December 8, 2023


General Inside You

The Toners That Actually Work Hard For Your Skin, According To ELLE’s Beauty Director

When you get paid to test beauty products for a living, what do you actually pay to use? ELLE’s Beauty Director Katy Young comes clean.

a person smiling for the camera: ELLE's Beauty Director, Katy Young, gives you all the info on the most effective toners for your skin.

© Matteo Scarpellini
ELLE’s Beauty Director, Katy Young, gives you all the info on the most effective toners for your skin.

a person posing for the camera: Katy Young on toners

© .
Katy Young on toners

Did anyone really have a clue what all that toning was about back in the Nineties? Short of removing the last residue of foundation that my cleanser failed to shift, I was never really sure. Plus, given that toners then were mostly made from alcohol, the idea of subjecting my then juicy skin to ‘water’ that would (ironically) then leach out my own supplies always seemed a little counter intuitive to me. They were pointless at best’ harsh and stripping at worst.

But 30 years can do a lot to a product. Today, toners – or ‘essences’, ‘lotions’ or ‘solutions’ – are no longer the third wheel in a good skincare regime. Far from it: they are the resurfacing, collagen-boosting, acne-reducing, glow-getting and treatment-boosting wonders of our time.

The most basic job a toner has is that of skin balancer, gently nudging your face back to a respectable 5.5 pH where it can begin to protect itself again after all that double cleansing, which can otherwise send our skin into oil-producing overdrive. You’ll know you’re prone to this if you’re left with that tight, taught, feeling after cleansing. Sound familiar? Look for chamomile and plant-based tinctures that are both alcohol-free and suitable for sensitive types, and steer clear of acids.

Unless, that is, you want a little resurfacing. Not as brutal as it sounds, the modest alpha hydroxyl acid (AHA) which includes lactic (milk), glycolic (sugarcane) or malic (fruit) acid, breaks down bonds between cells and gently nibbles away at the top layer of dead, dulling cells, to reveal the fresh, dewy skin which was always hiding underneath all this time. And while these liquid exfoliants may trigger a mild tingling sensation at first, keep calm and carry on, as used daily they also brilliantly train your skin to regulate cell turnover, hold onto moisture far better and stimulate spongy skin collagen.

a woman posing for the camera: Katy Young on toners

© Ivan Lattuada
Katy Young on toners

A salicylic acid however, being a ‘beta’ hydroxyl acid (BHA) which has a slightly smaller molecular size, is able to go far deeper into any plugged pores for a nice deep clean, making it a good, and by the way very gentle, choice for acne or blackhead sufferers. Most will be labelled ‘salicylic’ on the front of the bottle, if not on the ingredient list round the back.

A lot of die-hard toner fans will swear by their daily dose for hydrating or softening powers. What you want to look out for are lotions that contain hyaluronic acid (this flogged horse is very much alive and kicking), as well as aloe, glycerin and even algae extract which will help your face to hold onto moisture like a sponge.

My favourite toners, however, are those that prep your skin so well that they set the scene beautifully for any product that you layer on over the top, enabling active ingredients to penetrate into the skin, rather than just redundantly sit on top. Tinctures that use polyhydroxy acids (PHAs), the even gentler exfoliating cousin of AHAs, are your best bet here. Genuine beauty bargains are rare, but with its ability to supercharge skincare so that you use less of it, and what you do use does more, this kind of toner is definitely one.

Sure, I’m by no means a money-saving expert, but if I could encourage you to invest wisely in your good skincare regime, it would probably start here.

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