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SKIN CARE 101: Toner

February 05, 2021 Charlotte Cho

Been getting lots of questions about toners. They really set the tone for the rest of your skin care routine (bad but relevant pun), so let's talk about them.

What's the deal with toner??

What I used to think about toners before living in Korea: An expensive bottle of water that makes my skin feel so dry and tight that it stings! How to use: dispense toner onto cotton pad and swipe at your face until you see brown and/or gray streaks (impurities, dirt, makeup, etc.) on the cotton pad. Effect: cleans your face and resets your pH balance. 

What I now think about toners after living in Korea: A well formulated toner is a bottle of hydration goodness that sets the foundation for my other skin care products. How to use: No cotton pad necessary. Just sprinkle it in my hands and gently tap it all over until my skin soaks it up. Effect: My skin feels soft and supple after one use -- far from dry and tight. Do this immediately after you cleanse your face because toner's probably the lightest formula in your routine. You want to use your products in order of their consistency. For the most effective absorption and reaping all the benefits of your products, start with the thinnest formula first and work your way up to the thickest and creamiest.

So what are "toners"? Traditionally in the West, toners are used after cleansing to reset the pH balance of your skin after using an alkaline cleanser (a pH of 8-9) so that the skin can revert back to the normal/healthy slightly acidic pH of 4-5 (more on pH here). Many also are meant to remove any additional residue or debris from the face, so if you see a dirty brown streak on your cotton pad, that means it's working. This notion is beginning to change, especially as Korean philosophies pick up steam here.

Why would cosmetic companies make cleansers alkaline anyway? A lot of people used to think alkaline cleansers were more effective at cleansing, but with new advances in skin care formulations, many cleansers are now effective without being too alkaline. Thank you, R&D people!

In Korea, they refrain from using the word toner. They’re often called “refreshers,” “skin softener,” and simply “skin.” I applaud this choice -- the word toner sounds utterly tedious and mundane.

When I met and interviewed Paul Kang, Senior Vice President of Amore Pacific skincare research, (out of excitement I was squealing inside but maintained the appearance of utmost professionalism throughout -- I think) he told me that the use of “skin” really lays the foundation for the rest of your skin care routine.

Using a “refresher,” or “skin softener” does reset your pH balance and cleanse to some extent, he said, but very gently, and that’s honestly not the most important function any way.

First, it delivers much needed nutrients. According to Paul, your skin is naturally in a more fragile condition after a cleanse, so delivering nutrients like antioxidants and amino acids will swoop in to protect it.

Second, it preps your skin for the rest of your skin care routine. Let me help you visualize. If your skin is like a dried up sponge, when you add liquid on top, will the sponge soak it up? Maybe after a long binge session of House of Cards Season 3, but it’ll take a lot longer to absorb. However, if the sponge is damp and you put on the same liquid, it will absorb much, much faster. Your deeply hydrated skin just made everything more efficient!

To all you oily skin types that think hydration is not meant for you: As an esthetician-in-training, I see that almost every client who walks in the door for a treatment is dealing with dehydrated skin, whether their skin type is oily or dry. Dehydration means lack of moisture (water) in the skin (not oil!), so don’t shy away! The dry and tight feeling after toner sounds appealing (like you’ve beaten your oily skin into submission for a short while) but is not always the best answer. 

Korean products from cleansers to sleeping packs (and even makeup) focus on hydration, cooling and moisturizing. I’m seeing more and more Western companies jumping on board with toners that are not astringent, and instead focusing on these elements too: I was floored when several product managers of very prominent Western cosmetic companies came out to the #UOxSokoglam event and told me that they are using Korean beauty tenets as inspiration for future lines, and even using my blog posts as a means to get that inspiration. 

To all you readers, whether you are in the cosmetics industry or just discovering skin care and beauty for the first time, thank you so much for listening. Your skin will thank you too!

Share your toner/skin/refresher recommendations and skin stories below! 

xx charlotte

P.S. I've written mini reviews of the toners curated on Soko Glam. Check them out here. Have any others that you're loving? Feel free to bulk up the list and add your own review in the post's comments. 

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About Charlotte

Soko Glam co-founder and chief curator. Licensed esthetician sharing the love of all things K-beauty.

About Sokoglam

Bringing the best in Korean skin care, beauty, and culture Stateside since 2012. Discover, shop, and learn with us.