The Best Toners For Acne-Prone Skin, According To A Dermatologist

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by Lisa Fogarty and BDG Commerce
Originally Published: 

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 if you need a hydrating toner 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 and choose toners 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 toner 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: “This product is one of my favorite, and this product line is amazing. My skin stays consistently clear since I have been using it, unlike any other I've tried before.”

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: “This stuff is absolutely amazing! I have been using it for about a month now and it has helped even my skin-tone and lighten up some of the scarring that I have due to past breakouts. I pour a small amount of product onto a cotton round and apply it all around my face at night. It has a slight tingling sensation, but it's okay because I know it's working. When I first started using this product, I had acne on my forehead, on my cheeks, and along my jawline. Over time, my acne has faded away and my skin feels softer and healthier than it ever has.”

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: “I'm middle-aged, but still have acne flare ups. The thought of using a cleansing water and not rinsing my face, just sounded like it wouldn't work for me. I'm glad I tried it anyway. I poured some on a cotton pad, wiped away makeup and that's it! It makes my face soft, clean and it clears up my acne fast. It's convenient, no excuse for leaving on makeup. Pleased to find this formula for oily complexions. This is the best! Recommended.”

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: “A great addition to my beauty routine! I have very sensitive skin so I love the option to spray the toner on my skin instead of rubbing it on with a cotton roll. My skin feels hydrated and glows instead of getting irritated after I use this. I will continue to buy this product again and again”

5. Another Great Glycolic Acid Toner For Unwanted Dark Spots

This alcohol-free toner by Mario Badescu 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: “My go to, holy grail toner. I have dry, sensitive, acne prone skin and my skin just loves this stuff. It makes my face so soft, glowy and makes it feel so clean. I literally have nothing negative to say about this!!”

6. A Thick Toner That Hydrates & Soothes All Types Of Skin

The optimized pH levels in this thick, gel-like Klairs 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 splash it on every evening and my skin just ‘drinks’ up the moisture the toner provides. It's honestly my favorite feeling of the day. I never thought that a toner makes suchs a difference but this one definitely does. It balances out the skin after a day of sweating, makeup and sunscreen. I have less skin irritation and pimples. And my flaky dry skin is gone. Also one bottle lasts a long time.”

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: “This is something I will never not purchase now. I've purchased several bottles now over the last few months or so and I am truly obsessed. Nothing has ever changed or improved my skin so much in such a short time. It's amazing. Holy grail for sure. It evens my skin tone, quickly gets rid of marks or breakouts, smooths my skin, adds a glow.”

8. A Tried-&-True Toner From The Brand Known For Its Acne Treatments

For decades, Proactiv has been a trusted brand for treating acne over the counter, so you can be assured that Proactiv’s revitalizing 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: “I love this product! I have used it twice a day now for 6 years.. It really helps with my adult acne. I can tell a big difference in my skin when I forget to use it. I highly recommend it!”

9. Another Great (& Even Cheaper) Micellar Water For Sensitive Skin

Another great micellar water/toner alternative for sensitive, acne-prone skin is Bioderma Sébium H2O Micellar Water. Like all products from the iconic French brand’s Sébium line, it was designed with oily, congestion-prone skin in mind. All at once, it cleanses, purifies, and mattifies using ingredients like zinc, copper, and ginkgo biloba extract, so it leaves your skin feeling refreshed and completely free of makeup and shine. At around $10 for over 8 ounces, it’s a great value, too — or, spend a little more money and get a massive, 16.9-ounce bottle with a convenient pump-top dispenser.

User review: “within the first couple of days, my skin feels so much cleaner and purified. I sometimes get little bumps under my mouth on my chin and around my nose and they've either disappeared or become tiny tiny in such a short time. I will definitely keep using this daily. It feels refreshing and lovely and there isn't any fake scent, just a clean light scent of the product itself.”

10. A Korean Toner Made With Soothing & Healing Botanicals

MEDIHEAL is one of the most popular skin care brands in Korea, and now, you can get their products on Amazon. This gentle toner is one of their best offerings for acne-prone skin: It uses a blend of botanically derived ingredients to treat and prevent all types of breakouts, like willow bark, of which salicylic acid is a derivative; madecassoside, which is known for its healing benefits; tea tree, a natural antibacterial and anti-inflammatory; and centella asiatica, a popular ingredient used in Korean skin care for its soothing properties. Combined, this toner will help keep your skin smooth, clear, balanced, and free of the bacteria, pollutants, and other impurities that contribute to breakouts.

User review: “The odorless, green watery toner absorbs quickly and fully. It's excellent for my skin type (oily, aging and prone to congested pores) because it soothes and calms inflammation and redness, helps to deeply clean pores, has a mild and non-irritating exfoliant, balances sebum levels, promotes healing, boosts hydration and delivers a host of antioxidants while bringing skin to the proper pH for the rest of your skin care to work efficiently. Generously sized and reasonably priced. While it is aimed at blemish-prone skin, any skin type could use this line. I've been very impressed with the Tea Tree Biome Cica collection. Would repurchase.”

11. This New Toner That’s Ideal For Oily, Acne-Prone Skin

This new toner is made by Hero Cosmetics, the brand behind the cult-favorite pimple patches everyone loves. Ideal for oily skin, it mattifies shine, refines and smooths skin, and helps reduce the appearance of congested pores using ingredients like zinc PCA, green tea, and witch hazel. It also contains a whopping eight different types of hyaluronic acid to hydrate your skin, unlike so many toners that can be drying.

User review: “My favorite product ever! It is a must for my skincare routine [...] it totally reduced my inflammation and hormonal acne while also treating my acne scars. Super moisturizing, little to no scent, super safe for sensitive skin and would recommend to any one dealing with any type of acne. I keep this product in skincare shelf always.”

12. A Liquid-Free Alternative To Toner

Eliminate the need for cotton pads and use these COSRX toning pads instead; simply swipe one across your face to reap its pore-clearing, exfoliating, glow-boosting benefits. Key ingredients are soothing allantoin, purifying tea tree, and willow bark water, which is commonly used as a “natural” alternative to salicylic acid. These gentle, alcohol-free pads are safe to use on sensitive skin, and are also incredibly convenient for travel.

User review: “So I started using this and it hasn't even been a month yet and my pores are not as visible, my acne has disappeared, and my skin glows after using it. I would definitely recommend this, after all nothing has changed in my routine or diet except the addition of these pads.”


Dr. Deirdre Hooper, dermatologist with Audubon Dermatology in New Orleans and an Associate Clinical Professor at Tulane and Louisiana State University.

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