Of all the steps in your skin-care routine (however many there may be), toner is far and away the most confusing. The reason? While the term “toner” used to refer to alcohol-based astringents that were used to remove oil from the skin (which is why some derms cringe at the mere mention of it), the product category has expanded to include a lot of different types of products. To help you navigate whether or not you should be using one as a part of your own daily regimen, we dedicated an entire episode of Dear Derm to having Mona Gohara, MD, a Connecticut-based board-certified dermatologist, break down everything you need to know about the stuff—including the biggest mistake you’re likely making with it.
Since the toner category now encompasses everything from hydrating products with hyaluronic acid to exfoliating ones packed with AHAs, it’s extra important to consult the ingredient list before putting anything on your face. Otherwise, you run the risk of using something that will disrupt your complexion instead of nourish it. “Avoid any toner with witch hazel or an alcohol base, because they can strip your skin’s protective layers of essential lipids and proteins that keep irritants out and keep hydration in,” says Dr. Gohara. “They can disrupt the skin barrier, and the skin barrier is essential for skin health.” Instead, look for products that offer some sort of added benefit to the skin by way of actives like AHAs, BHAs, or hyaluronic acid.
Since these ingredients offer targeted results, Dr. Gohara suggests thinking of your toner as more of a spot treatment than something you should slather on all over. “If you feel like you need it, just use it on areas where you may need a little extra love on your skin.”
To figure out what type of toner is right for your individual skin needs. (and when you should be mixing and matching a few different options for best results), press play on the video above. And one more thing to keep in mind? “Remember that it’s not essential—it’s kind of the cherry on top,” says Dr. Gohara. So if you want to skip out on this particular step and save yourself from the confusion altogether, that’s totally fine too.
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