Oily skin is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you rarely experience dry, chapped skin, thanks to your pores’ ability to secrete oil. On the flip side, you dread flash photography because of how glossy your forehead is. You are more prone to clogged pores and acne, not to mention, the omnipresence of sebum caked across your face. OK, so maybe it’s easier to count the negatives than the benefits…
One thing you want to avoid with oily skin though, is parching your face of all that moisture. Doing this would first deplete your skin of nourishment and risk irritation while also triggering the skin to create even more sebum than before. The skin is intuitive, and it responds to moisture depletion by creating even more oil. So, when you have oily skin, the best way to temper it is with careful consideration—typically, this means lightweight, oil-free moisturizers, gentle foaming cleansers (perhaps with pore-clearing salicylic acid), and oil-balancing toners.
That last product—the toner—is the one that often raises eyebrows. What does a toner do, and how can it benefit someone with oily skin? The answer: It helps you in numerous, stress-saving ways. (And less stress means less acne, might we add). Read on for the benefits of toner, particularly for oily skin.
What toner does
Simply put, toner tones. Go figure. It balances the skin in two key ways. First, it tempers oil production without drying the skin out. Toner has the ability to refresh the skin (almost like a cleanser), but with hydrating and soothing ingredients. The skin remains hydrated and replenished, requiring no further production of sebum at this time.
Secondly, toner balances the skin’s pH levels. (This is why people with normal, combination, or dry skin can also use toner; it’s not solely for oily skin). Our skin is slightly acidic on the pH scale of 0-14; it’s 5.5, just left of a neutral 7. And all of the products we use have their own pH levels (as do all things in life, from water to chemicals). The closer to 0, the more acidic something is, and the closer to 14, the more alkaline it is. And the goal in skincare is to keep things as close to natural skin levels as possible (5.5, give or take).
Oily skin types tend to have lower levels (4.2-5), while drier skin types are usually above 5.5. So, when you wash your skin, it might dry things out, escalating the pH level. A toner, then, can bring it back to that natural 5.5 center. This can prevent irritation, rough texture, breakouts, and the like. It also calms the skin before applying serums or moisturizers, which effectively “set” the skin as the final step in any regimen. (To clarify, toner follows the cleanser, but precedes serums and moisturizers).
Many toning products will also work as on-the-go cleansers and moisturizers (particularly if sold as refreshing face wipes). However, if they are marketed as toners, then chances are they have these nourishing + refreshing + balancing powers contained within, as opposed to pure cleansers or hydrating pick-me-ups.
It is probably no surprise that toners often work effectively as post-shave agents too, given their soothing, pore-clearing, skin-balancing powers. Witch hazel, as outlined in the next section, is a terrific post-shave ingredient for this reason.
The best toner ingredients
One of the most important things is to use toning products free of alcohol. Toss out any astringents; these are far too over drying on skin, and will only trigger an overproduction of oil in response to the blanching they do.
Instead, look for witch hazel as a primary toning ingredient. It has the requisite oil-balancing, pH-harmonizing powers, while also soothing the skin much like aloe. (Witch hazel is calming on rashes, eczema, psoriasis, acne, sunburns, itches, etc.) It also helps expedite healing in hyperpigmentation, like the dark-spot aftermath of blemishes or sun spots.
Secondly, if you’re acne prone, then prioritize toners with pore-clearing ingredients like salicylic acid, or even surface-smoothing ones like glycolic acid and lactic acid. The first will clear out clogged pores (breaking down trapped skin cells, oil, and bacteria alike), while the others dissolve dead skin cells at the surface to prevent clogged pores and promote smooth, bright complexion.
Lastly, many toners will tout hydrating and fortifying ingredients, like hyaluronic acid and niacinamide, to ensure that skin stays soft, strong, and smooth.
When to use toner
Toner, in its simplest form, can be used multiple times daily. That is, if it’s just promising to balance oil and pH levels (with witch hazel, let’s say), then there isn’t a lot of risk in using it in the morning and night after each cleansing. (And midday, too, if you need a pick-me-up). However, you probably won’t need to deploy it so frequently, especially after continued use. Eventually, the skin should respond in kind and simply temper its oil production to a more balanced, tolerable level. At first, use it morning and night, after cleansing, and before moisturizing.
If your toner of choice packs more active, pore-clearing ingredients, like salicylic acid or lactic and glycolic acid, then you should consider using it once daily, at most. It depends on the strength of these particular ingredients, since the skin can only tolerate so much exfoliation in a short period of time. However, if the product is marketed as a toner, then chances are these ingredients are present in small, manageable quantities, making them safe for daily use. (Ultimately, read the instructions from the brand, then start slow and small to gauge how your own skin reacts).
Even if you don’t feel like you need toner on a daily basis, it’s great to have on hand for the days your skin feels dry or irritated, or to follow any one-off skin treatments. You’ll have it ready for any oily or dry spells, or as a post-shave product to calm razor-smooth skin. Similarly, it can be wise to carry toning wipes in your gym bag or running shorts for a quick, refreshing cleanse right after the sweat session. You can calm the stressed-out skin and keep pores clear of sweat and grime if you can’t immediately climb into the shower.
Not sure if you have acne-prone skin? Here’s how to figure out your skin type.