“Cleanse, tone and moisturize” is the beauty mantra that generations of women have grown up with – the three simple steps deemed essential for good skin. Then along came peels, the sheet, clay and LED mask, plus face oils, mists, micro-needling or, for the ultra-dedicated, something akin to a daily 12-step Korean routine. But with this cascade of new, exciting and enticing products, the humble toner was often overlooked.
I hadn’t used a toner for years (decades, even, as old-school alcohol-based toners stripped my skin). Then, recently, I had a facial with beauty therapist Joanna Czech and, in between the massaging, masking and devices (her facials are famously multi-faceted), she repeatedly used a toner, “because it’s a very important step,” she told me. “After you cleanse the skin, you must tone it; before a sheet mask, you tone the skin; and always after a clay mask. And, of course, after peeling, a toner is essential to rebalance the skin.”
If not exactly following every step she dictated, I rummaged deep into my beauty editor’s haul of products, found a bottle of toner and started to use it. Given all the other products I had queuing up to be tried (a heated face massager, a neck LED mask, a nine-day course of ampoules), a basic toner was hardly thrilling. Especially since, as advised, this was a standard version, not an essence (thicker texture, used post-tone to hydrate), a mist or an exfoliating toner (a peeling lotion masquerading as a toner).
Every night, I began using my cleansing balm followed by toner, before mixing and matching from my extensive ‘wardrobe’ of serums and creams. Within days, my skin was different; it had more of a glow, as though I had a highlight on when I didn’t, and I noticed I was using less product. Over the next few weeks, my chronic dryness was balancing out, and I was even using less of my beloved Crème de la Mer. What really stood out was the quality of my skin texture: it looked more refined and definitely more hydrated.
Given all the outstanding innovations in skincare in recent years, why does something so mundane make such an improvement? “A toner does several jobs,” explains Colette Haydon, a doctor in dermo-pharmacy who has formulated many famous and bestselling products over the past 20 years. “A toner removes anything left of your cleanser, it rebalances the skin’s pH and it can work very effectively as primer for your skincare.” If you use a rich balm cleanser (I do), then it is highly likely some residue will be left on your skin. Or, if you use any cleanser that is rinsed off, the water will affect your skin’s pH (skin is mildly acidic with a pH of around 4.7, while water is more alkaline: between 6.5 and 9.5). Use a toner post-cleanse and you rectify both problems and ensure that your skin is perfectly prepped to fully benefit from the active ingredients in the products you next apply. This is probably why I also noticed I needed less skincare, as my products were able to work properly.
“It’s important to use toner with cotton wool, not mist it on,” says Haydon. “The skin surface is made up of these little waves, and cotton wool has a structure that works really well in lifting any product residue from the skin.” Haydon also advises sticking with a standard toner rather than anything that also peels the skin: “You use a peel twice a week, never twice a day.” Using a toner regularly also apparently works on the cohesion of the skin cells, giving you a smoother surface and better hydration, all of which I’ve experienced while using one myself. It still amazes me that something so unassuming (and really quite mundane) has this effect. Without any fanfare or a long list of claims, a toner really does make your skin – and skincare – work so much better.
The model featured in this story is not associated with NET-A-PORTER and does not endorse it or the products shown