Ask Alex: Refining toners

by Alex Hushcha

For this round of Ask Alex, our resident esthetician examines refining toners. Admittedly, toners can be a vague and sometimes superfluous step in a skincare routine. Are they there to cleanse? Exfoliate? Do they add hydration? When do you even use them? WHY do we need them?


I have noticed in the last year or so that several skincare brands have rolled out with many different iterations of toning products. I recently saw one marketed as a green juice for your face! For the moment, I am going to focus on just refining toners. These are the products that exfoliate the skin and pull off any unwanted, excess build-up on a deeper level than cleansing. This step would come immediately after cleansing, and while I have met some who believe that this can be used instead of a cleanse, these products really are designed to sink into your skin to do their dirty work. For them to be the most effective, you will want to have already cleansed your face of any makeup and surface oils.

Toners that fall into this category of refinement are frequently targeted to those with acneic skin and contain more astringent and exfoliating ingredients. These are also frequently the products that claim to “shrink your pores” or will more ridiculously “close your pores”. That is not how pores work. They do not open or close; they are not doors. They can constrict or dilate and can appear larger or smaller. But if you have naturally larger pores, no product is going to magically erase them or shrink them into oblivion. Instead, what refining toners can do for you is help to clean out the built up dead skin, oil, and sebum trapped in your pores. By doing this, the pores will appear less significant and it will prevent them expanding further to accommodate that build-up. These are awesome products but they are not a magic eraser. Also, don’t use a Magic Eraser on your face. I feel like everyone knows this, but I have seen a Pinterest tutorial telling people to do that so… I am just going to officially put this out there for the internet to see. Do NOT.

I adore a good biochemical/acid exfoliation for the skin and think almost everyone will see some benefit from incorporating the right one into their routine. These products are not just for acne. For dry, hyper pigmented, textured, or aging skin, an acid is going to be make a major difference. Acids are just another way to exfoliate away dead skin cells and are, generally speaking, a lot better for your skin then even the gentlest scrub. They are less likely to cause damage with less mechanical friction on the skin. Scrubbing to exfoliate removes dead skin cells and other debris, but chemical exfoliation using acids separates skin cells and "thins" out the skin. 

The acids I will discuss come in two forms: alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). There are many different kinds of AHAs, with the most common being glycolic acid, which can be a bit of a controversial ingredient. It is very effective at eating away tissue and is also typically what you will find in professional chemical peels. Glycolic acid is so great at eating away at the dead tissue, oil, and sebum on your skin that it doesn’t stop there. It will also have a go at living tissue. This is why it can be problematic. If not used with caution, you can experience a lot of skin irritation. Because it is the most common acid used in skincare many people shrink from the category all together after one horrible experience. If this is you, I would encourage you to try again, but this time with a milder acid.

Other AHAs that are more gentle are lactic, malic, citric, and tartaric acid. These can all be found in natural products as they are derived from dairy, apples, citrus fruits, and grapes respectively. AHAs, as a group, are the strongest of the two acids. Their molecular size is smaller so they penetrate the skin deeper and faster. Those with thicker and oiler skin will enjoy how AHAs affect them. If you have used acids in your routine before and are feeling like you’ve hit a plateau feel free to level up. There are many products with a blend of AHAs, which are a great way to ease your way in. The Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment has a high concentration of lactic acid that will give a general radiance to your skin. A fabulous blended acid product would be the Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum. This contains glycolic with lactic acid as well as our next ingredient, salicylic acid. By blending these acids you will get a multi-layered penetration that is effective but also potentially better for your skin. I also give a big thumbs-up to products like this that have included anti-inflammatory and soothing ingredients in its formula to keep irritation to a minimum.

If you have ever experienced sensitivity or have never used acids in your routine allow me to introduce you to my favorite acid, salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid and is an approved acne-fighting ingredient by the FDA. Because it is a milder acid, it is brilliant for almost everyone. This acid is most frequently derived from aspirin but it can also be found naturally in wintergreen and willow bark so there are great natural options out there. I myself currently use a natural wintergreen-derived salicylic acid. The Aveda Outer Peace Acne Pads have done a great job of keeping my pores clear without kicking up redness, irritation, or over-drying my skin. Salicylic acid will dissolve the dead tissue and compacted oil in your pores but it will not touch the living tissue. If you are thinking of adding a refining toner I encourage you to start here. Another favorite BHA toner of mine is Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Lotion Exfoliant. The formula is not complicated and it makes no drastic claims but it is darn effective. Because salicylic acid is frequently used in acne care you will find it all over the drugstore aisles and in most acne care lines, however, I am happy to say that it is being included more and more into other targeted treatment lines as demand for toners has increased.

Additional finds in a refining toner will be astringent agents, such as alcohol or witch hazel. Personally, I would never recommend a product with a high amount of, if any, isopropyl or denatured alcohol (frequently shortened to “denat. alcohol” on an ingredients list). This is the most common astringent and I suppose it is fine for someone with thicker, oilier skin to use. But the reason this kind of alcohol is even in products is mostly for superficial reasons, all it does is immediately cause moisture to evaporate quickly on the skin, which is why most moisturizers and toners targeted at oily skin dry down so fast. Isopropyl alcohol will leave your skin feeling dry, matte, and oil-free. However, it can strip your acid mantle (read about that here) and leave your skin wanting more moisture so it can function properly. Your skin’s natural response to feeling dry is to produce more oil to compensate. Too much isopropyl alcohol will just create a vicious cycle of battling oil and never creating balance. For a gentler approach, tea tree oil and witch hazel are natural antiseptics and astringents that will help keep those shiny areas clear in a skin-friendly way. Thayers Witch Hazel Alcohol-Free Rose Petal Toner is a good option that is cheap, gentle, and kind to your skin.

As I have briefly touched on, finding anti-inflammatory or skin soothing ingredients in these products is a fabulous find. If you can harness the power of the acid and then cool it off with a redness- and inflammation-reducing agent, you have a great product on your hands. Aloe, cucumber, lavender, rose, and chamomile in the ingredients list would help me feel confident in a recommending a product to a client, especially for those who suffer from acne or periodic breakouts. Something to keep in mind to those who break out: although products may be treating the oil and sebum that is causing your breakouts, please remember the trauma and redness that is already currently there. All too often I see clients scrubbing at their acneic skin and throwing more acids at the problem. Doing this is going to kick up more inflammation and make the problem you have now seem so much worse. A great drugstore find for fighting breakouts is surprisingly from Stridex. The Stridex Single-Step Acne Control Sensitive Pads are alcohol-free and have a dose of aloe vera in them. They are also under five dollars. I am swooning now.

Refining toners, specifically acids, are some of my favorite skincare products. They have made the biggest difference in my skin and I can be a bit of an evangelist to my clients about why they need to try them, too. If you are in a place where your cleanser is not doing enough for you, you want something more powerful, or you want to scrub harder but just can’t seem to clear the gunk, then you need one of these toners to do that heavy lifting for you. Any kind of build-up you are feeling in your skin, be it from flaky skin, excess oil, or just a feeling of dullness acids, will be cleared away. Tone up and get your glow on!


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