What, Exactly, Is Toner?

by Alexandra Kozinski
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Wouldn’t it be nice to feel 100% certain that for all the money you invest in those skincare products, they were actually doing the job they're intended to? The truth is, unless you are adequately preparing your skin for serums and moisturizers, you're probably not getting the most bang for your buck. I chatted with Rosalia Fiske, a New York City area esthetician and all-around skincare guru, who explained that toning is an essential step in our skincare routine that many people tend to forget about.

“Basically toner is the first step of hydration after cleansing,” Fiske told me. “Think of it as a hand for your skin to grab the serum and moisturizer and keep it there. With that said, any toner with alcohol, astringent or even using witch hazel as a toner is a big no-no. These ingredients dry out the skin, not giving it a chance to perform correctly with your serum or moisturizer.”

Fiske explained that toner is required for “balanced” skin, but what does that actually mean? “When it comes to balancing, we’re talking about the pH of the skin,” she said. pH stands for potential hydrogen and it allows us to determine the acid to alkaline ratio in a solution. Healthy, balanced skin is around a 5-5.5, based on a 0-14 scale where 0 is the most acidic and 14 is the most alkaline. So, like most things in life, a happy medium is what works best!

Interestingly enough, our skin is actually capable of balancing on its own, but it can take up to a half hour to do so after we cleanse. In that time, Fiske explained, oily skin will continue to produce oil, and drier skin types will start to feel extremely tight. That tight feeling is actually a sign that the skin’s pH is way off, and it’s also a sign of dehydration — a constant battle for our skin.

“Weather, dry environments, our central air conditioning and heat all rob our skin of hydration. So imagine what the sun and smoking can do,” Fiske said. (Read: WEAR. YOUR. SUNSCREEN!) “A good toner is that humectant to attract that serum and moisturizer and lock it in. Slapping on serum and moisturizer without using a toner first is like watching water bead off a waxed car.”

So now you know you obviously need a toner in your skincare arsenal, but with so many options on the market, how do you choose what will work best for you? I asked Fiske to share her top three favorite toners:

Lancome, Tonique Douceur: “A steal at only $25 and my definition of an ideal toner.” This is a great option for beginners as it’s not too intense, but will soothe and (you guessed it) balance your skin.

Biologique Recherche, P50V: “This one is a little pricier at $57, but it’s a toner on steroids. This one is perfect for when you’re going through hormonal breakouts – it’s like your bodyguard.”

PIXI Glow Tonic: “A happy medium – the best of both worlds,” Fiske said.

I picked up Glow Tonic recently and have been alternating between that and Bodyography SKIN’s Brightening & Balancing toner (pictured below).

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To apply, I soak a cotton pad and swipe all over my face in an upwards motion. My skin feels hydrated all day without being too oily (a problem I dealt with for a long time) and I can tell the serum I apply is really sinking into my pores and doing its job.

Try adding this one simple step into your daily routine. It requires minimal effort, but the results can really be a game-changer in terms of your skin's overall balance and quality.