When it comes to treating blemishes, stronger products aren’t always better. The best toners for acne-prone skin add a powerful punch of skin-boosting ingredients to your routine while helping you remove the last traces of pore-clogging dead skin, oil, sunscreen, and makeup that cleansers might not catch. Most importantly, though, these toners won't irritate or dry out your skin, since that can exacerbate acne flareups.
“People with acne-prone skin often use too harsh of toners,” says Dr. Deirdre Hooper, a dermatologist who spoke to Bustle for this article. Instead, look for a product that will “not dry [skin] out” while it “gently removes excess oil.” Soothing botanicals like green tea are great, and for dry skin, look for lightweight, non-greasy moisturizers like hyaluronic acid.
Toners should be applied right after cleansing your skin and before any serums, acne treatments, moisturizers, or sunscreens. Because acne-prone skin is often in need of ingredients that will help balance your skin and reduce inflammation, it's important to read the labels on toners and choose formulas that are free of alcohol and other potentially harsh chemicals. Those with sensitive skin might also want to avoid witch hazel or skip the traditional toner altogether and instead opt for a gentle micellar water for that final clean, suggests Dr. Hooper.
Many shoppers look for exfoliating toners to tackle acne, and if you're dealing with blackheads, Dr. Hooper recommends looking for toners that contain salicylic acid. Those with unwanted sun spots should opt for glycolic acid, according to Dr. Hooper. However, the doctor notes to make sure you're not over exfoliating. “Stingy or itchy means the barrier is impaired,” Dr. Hooper explains. “If it looks oily but feels irritated and red. Your skin is producing excess oil so you end up getting on this cycle that your skin can’t get off.” After you're done applying toner, your skin should not feel tight or look red. And be sure to follow up with your moisturizer of choice, because even acne-prone skin needs to stay hydrated.
Scroll on to shop the best toners for skin that’s breakout-prone, congested, inflamed, or otherwise irritated.
1. An Alcohol-Free Toner With Salicylic Acid
Unlike many other exfoliating toners on the market, this one from NxN is alcohol free so it's less likely to irritate delicate, acne-prone skin. Beyond the 1% salicylic acid to help clear out pores, it features soothing green tea, niacinamide, and gotu kola (also referred to as centella asiatica) extracts. And the easy-to-use pump-style dispenser? Genius. However, those with extra sensitive skin might want to avoid this since it contains witch hazel and a small amount of fragrance.
User review: “I absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE this toner. It smells delicious, it has an easy way to get the toner out without wasting a bunch and my skin has NEVER looked so good! I use it every night before bed and I can see a total difference in the appearance of my skin. I have a sensitivity to salicylic acid and this has such a mild amount that it doesn’t hurt me like other toners and treatments do. I highly recommend this product ...”
2. An Exfoliating Toner With Glycolic Acid
With an impressive 7% glycolic acid, this toner from Touch is formulated with other soothing ingredients like aloe vera and rosewater to hydrate while exfoliating. This toner is also alcohol-free, and has witch hazel on its ingredient list, which is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. It's also cruelty-free and comes with an 100% satisfaction guarantee should you try it out and not love it.
User review: “Fixed my dry scaling acne prone skin. Regular witch hazel was too drying for me, but this has the perfect balance of what your skin needs...... exfoliating, soothing, moisturizing and refreshing. Makes blemishes less severe and speeds up skin healing process.”
3. The Best Toner Alternative For Sensitive Skin
Free of alcohol, oil, and soap, this gentle micellar water is a great alternative to toners if you have sensitive, acne-prone skin. It’s also an amazing makeup remover on its own, so it’s a quite useful product to have on hand. Key ingredients in the formula include glycerin to coat your skin with lightweight moisture, and zinc, a common ingredient that’s used in acne treatments because of its purifying and refreshing benefits.
User review: “First purchased and tried this while living in Paris a year ago. Gently cleanses and tones the skin -- a great substitution for regular toner and mild facial soap. [...] Effaclar, comparing to the plainer version of the micellar water sold by the brand in the states, is just one ingredient more, but it turns the result from mild to slightly astringent which is perfect for combination skin [types] -- treating oil balance and moisturization at once.”
4. An Affordable Korean Toner With Soothing Centella
This Korean toner from the cult-favorite brand COSRX is alcohol-free and formulated with soothing centella-water which goes on gentle — perfect for sensitive, acne prone skin. It's also vegan, cruelty- and paraben-free, and hypoallergenic. While this toner doesn't have the exfoliating power of some of others on this list, for anyone with sensitive skin that's easily irritated, this toner is a fantastic way to balance the pH of your skin without any redness or inflammation.
User review: “I love this product. It works well with my sensitive and acne prone skin. Works well with all of my products, and adds a little extra hydration between steps in my skin care routine. I have repurchased this multiple times now, and will continue to.”
5. Another Great Glycolic Acid Toner For Unwanted Dark Spots
This alcohol-free toner gently exfoliates with glycolic acid, papaya extract, and alpha hydroxy acid so that your pores stay clean and clear and skin cells turnover quickly for a more radiant complexion, and Dr. Hooper says that glycolic acid is an especially great ingredient for those with uneven skin tone or dark spots. Add soothing aloe vera to the mix and you have the perfect toner for sensitive acne-prone skin.
User review: “Have been using this daily since I purchased it two weeks ago. I noticed a difference after about the 3rd day: Pores? Smaller. Tone? More even. Texture? Smoother. Dark spots? Lighter. Acne? What acne? ...”
6. A Thick Toner That Hydrates & Soothes All Types Of Skin
The optimized pH levels in this thick, gel-like toner balance your skin's moisture, while ingredients like hyaluronic acid, lipidure, and a slew of essential oils (including lavender and orange) decrease surface oils but also help retain moisture so that your skin stays soft and smooth. Even the most sensitive skin types will notice an immediately soothing and calming effect on red, irritated skin. For those sensitive to fragrance, there's also an unscented version of this toner.
User review: “I absolutely love this product. I have dry yet acne prone skin and I find this product to be moisturizing without causing me to breakout. It has a watery nonsticky texture that does not leave a residue but leaves my skin feeling supple like the product is called. It is a keeper. It has me interested in trying more of their products.”
7. A Cult-Classic Toner/Chemical Exfoliant Hybrid For Blackhead-Prone Skin
This Paula’s Choice liquid exfoliant/toner hybrid is a total cult-classic, with thousands of five-star Amazon reviews and a seriously devoted following IRL. Packed with salicylic acid to deep clean congested pores and soothing green tea to quell irritation, it's a powerful exfoliator that's best used at night. It’s ideal for those prone to blackheads and other forms of breakouts, but even if your skin isn’t particularly prone to acne, it can still be used once or twice a week to keep your complexion smooth and clear.
User review: “I LOVE this stuff! I have never had a product produce results in such a short period of time. After 10 days my skin is already evening out, my acne is clearing up, my blackheads are less noticeable, and my skin is so soft. It is a little drying, but not overly so. I have really sensitive skin and this product is not as harsh as many of these type of products tend to be. I purchased the small 1 ounce bottle but will definitely be ordering the bigger bottle soon.”
8. A Tried-And-True Toner From The Brand Know For Their Acne Treatments
For decades, Proactiv has been a trusted brand for treating acne over the counter, so you can be assured that their toner is effective and reliable. This formula is alcohol-free and formulated with a blend of calming botanical extracts including aloe, chamomile, and vitamin B to soothe skin, while glycolic acid exfoliates and helps fade unwanted scarring. It does contain witch hazel, so if that’s an ingredient you know your skin doesn’t like, steer clear.
User review: “My teenaged son had moderate acne that responded to prescription acne medication (benzoyl peroxide with clindamycin), but he was left with post-inflammatory hyper-pigmentation (PIH), which are the dark marks left after a pimple has healed. This toner has been the best solution to renewing his skin and evening out his skin tone. It's not too harsh and does not dry his skin, and he doesn't need to exfoliate with a harsh cleanser or scrub pad or brush to try and remove dead skin cells. The glycolic acid works to exfoliate, and the toner in general helps with cell turnover leaving his skin new and fresh looking. It will take time, especially if you are trying to eliminate PIH, but this toner does work.”
This article was originally published on Jun 16, 2017. It was updated on September 18, 2021. Additional reporting by Jen Fiegel and Adeline Duff.
Dr. Deirdre Hooper, dermatologist with Audubon Dermatology in New Orleans and an Associate Clinical Professor at Tulane and Louisiana State University.