Cleanse, tone, moisturise.
The "3-step routine" that one particular white-lab-coat-wearing brand has made famous. It feels like the toner is a misunderstood step in our routines, or perhaps an afterthought.
It can go by many names - a fact mist, an essence, a 'balancing' spray, hydration spray, a floral spritz or an astringent, and you probably have at least one or two of these in your bathroom cabinet (even if you don't reach for them regularly).
Back in the day, it felt totally right to purchase your full skincare routine from the same brand, after all, it would all "work in sync", right? Nowadays, we are so much more informed about what we are putting on our skin - brands understand that are just part of our curated collections and although you'll find die-hard brand devotees, you're more likely to mingle your Natio with your Ere Perez.
But back to the toner, the fancy fluid, the wonderful watery, something (you get the idea). Some toners are marketed to be packed with additional vitamins, so you spritz them on or swipe them over your skin with a cotton round after cleansing, and you've got an added boost of skin-soothers or hydration to amplify the effects of your night cream or serum.
Now, do we NEED one? Well, we probably don't need a lot of the skincare we use - but when it comes to toners, there's something about them that can seem extra superfluous. Essences have been at the core of Korean and Japanese beauty routines for a long time - think of them as a more liquid serum, meant to benefit your skin in a multitude of ways. I've been working my way through the I'm From Mugwort Essence - Mugwort is everywhere now, and it's a nice anti-inflammatory herb - and I like it, but I don't know whether I would like it more than another water-based mist or toner.
Essences or toners that impact some skin-aiding ingredients are worthwhile, I think, for the kind of person that has oilier skin and needs a light finish (e.g. you're the person who cringes at a creamy pot of moisturiser), or you LOVE to layer - the more the merrier and you're not complete with your skincare until you've added 2-3 layers of toner, a serum, moisturiser and then sealed it in with an oil.
What is clear is that products will absorb better onto to damp skin, so if you splash on some toner after cleansing and press in your follow-up products, you should get more out of your moisturiser or serum. This is a great, simple summary of damp vs dry skin, and like we've mentioned before on the blog, trapping in that moisture with an occlusive will help minimise transepidermal water loss. Of course, it doesn't HAVE to be a separate product, it could just be a spritzer of water that you refresh, or good ol' fashioned splashed from the tap.
One toner that I have taken to (which isn't really marketed as a toner at all) is the Tower28 S.O.S Facial Spray (standing for Save Our Skin). This stuff smells like straight-up pool water, but it's fantastic, with the hero ingredient being hypochlorous acid.
"Hypochlorous acid...a naturally occurring molecule that is a component of the human innate immune response, is recognized as a major active component of bleach and demonstrates antimicrobial properties supported by both in-vitro and in-vivo studies."
Don't be put off by the word "bleach" in the journal sample above - this ingredient is commonly used in wound-healing, the kind of thing you're more likely to find at a hospital than a Sephora, but it's anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and soothing. I would say not everyone will take to this product because of the chlorine-scent, it's not a spa-experience, but it really works.
I had a nasty moment with an azelaic acid topical where my whole face fired up like a tomato (of course, this ingredient is meant to reduce redness, but it's still an acid), and this really helped to calm it down. It's the kind of product you can use when you want NOTHING ELSE TOUCHING YOUR SKIN, and when even your mainstay products are causing a reaction. Or maybe after a day in the sun if you haven't applied enough SPF, or after the gym if you don't have time for a full cleanse.
At the end of the day, I like a product that has a purpose, and one that is treating your skin to some R&R, and this totally fits the bill. Because our faces deserve more than just overpriced fancy floral water!