Are face toners really necessary?

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Toners, otherwise known as astringents, are quite the controversial skincare product. Partly due to the fact that earlier formulations were particularly drying (due to the presence of alcohols).

These products were originally marketed as pH balancers which were necessary to remove the alkaline residue of cleansers and soaps. In the beginning, toners were designed for people with oily, acne-prone skin due to their drying nature (despite this approach often causing more breakouts). Since then, the formulation of toners have changed drastically, and with that, so has their purpose.

Purpose of face toner (formulation then vs now)


If we think back to how toners were originally used we’ll recall removing our makeup using our method of choice, followed by the application of a toner using a cotton pad, removing any left over traces of makeup or cleanser. This left the skin feeling squeaky clean (and dry!).

Is the ‘pH balancing’ effect relevant anymore?

Originally marketed as pH balancers – is this relevant nowadays? With the advent of synthetic detergents and soft water systems (minerals in hard water can change the pH balance of your skin) post-cleansing residues are less of a problem, thus traditional toners are not particularly useful anymore (in this respect).

In addition, most skincare products are formulated to have a pH around that of healthy skin (slightly acidic) so as not to cause any problems. Even if a product has a pH that lies slightly out of the range of healthy skin, the skin usually readjusts itself pretty soon after without a problem. But, if you do suspect pH is a major issue for you then there’s no harm in seeing if a toner could be the answer.


In the modern day, toners are frequently used as the first step as part of your skincare routine after the cleansing process, providing various benefits depending on the formulation. More frequently, today’s generation of toners can be found without alcohols (thank the heavens!). If you have particularly sensitive skin, make sure to check the labels for alcohol and try to steer clear (witch hazel should be another one to avoid too if this is the case).

Present-day toners often contain actives and depending which ones, will determine the purpose of the toner. Due to this, toners today are often used as cosmeceutical products with several purposes rather than use as a second cleansing agent.

A myriad of actives can be found in toners, from hydrating ingredients such as hyaluronic acid to exfoliators like hydroxy acids.

Do we really need to use face toner?

Well, we’ve already discussed above that we don’t necessarily need a toner for ‘balancing our pH’. Contemporary skincare products shouldn’t disrupt our pH too drastically, and any perturbance in the pH can soon be corrected by our skin naturally. If we also cleanse our skin thoroughly (with appropriate cleansers) then we also shouldn’t need a toner for the removal of residual traces of makeup. So can they be of any use?

Whilst toners aren’t necessary, if you find you enjoy the application of a toner or a toner’s particular combination of active ingredients that you can’t find in other skincare products, then by all means why not try one. Especially if it seems to elevate your skin!

Below are our top picks for toners, divided into categories for ease.

Top picks

Alcohol free

Neutrogena Oil- and Alcohol-Free Facial Toner

First up is the extremely budget friendly Neutrogena alcohol free toner; this simple toner refreshes skin without stripping its own natural moisturizers. The formulation contains mild purifiers, gently removing impurities and reconditioning the skin.

THAYERS Alcohol-Free Rose Petal Witch Hazel Facial Toner with Aloe Vera Formula

This very highly reviewed toner does contain witch hazel, so those with sensitive skin may want to skip this one. However, Rose petals, which, through distillation, create the rosewater used in this formula, are full of natural oils and sugars that help restore dehydrated skin and bring out a natural, dewy, glowing complexion. The natural astringent properties of rose petals work in tandem with witch hazel, tightening pores, controlling oil production, locking moisture in. Rosewater is also full of Vitamin C, which is crucial for collagen production, strengthening skin cells, and fading blemishes and scars. 

Acne fighting toners

Bioré Witch Hazel Pore Clarifying Toner

The presence of witch hazel in this toner helps to clear acne, soothe inflammation and tighten pores. In addition, 2% Salicylic Acid help to treat existing acne, while clearing dead skin cells, dirt and debris from clogged pores.

Hydrating toners

Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Pore-Reducing Toner

Especially made for combination and oily skin, this toner contains many actives, including niacinamide (to minimise the appearance of pores and promote a more even skin tone), chamomile and burdock root extract (soothes sensitive skin and provides an antioxidant effect) and hyaluronic acid + ceramides (restores the skin’s moisture barrier and provides hydration).

Fresh Rose Deep Hydration Facial Toner

The winner of a Glamour Beauty Award in 2019, this toner contains rosewater and rose flower oil for soothing and nourishing properties. It is also infused with hyaluronic acid for hydration. This toner also helps to refine the appearance of pores.

Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow PHA+BHA Pore-Tight Toner

A good all-rounder, this toner helps to clear pores with the presence of beta hydroxy acid and polyhydroxy acid. Meanwhile, cactus water and hyaluronic acid helps with hydrating the skin. It is also free of drying alcohol.

Key takeaways

  • Toners aren’t necessary if you prefer a minimalistic skincare routine.
  • Ingredients to avoid in toners: alcohol and witch hazel if you have sensitive skin.


Timudom, T., Chaiyasut, C., Sivamaruthi, B. S., Tiampasook, P., & Nacapunchai, D. (2020). Anti-Sebum Efficacy of Phyllanthus emblica L.(Emblica) Toner on Facial Skin. Applied Sciences10(22), 8193.

Draelos, Z.D. Astringents, Masks, and Ancillary Skin Care Products. In Textbook of Cosmetic Dermatology, 5th ed.; Baran, R., Maibach, H.I., Eds.; CRC Press: Boca Raton, FL, USA, 2017

Surber, C., Abels, C., & Maibach, H. (Eds.). (2018). pH of the Skin: Issues and Challenges.