The trouble with toners (and why you shouldn’t use a range that contains one)

Cleanse, tone, moisturise; it’s been the skincare mantra of women for decades. You probably learned it from your mother, who learned it from her mother. You may have a vague idea of what toners are for; to tighten pores or remove cleanser residue. You might even use one every day. However, in an age where skincare has met scientific developments we need to ask ourselves; are toners really necessary? 


The answer lies in looking at the history of skincare and how it developed. Back in the 1930’s when skincare products were widely available for the first time, running water tended to be limited to kitchens and women’s beauty routines were carried out at vanity units in bedrooms. Cleansers were rich, cream based affairs and toners were a necessity to remove the excess and prepare the skin before applying moisturiser. 

As skincare developed and became more sophisticated, various types of toners were developed to help restore the skin’s pH to normal after cleansing, depending on skin type. Drier skins needed more moisture to help provide hydration, while oilier skins needed more astringent toners to remove excess oil. Not only did toners become part and parcel of all skin care routines they became a staple of beauty salons as they helped remove any excess product applied during treatment facials.

While an argument can be made to continue using toners in salon settings where a series of treatments are applied in close succession, the increased use of foaming cleansers has reduced their need as part of a daily routine. By looking at the ingredients in toners, we can see why this is the case. 


Most toners contain alcohol or alcohol-like ingredients that have astringent properties. Historically this arose because traditional cream cleansers and cleansing soaps would leave a residue on the skin that the alcohol would dissolve. This residue often contained alkaline ingredients such as lye from soap, or the borax found in cold cream, that would disrupt the acid mantle of the skin. As a consequence, toners helped to remove this alkaline build up and restore the skin’s pH balance.

While alcohol was effective in removing this residue, it could also be too harsh and end up leaving the skin dry. Witch hazel, a natural extract with antiseptic and astringent properties, in use in traditional medicine for centuries, was found to be an effective alternative. Used as a treatment for acne before modern compounds were developed, it was an ideal toner for those with oily skin. However, it was the byproduct of distilling rose essential oil, used in perfume and moisturiser, that was the most popular and enduring form of toner.

Easy to manufacture and inexpensive to buy, Rosewater became the staple of most beauty regimes. Less astringent than Witch hazel, it was marketed as ideal for drier or normal skin to remove the residue left behind by soap or cream cleansers before moisturising. However, the clue in Rosewater’s popularity and effectiveness lies in the name. With water as its main ingredient, its biggest selling point was it came in a nice bottle that conveniently sat on top of a vanity unit. 

The Science of Skincare

Apart from their functional use in the early days of skin care, there is no doubt that toners traditionally represent a large revenue stream for skin care manufacturers. It stands to reason that if you buy a cleanser from a particular range, you are more likely to buy a toner too, especially if it is recommended by the manufacturer as part of a beauty regime. Cleansers were often marketed as products which opened pores in order to remove dirt and clean deep down, while toners were promoted as a way of closing the pores up again following this. In this way, they ‘toned’ the skin, hence the name, and it made them easier to sell together.

What actually happens is that astringents reduce the appearance of pores by swelling the mouth of the hair follicle. As this is a temporary state and not measurable, these claims are no longer allowed under the Therapeutic Goods Act. In fact, the use of the term ‘toning’ is now considered misleading as it is associated with muscle tone and toners do not tone muscles!

The reality is that developments in skincare over the last thirty years or so have almost rendered toners obsolete. A greater understanding of how the skin’s acid mantle functions, coupled with the ability to manufacture cleansers that promote the natural pH level of skin, means that toning has become an unnecessary and outdated step in daily skincare routines. 

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that skincare ranges that include a toner are essentially admitting their cleanser isn’t up to the job. Not only are you paying for a product that isn’t living up to its hype you’re also being asked to buy a second one you neither need nor want. To ensure you get real value for money, invest in a cleanser that actually removes your make up and balances the pH of your skin. Using griffin+row’s Cleanse skin cleanser means you can ditch the extra expense and your skin will reap the benefits.