Skin care is a science. Various products composed of active ingredients are layered together in often complex ways, making it nearly impossible to fully know which serum, cream or tincture is completely necessary and which ones aren’t.
Toners and essences seem to regularly find themselves in that “unnecessary” category. However, experts in skin care say this could be a major misstep if your aim is get the most out of the skin care products you already use.
“Toners will help to restore your skin’s pH level, which can be affected by your face wash. It’s important to restore the skin’s pH to a slightly acid state because this allows for the skin to function optimally as a barrier to prevent infection or bacteria growth,” said Lydia Sarfati, a master esthetician and founder of Repêchage, a clinical skin care company.
Sarfati said toners and essences are also an essential part of promoting the skin’s natural levels of hydration because of their ability to bind moisture to the skin.
Kerry Benjamin, an esthetician and founder of the clean skin care line Stacked Skincare, said that toners and essences make all the difference when it comes to absorption and efficacy.
When applied after cleansing and before your other skin care products, toners and essences “can help your serums and creams absorb more effectively into the skin by clearing away the dead skin cells or saturating the skin with moisture,” Benjamin said. “Just like a damp sponge absorbs moisture better than a dry one, soft, moisturized skin can also absorb other ingredients better than dry skin.”
Benjamin said that although they may serve similar functions, there are still differences between toners and essences, and both can have a place on your bathroom counter.
“Many essences specifically quench the skin with water-soluble humectants like glycerin or hyaluronic acid,” she said. “Toners, on the other hand, often contain exfoliating ingredients that help control oil, remove dead skin cells and decongest clogged pores.”
Another difference lies in how and when they should be applied.
Aomi Richter, the owner and lead esthetician of New York-based Evolve Skin Studio, said toners with acids “should be used in the evening, a couple times a week, but be sure to wear an SPF daily if you are using an exfoliating toner. Essences, or hydrating toners, are more gentle and suitable for daily use.”
She also emphasized the importance to following up your toner or essence application with a good moisturizer in order lock in hydration and prevent your skin from drying out even further.
Toners have come a long way since the days of alcohol-intensive astringents. In fact, Taylor Worden, an esthetician and founder of Taylor Worden Skin, said that alcohol is one ingredient you should avoid when looking for a toner or essence because of its tendency to dry out the skin.
The components you do want to find in your toner ultimately depend on your skin type, she said, as well as the skin concern you are trying to address. Ingredients such as niacinamide can reduce redness or blotchiness, while botanical plant extracts can treat inflammation and chemical exfoliants, such as lactic or glycolic acid, can do a number of things from brightening to possibly firming the skin.
Below, we’ve created a list of both toners and essences chock full of several of the active ingredients recommended by these estheticians, as well as some of their personal favorite products.
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A resurfacing toner good for addressing uneven skin tone
Worden said that the Down To Tone resurfacing toner by Innbeauty Project can be a great option for minimizing uneven pigmentation, as well as brightening skin. It’s formulated with six different acids, including lactic and salicylic, to break down congestion in pores, as well as niacinamide to support healthy skin barrier function.
Get it from Sephora for $22.
An ultra hydrating toner good for everyday use
Benjamin said that every skin type can benefit from a dose of moisture, and to look for humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, which draw moisture into the skin. In addition to containing honey, a skin-softening humectant, this milky toner by First Aid Beauty also contains colloidal oatmeal to soothe and protect skin while hyaluronic acid plumps and hydrates. This is good option for anyone who experiences skin sensitivity and wants a good basic toner for everyday use.
Get it from Sephora for $24.
A protective essence that can balance your complexion
Worden suggested Plantkos Phyto replenishing essence for first-time essence users because “it’s packed with a probiotic ferment and calcium to help balance the skin microbiome and to protect skin from harsh weather.” It can also target inflammation and works well on sensitive and acne-prone skin types.
Get it from Plantkos for $47.
A gentle exfoliating toner good for acne-prone skin
According to Benjamin, toners containing salicylic acid can be particularly helpful for acne-prone skin because of its ability to slough off dead skin cells and penetrate clogged pores. The gentle yet effective Skin Perfecting Liquid by Paula’s Choice contains 2% salicylic acid and another hydrating acid called methylpropanediol. This cult-favorite formula also contains green tea, which Benjamin said can be beneficial for reducing acne-related inflammation.
Get it from Sephora for $32.
A skin-smoothing essence good for dry skin
If you have dry skin but still want the benefits of a chemical exfoliant, Benjamin said lactic acid can be a great choice. Kiehl’s Ferulic Brew Essence with lactic acid is rich in antioxidants and can help refine and smooth dull or rough skin texture. It also contains the skin barrier-supporting ingredient squalane for an added dose of hydration.
Get it from Sephora for $54.
A dewy plumping toner for aging skin
Judit Galambosi, esthetician and part owner of the Je’derm skin atelier
in New York City, said that opting for a peptide-intensive formula in your toner or essence can be a good way to plump and possibly firm aging skin. The 2.6% peptide blend in this dewy toning mist by Ghost Democracy may improve the look of fine lines and improve the elasticity of the skin. Because this toner comes in a spray, it’s easy to mist your face in between your other skin care products for a sandwiched moisture effect.
Get it from Ghost Democracy for $34.
An antioxidant-rich essence to help stop premature signs of aging
The kombucha facial treatment essence by Fresh offers the anti-pollution and free-radical reducing benefits of antioxidants, which Galambosi said is useful for aging skin. This lightweight essence also contains mandarin peel extract and hyaluronic acid to help promote a supple and even-looking complexion. Galambosi recommended using an antioxidant toner or essence in the mornings for best results.
Get it from Sephora for $74.
A mild toner that balances skin’s pH level
As Sarfati mentioned, balancing the pH levels of your skin is an essential part of maintaining healthy barrier function. Using an ingredient called sugar biovector, this mild toner by Barbara Sturm helps regulate the skin’s natural pH values while also soothing sensitive or irritated skin, making it a good toner for daily use.
Get it from Sephora for $75.
A pore-minimizing toner that’s good for sensitive skin
This clarifying and texture-smoothing toner by Biossance uses caviar lime extract to clear away dead surface skin and white willow bark to unclog pores, as well as a naturally derived squalane that Sarfati said “mimics natural humans’ sebum and helps provide protection for sensitive skin.”
Get it from Sephora for $28.
An oil-control toner with active botanicals
For oily skin types, Richter likes Ole Henriksen’s Balancing Force oil control toner, which uses a fusion of clarifying salicylic and brightening glycolic acids. Although it can control excess oil production, the blend of active botanicals such as green tea and Irish moss extract are said to prevent the skin from feeling stripped while also containing natural antiseptic properties.
Get it from Sephora for $32.
A redness-reducing essence that can strengthen skin
Richter said another key function of a toner or essence is to provide nutrients to the skin. The Mega-Mushroom Relief and Resilience essence by Origins is a soothing pH-balanced liquid that uses a nutrient-dense mushroom complex designed to help reduce redness and promote healthier skin.
Get it from Sephora for $22.