Astringent vs. Toner

The Difference Between Toner and Astringent and Choosing One for Your Skin

Toner
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Toner and astringent: At first blush, they seem nearly identical. But there are key differences, and one will work better for you over the other, depending on your skin type.

What separates a toner from an astringent? Why should you choose one product over the other?

What Is Toner?

Toner is a water-based skincare product. It's mainly used to remove makeup and cleanser residue that may be left behind on your skin after washing your face.

Glycerin and other humectants are typically prime ingredients in toners. They can help hydrate the skin, and leave it feeling softer and smoother.

Toners are also likely to contain things like herbal extracts and floral waters, antioxidants, and anti-aging ingredients like niacinamide. These cosmesceutical ingredients can help improve skin texture, brighten complexion, even out skin tone.

Toners can be used by all skin types but are especially good for normal to dry skin, or skin that is sensitive.

What Is Astringent?

Astringents are also water-based skincare products that are used after washing to remove left-over makeup and cleanser. The chief difference between an astringent and a cleanser is that astringents are also formulated to remove excess oil from the skin.

You can think of astringent as a stronger form of a toner. Astringents are more likely to contain a higher concentration of alcohol (like SD alcohol or denatured alcohol) than toners.

They also often contain ingredients like salicylic acid to help fight pimples and blackheads.

Not all astringents contain alcohol, though. Alcohol-free astringents may not be quite as potent, but they'll still reduce excess oil on the surface of the skin. As astringents are meant to cleanse excess oil from the skin, they are best for combination to oily skin types as well as skin that is prone to acne.

How Are Toners and Astringents Used?

Toners and astringents are used after cleansing and before moisturizing. Dampen a cotton ball or cotton pad with the product and gently apply over the entire face and neck area (keep away from the eyes, though). Some toners come in spritz bottles, in which case just lightly mist your face.

Toners and astringents are leave-on products, so you won't wash them off. After toning/astringent, apply moisturizer and any other skincare products you have (acne treatment medications, anti-aging serums, eye creams, sunscreen and the like).

It's OK to apply moisturizer immediately, even if your face is slightly damp from your toner or astringent. For other products, though, especially acne treatments, topical retinoids, and sunscreen, your skin should be completely dry. Applying these on damp skin can cause possible irritation, or make them less effective.

Are Toners and Astringents Necessary?

Beauty pros have advocated a "cleanse, tone, moisturize" skincare routine for so long we rarely think to question it. So it may surprise you to hear that the efficacy of toners or astringents has never been proven.

These skincare products were created years ago, when the facial cleansing options were basic bar soap or cold cream.

Either of these left a film on the skin that you could feel—not pleasant. Astringents (they weren't called toners way back when) were devised to remove the residue left behind by facial cleansers.

Your cleansing options today are so much better, so you don't need an additional skincare product solely for the purpose of removing cleansing residue. While most estheticians say a toning product is an important part of a healthy skincare routine, most dermatologists are more skeptical.

Truthfully, these are not essential skincare products. It sounds like skincare blasphemy, but scientifically there is nothing that necessitates the use of either toner of astringent.

So, if you'd rather not use one, that's perfectly OK. You will not cause your skin any harm by not using one.

Toners/Astringents and Skin pH

Cleansing products in the past were very alkaline. Healthy skin is naturally slightly acidic. Toning and astringent products were also used to help bring the skin's pH back to normal levels.

The cleansing bars and washes we have today are much less alkaline than they used to be. Plus, we've learned more about how the skin functions. Cleansing products do not disrupt the skin's pH as much as we previously thought. Your skin also balances its own pH, rather quickly too. So even if you use a slightly alkaline cleanser your skin will bring its pH back to normal on its own, no separate pH-balancer needed.

Many toning and astringent products still advertise as being "pH balanced," but today this is more a marketing term than an actual benefit for your skin. That's not to say that skin's pH isn't important; it is. But the importance of toners and astringents in maintaining that healthy pH is overstated.

Toners/Astringents and Your Pores

But doesn't toning close your pores? Not really. The skin's pores are not like doors; they don't open and close.

Astringent and toners can help the pore look smaller. Certain ingredients can cause a temporary tightening effect on the skin, drawing the pores taut, although they aren't changing the pore size at all.

Trapped plugs of dead skin and oil within the pores stretch them out, also making them more obvious. Astringents that contain blemish-fighting ingredients clear out these plugs, allowing the pores to go back to their normal size so they look smaller in comparison. But again, the product isn't closing the pore nor is it permanently changing your pore size.

How to Choose the Right Product for Your Skin

There are so many different toner and astringent products on the market, it can be overwhelming trying to pick the right one. To add to the confusion, some beauty brands give their products names like "balancers," "cleansing waters," or "fresheners."

Really, it doesn't matter what term is used to describe the product. When choosing a toner, the ingredients are the key.

For Dry Skin

Your skin will feel best with a product that helps bring moisture to your skin. Look for humectant ingredients in your toner:

  • Glycerin
  • Propylene glycol
  • Butylene glycol
  • Aloe
  • Hyaluranic acid
  • Sodium lactate

For Oily Skin

An astringent product is what you'll need to remove excess oil and leave your skin feeling fresh and matte. Alcohol is a common ingredient, and leaves a cooling, tingling sensation on your skin. But if you find alcohol a tad too stripping, go with an alcohol-free astringent. Remember, astringents can be too drying if overused or if your skin isn't super oily.

For Acne or Blemish-Prone Skin

Astringents alone wont clear acne. Even though astringents remove surface oil, it's not surface oil that causes breakouts. It's the oil that is deeper within the pore that triggers acne. To reduce these oil plugs within the pore, your astringent will need to contain a blemish-fighting ingredient. Look for salicylic acid or glycolic acid in the active ingredients.

But simply because you're dealing with acne doesn't automatically mean you should be reaching for an astringent. If your skin is not extra oily, or if you are already using an acne treatment medication, skip the astringent. Use a gentle toner instead.

For Sensitive Skin

Take special care when choosing a product for sensitive skin. Alcohol-free astringents are OK for sensitive-yet-oily skin types. For all others, stick with toner.

Some common toner ingredients you to avoid if your skin is sensitive:

  • Fragrance
  • Colorants
  • Alcohol
  • Menthol
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate

If any product burns, stings, or leaves your face red or tight feeling, stop using it. Try a different product or simply cut toner/astringent out of your skincare routine altogether. Less is often more for sensitive skin types.

For Normal or Combination Skin

You've got lots of options for your not-too-dry-but-not-too-oily (AKA "normal") skin type. You most likely don't need the oil-grabbing properties of an astringent, so you'll be happiest with a toner. Your ideal product will make your skin feel fresh and clean, never tight and dry, and it shouldn't leave a residue behind.

For combination skin, consider using an astringent only in your more oily areas, namely the T-zone (forehead, nose, and chin). Just skip over the dry areas.

Looking for an inexpensive option? Witch hazel has gentle astringent properties and can be used by most any skin type.

Can You Use Both a Toner and an Astringent?

Yes, if you'd like, but only if you have oily skin. You may want the benefits of a specific toning product, and also want a product to remove excess oil. Try using the astringent in the morning and the toner at night. Or, you can you apply the astringent first with a cotton ball, let it dry for 30 seconds to 1 minute, then spritz a toner over the top.

To be clear, there is no pressing reason for you to use both products. But if you really love your skincare products and how they make your skin feel, you can use both an astringent and a toner without harming your skin, provided you have oily skin. If your skin is dry or sensitive, stay away from astringent completely and use a toner only.

You may also switch between toners and astringents throughout the year, if your skin changes with the seasons. For example, if your skin gets oily during the blazing hot and humid summer time you'll like the deep cleansing quality of an astringent. But as your skin tends toward dryness during the winter months, a switch to a less stripping toner is in order.

A Word From Verywell

To make it simple, remember this: astringent for oily skin types and toner for all others. Whatever product you choose, it should leave your skin feeling good. If it's making your skin feel tight, overly dry, itchy, or looking red, it's not a good product for you.

A toner or an astringent isn't a skincare necessity. If you'd rather not use one, that's fine. Instead, you may want to focus on the backbone of a healthy skin care routine: cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen.

Sources:

Ali SM, Yosipovitch G. "Skin pH: from Basic Science to Basic Skin Care." Acta Dermato-Venereologica. 2013 May;93(3):261-7.

Eo J, Seo YK, Baek JH, Choi AR, Shin MK, Koh JS. "Facial Skin Physiology Recovery Kinetics During 180 Min Post-washing with a Cleanser." Skin Research and Technology. 2016 May;22(2):148-51.

Draelos ZD. "Facial Skincare Products and Cosmetics." Clinics in Dermatology. 2014 Nov-Dec;32(6):809-12.

Surber C, Kottner J. "Skincare Products: What Do They Promise, What Do They Deliver." Journal of Tissue Viability. 2017 Feb;26(1):29-36.

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