In the oh-so confusing skincare world, one question has long remained: Are face toners BS?! Listen up, peeps, the drying, irritating, alcohol-based toners of yesteryear that got a bad rep are GONE. Today’s pH-balanced face toners are expertly crafted to reduce redness, smooth texture, gently exfoliate, clear acne-prone skin, and even give you a lil’ glow, making them the ultimate product for pimple-free skin.
But don’t fear that these modern toners for acne will leave your skin feeling stripped. In fact, most formulas contain hydrating and calming ingredients in addition to chemical exfoliants, which means that they’ll kick acne’s ass and leave skin hydrated AF. So in honor of the new and improved facial toners of today, I bring you the 15 best toners for acne-prone skin and everything you should know about them, courtesy of the derms.
Meet the experts:
- Rachel Maiman: Maiman is a board-certified dermatologist at Marmur Medical in New York City. In addition to general dermatology, she is an expert in fillers, laser surgery, microneedling, and other cosmetic procedures.
- Annie Chiu: Chiu is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of The Derm Institute in Manhattan Beach. She specializes in non-invasive cosmetic dermatology and aesthetics.
Are toners good for acne?
First off, let’s clarify what a toner is to help make sense of why and how it can be helpful for acne. Chiu explains that a toner is a liquid that penetrates the skin quickly and hydrates and removes dead skin cells. “Toner formulations nowadays have been improved to target an array of skin concerns, such as skin inelasticity and excess oil that can lead to breakouts, depending on their ingredient profile,” adds Maiman.
More specifically, “toners are a great way to clean acne-prone skin of any lingering residue after cleansing, and prior to carrying forth with one’s skincare routine,” says Maiman. They can reduce pore-clogging dirt, debris, and makeup that a typical cleanser often leaves behind. Not only that, toners balance the skin’s pH level and help absorb the following products in one’s skincare routine more effectively, explains Chiu. That said, know that toners are a totally optional step in your skincare routine but are great in addressing and targeting many skincare concerns.
Which toner is best for acne?
The key to finding the best toner for acne is picking a formulation that contains AHAs (alpha hydroxy acid), BHAs (beta hydroxy acid), or the latest, most gentle addition to the bunch, PHAs (polyhydroxy acids). These are key ingredients in unclogging pores, clearing breakouts, and reducing blackheads.
Typically, AHAs work best for those with dry skin, BHAs should be used for those with oily skin, and people with super sensitive skin should stick to PHAs. To avoid dryness or irritation, an added humectant—a substance that attracts water like a magnet to the skin to promote hydration—paired with a chemical exfoliant is the perfect combo.
Ingredients to look for:
Examples include, but are not limited to—
How do you apply toner?
First of all, let’s address the most-asked questions: What order do I apply my skincare routine in? And, where does the toner fall in the routine?! And because (1) it’s confusing as f*ck, and (2) there’s a ton of misinformation, we’ve got an entire guide for that, don’t you worry. For sure check that out, but for now, I’ll give you a TL;DR: Toners should be used right after a thorough face wash, explains Maiman. (In fact, she even says that double cleansing can be helpful.)
“It is totally personal preference whether you apply the toner in your hands and tap it directly onto the skin, or dispense it on a cotton pad and gently disperse it,” she says. Maiman recommends applying toner both in the morning and night. To increase the powers of toner, wait five minutes after applying before continuing the rest of your skincare routine. This will prevent you from neutralizing the acids with other products before they get a chance to work.
Helpful tips and cautions to keep in mind:
- Avoid alcohol-based toners. They can strip the skin of its natural lipids and therefore cause your skin to be irritated and/or dry with use, explains Maiman.
- Start low and slow. “Incorporate the product only one time of day to begin, and only a few times per week. If no signs of irritation develop, that is your green light to slowly increase to everyday use,” she says. Once you have increased to everyday use, then you can slowly begin progressing to twice-daily use.
- If you use retinol at night, stick to applying toner for acne every other morning. This will prevent irritation and dryness.
The best toners for acne:
So if you’re ready to incorporate a toner into your skincare routine, these are the 15 best toners for acne that’ll help clear your skin without drying it out.
best overall toner for acne
Ole Henriksen Balancing Force Oil Control Toner
According to Maiman, this toner contains three hydroxy acids for a “powerhouse punch” at oil and acne. They work to “collectively exfoliate the skin, clear pores, and reduce sebum production,” while the witch hazel tightens pores and further reduces oil. But don’t worry about it drying your skin out—botanical oils like green tea, eucalyptus, algae, and Irish moss work to hydrate, mitigate irritation, and provide a boost of antioxidants, as Maiman explains.
Best everyday toner for acne
REN Clean Skincare Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Toner
I’m here to hype this baby wayyyy up, considering I use it religiously, and it legit has transformed my skin. Packed with AHAs including lactic acid and BHAs including willow bark, this toner not only reduces the appearance of pores while exfoliating your skin, but also leaves your skin glowy as hell. Pro tip: use it in the morning before makeup application, your products will go on like a breeeeze.
Best Affordable Toner for Acne
The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution
There’s nothing quite like a beauty product under 10 bucks that actually does its damn JOB and does it WELL. So say hello to The Ordinary’s Glycolic Acid Toner, a toner that will visibly give your skin that pretty glow thanks to the mild exfoliating solution. Use it once a day at night, and make sure you check out the brand’s regimen guide, so you know what products are safe to use together to avoid potential dryness and irritation beforehand.
Best acne toner for all skin types
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
Another one of Maiman’s recommendations is this toner, and I’m obsessed with it too. Sometimes, salicylic acid can cause skin dryness or irritation, however, “Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid mitigates this because of the included green tea, an antioxidant that soothes and minimizes irritation,” she says. So rest assured, your skin will clear up without the uncomfortable dryness and irritation often associated with acne products.
Best Acne Toner for Dark Spots
Rosen Skincare Tropics Toner
You’ve got a rich blend of ultra-moisturizing hyaluronic acid and pineapple extract—containing ample amounts of vitamin C—that work together to create this awesome dark-spot-correcting toner. Not only that, it’ll help to kick acne to the curb thanks to its ability to calm excess oil production and soothe textured skin.
Best Cult-Favorite Acne Toner
Biologique Recherche Lotion P50
Listen, no ‘best toner list’ would be complete without the cult favorite. If you’ve inhabited the beauty sphere, you’re well aware of the buzz behind this product, thanks to celeb hype-ups and literally everyone who has ever tried it. We did a deep dive on the Biologique Recherche Lotion P50, so if you want alllll the deets, check it out. For now, here’s the TL;DR: The P50 is a spinoff of the OG that doesn’t include phenol (a debated ingredient in skincare) and is great for those with oily skin, acne, or blackheads. If you have sensitive skin, you may want to skip this one, as it could cause irritation.
Best acne toner that reduces redness
Buttah Skin AHA/BHA Rosewater Toner
True story: I’m high-key obsessed with rose water. Not only does the yummy smell make me feel like I’m in a literal garden, but the beauty benefits are unreal. Rose water is packed with antibacterial properties that can lessen acne and anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce redness. To kick its acne-busting powers up a notch, this toner also includes AHAs and BHAs—you know, those exfoliating ingredients that’ll help to clear your skin of pimples.
Best Acne Toner That Will Leave Your Skin Glowy
Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow PHA +BHA Pore-Tight Toner
Packed with BHAs from willow bark, this toner works to unclog and decongest the skin. Thanks to the polyhydroxy acids that provide gentle exfoliation, the effects of the BHAs are amplified, explains Maiman. The skin glow you’ll get after using this toner is thanks to the added watermelon extract, which is hydrating and packed with vitamins and amino acids. “Finally, cactus water seals in moisture and prevents moisture loss while simultaneously delivering electrolytes and antioxidants,” says Maiman.
Best smoothing toner for acne
Glossier Solution Exfoliating Skin Perfector
Ahhh, Glossier, one of my fave skincare brands. Instead of harsh physical exfoliants—which can be quite irritating and less effective than chemical exfoliants—the Solution toner is filled with AHAs, BHAs, andddd PHAs. Which, quick refresh, are all chemical exfoliants that work to remove gunk from the top layer of your skin. Over time, your skin will feel oh-so-smooth and soft thanks to this concoction.
best hydrating toner for acne
Biossance Squalane + BHA Pore-Minimizing Toner
According to Chiu, this is a top toner for acne if you’re looking to clear up your skin. The product is “gentle yet pore-refining, which means it will calm inflammation without leaving your skin feeling tight or dry,” she says. Filled with natural BHAs thanks to the white willow bark extract and AHAs from the caviar lime extract, this toner will work its acne-busting magic. But my favorite part is the squalene, a hero hydrator that’ll give you the hydration of your dreams without the shine of a typical oil.
Best Toner for Acne and Blackheads
Caudalie Vinopure Natural Salicylic Acid Pore Minimizing Toner
If your goal is to wave buhhh bye to acne and even out your skin tone, Chiu suggests the Caudalie Vinopure Natural Salicylic Acid Pore Minimizing Toner. This vegan toner uses salicylic acid to exfoliate the skin while keeping it feeling smooth and soothed, thanks to the added grape and rose water. It’s also packed with antioxidants that work to limit sebum oxidation, which helps treat those pesky blackheads we all know and hate.
best clarifying toner for acne
Saturday Skin Pore Clarifying Toner
Glycolic acid is the hero ingredient of Saturday Skin’s Pore Clarifying Toner. To amp up the formulation’s acne-busting powers, the addition of witch hazel will balance the skin’s texture and tone. Don’t worry about your skin feeling tight and stripped—a humectant (AKA a substance that attracts water to the skin) called sodium PCA will keep your skin hydrated AF.
best soothing toner for acne
M-61 PowerGlow Toner
This v mild exfoliating toner uses a combo of glycolic and salicylic acid to exfoliate and rid your face of dead skin, oil, and bacteria. Thanks to vitamin B5—an ingredient that essentially “binds” water to the skin—your face will be left feeling noticeably soft. The best part? Formulated with a combination of aloe, lavender, and peppermint, this toner has a soothing and calming effect.
best luxury toner for acne
SK-II Facial Treatment Essence Pitera
Yeah, this bb ain’t cheap, but if you’re willing to spend a little extra $$$, you can experience the wonders of the luxury Japanese skincare line, SK-II. Jam-packed with vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and natural acids, this toner will leave your skin glowing. In addition, it will soften texture while targeting dark spots and fine lines. According to Chiu, this product also makes a great toner for acne-prone skin.
best milky toner for acne
Birch Milk Refining Toner
This K beauty product is a best-selling refining toner that is formulated with yummy hydrating ingredients. Made primarily of birch juice derived from the sap of birch trees, this milky toner is packed with minerals and antioxidants. The addition of squalane, glycerin, and sodium hyaluronate will hydrate the skin, while the AHAs and PHAs work to reduce fine lines and acne.
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