A celebrity esthetician sets the record straight.

Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
CosMedix Mystic Hydrating Treatment
Credit: cosmedix.com

When you think of a toner you might think of witch hazel or a harsh acne killing liquid that teenagers use to strip their skin clean. But let me assure you that that’s no longer the case. Toners have come a long way since your teenage years—don’t be scared to start using one again. Danna Omari, a celebrity esthetician and founder of NOY Spa in New York City, explains why they’re important and what to look for when choosing a good one.

Real Simple: What does a toner do?
Danna Omari:
Think of cleansing as a two-step process, with toner being the second step. While cleanser cleans the skin superficially, toner deep cleans ensuring pores are clear of makeup and dirt. In addition to removing remaining residue and impurities, toner also helps balance your skin’s pH. Tap water contains minerals that can be dehydrating to the skin, so using a toner after you wash your face can help combat that.

RS: Should everyone be using a toner?
Yes, everyone should be using a toner. When we cleanse the skin, we also strip it of the natural oil. Toner helps balance the skin and helps to bring it back to a neutral pH where it’s healthiest and performs the best.

RS: What are some ingredients/keywords you should look for when choosing a toner?
Look for toners containing ingredients that brighten and hydrate such as sodium PCA, which prevents moisture loss, aloe vera and cassia glucan, which naturally soothe and calm the skin, and lactic acid, which improves uneven skin tone. If your skin is congested or acne prone, avoid toners with alcohol, a stimulant that can actually increase oil production. Many people with oily or acne-prone skin use products with a high content of alcohol (along with other drying agents) thinking they’ll “get rid” of the oil, but they’re actually worsening the condition. The key is to properly balance the oils, not eliminate them. Some of my favorite toners include CosMedix Mystic Hydrating Treatment ($40; jet.com), Environ B-Active Sebuton ($44; conceptskincare.com), and Living Libations Organic Rose Glow Complexion Mist ($30; amazon.com).

RS: When should you apply a toner?
Apply toner both morning and night after cleansing. I often recommend two different types of toner for my clients: one that’s hydrating and calming, and another that’s active. By active toner, I’m referring to products containing active ingredients such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHA’s) or beta hydroxy acids (BHA’s), like lactic acid or salicylic acid, that deep clean and exfoliate the skin. For people who experience breakouts or have oily skin, salicylic acid or glycolic acid is very effective in deep cleaning and balancing oil production. For those who experience hyper pigmentation or have more normal to dry skin, lactic acid is very effective in gently deep cleaning while also brightening the skin. So in that case, they would alternate (hydrating in a.m., active in p.m.).

RS: What’s the right way to use toner?
Spray toner onto a clean cotton round, moving from one section of the face to another. Continually check for any residual dirt. As soon as you see dirt on the cotton, flip it over to the other side and proceed cleaning. Do this until the cotton is completely clean and clear. Once complete, apply serums and moisturizers immediately after while your skin is still damp.

RS: What other benefits will you get from using a toner?
Toner helps the efficacy of your subsequent products (i.e. serum and moisturizer) because you’re making sure the skin is as clean as possible in order to receive these products. Balancing the pH of your skin allows the products to better penetrate, too.