water on their skin. I, however, love a good, thorough cleanse and rinse, so I use toning as a way to wipe off residual minerals. Hence, I’m a fan of applying toner with cotton for this reason. It serves the dual purpose of toning as well as a light cleanup. And, if your cleanser isn’t great at taking off makeup, using toner-on-cotton can also help you remove trace makeup.

Toners also serve other functions, such as balancing the ph-level of the skin. Using good cleansers that don’t disrupt the skin’s ph-levels can minimize the need for toners in this regard, but they still do help to prepare the skin for the next steps of a regimen by keeping it moist and free of residual debris.

While certainly not essential, toners do provide benefits!