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What’s the difference between skin toners and astringents?

Glitterati gushes: My facialist told me that toners are important because they re-balance the pH of the skin after cleansing. I could see that cleansers might be slightly basic, but will the toner really re-balance that? I like toners anyway for the astringent properties you mention, so I’d continue using them regardless of the pH factor. Oh, and the facialist used a toner from Dermalogica. Would there be a “pH difference” between the pricey stuff and the drugstore brands? Also, what effect, if any, would my residential well water that has a pH of 5.5 have on my skin?


The Right Brain Responds:

You have a facialist? I’m lucky if I can get someone to cut my hair! But that’s enough commentary on our personal grooming practices; let’s get right to your questions:

Toner tips

Will a toner really rebalance your skin pH? Well, a skin toner is kind of like your appendix: you have one but your body doesn’t really need to use it. Your skin pH is a result of the skin’s acid mantle, a mixture of sebum (skin oils) and sweat that form on the surface of your skin. This acid mantle keeps the pH of your skin at about 4 to 4.5 (Remember, low pH like 1 to 5 is acidic, high pH 8 or above is basic, and the middle, around 7, is neutral.) Anyway, this slightly acidic pH is a good thing on your skin because it helps ward off harmful bacteria.

When you wash your skin, you strip away this acid mantle. That’s because the detergents in cleansers are very good at dissolving oils. But don’t worry, because over the next few hours, your skin will regenerate the mantle by itself.

So what about the toner? What does it do? Not much apparently.

Check out what Smartskincare.com has to say on the subject:

“Toning is often touted as an essential step in a skin care routine. It is not. At least not always. The only exception is very oily skin. If you have oily skin and after cleansing it remains sticky or oily, you might benefit from applying toner after cleansing. Otherwise toning may do more harm than good.

Most toners contain alcohol and/or witch hazel. Both are drying and irritating, especially if you have dry or sensitive skin. If you still feel you need a toner, use a soothing toner free of alcohol or witch hazel, such as alcohol-free toner with chamomile.

You do not want to strip every last molecule of oil from your skin. Only grime, makeup and excess oil on the surface needs to be removed. The underlying thin coat of fresh sebum is best left undisturbed. Toners, especially alcohol-based ones, tend to strip everything off, leaving the skin dry and/or irritated.

Some experts argue that toners help close pores and tighten cell gaps after cleansing, thus reducing the penetration of impurities and environmental contaminants into the skin. Whether this is true is debatable. Even assuming it is, most people finish their skin care routine by applying skin care products with active ingredients, in which case you actually want as much penetration as possible. Preceding an active treatment with a toner that closes pores and tightens cell gaps may be counterproductive. After the active product has absorbed into your skin, you can close pores simply by cooling your face. The cold constricts blood vessels and closes pores, producing a toning effect. You can simply step outside if it is a cold time of the year or gently pat your skin with a cold pack (refrigerated but not frozen) for a few seconds. If you are not using any active products, you can tone after cleansing by wiping your face with a chip of frozen green tea. The cold from the ice helps close your pores; the caffeine and tannins in the tea help tighten skin and reduce puffiness; and green tea polyphenols may provide antioxidant benefits. But don’t overuse the cold – frequent excessive cooling may increase the risk of developing rosacea (stubborn skin redness).”

Interesting, eh?

Acid mantle

You also asked about a pH difference between pricey brands and drugstore brands. Here’s the scoop on that: First of all, the price of the product has no bearing on the pH. There are pH balanced products at all price points. But secondly, and most importantly, pH of the product doesn’t matter all that much. Since your skin regenerates its natural acid mantle after you cleanse, the pH of the product you apply has very little effect. But don’t take our word for it. Check out what Argonne National Laboratory’s “Ask A Scientist” program had to say when asked about the effect of putting different pH solutions on skin:

Importance of pH

Finally, you asked about the effect of pH in well water. It would have no more effect than tomato juice (fairly acidic at about pH 4) or black coffee ( about pH 5) or urine (about pH 5 to 7). Unpolluted rain has pH of about 6.2.

(If the folks over at Neutrogena are reading this, feel free to use this idea for a new line of skin toners: “Now with Tomato Juice, Urine, and Coffee! Coming soon to a drug store near you!”

The Beauty Brains bottom line

Unless you have very oily skin that needs to be degreased, don’t worry too much about using a pH balanced toner.

What do YOU think? Do you have a favorite toner you’d like to share with the rest of the Beauty Brains community? Leave a comment!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Joyce February 28, 2018, 7:36 am

    hi. thank you. this is very informative.

  • sarah January 1, 2019, 6:47 am

    Hello, thank you for this information. I’m from Brazil and using a tonic face is a essential part of the cleansing face routine gere, but I really hate because it hurts my skin. Now I feel free to ignore It!

  • Yeni April 18, 2019, 2:58 pm

    Pores don’t open or close