“Rebalance the pH of your skin to bring the ease and calmness that you deserve.”
The toner is an essential but frequently left out step in most of our daily skin care routine. While the cleanser and moisturiser usually claim the seat of importance due to their clear skincare functions of cleaning and protecting, the toner does a less visible job of regulating the balance of the skin; its pH levels, pore size, sebum levels. Indeed, the benefits of toning may not be immediately obvious at a glance, or indeed even after months of usage, but daily toning could mean the difference between calmness or regular flare ups of your skin. Adding the toner to your routine could be the very step that tips the balance into ease and calmness of your skin. Read on to find out why.
The balancing act of the skin’s pH levels
Our skin’s surface is mildly acidic (1) and has an average pH of 5.5. There is a thin protective layer called the acid mantle that protects the skin from environmental stresses and fights infections. When this delicate balance of the skin’s pH is upset due to various internal and external factors such as food, smoking, lifestyle, pollution, sun damage, our skin’s ability to repair and protect itself becomes compromised (2). Here is where the toner comes in.
What’s the toner all about?
Unlike the straightforwardness of a cleanser’s function of cleaning, the toner’s function in a skin care routine is all about regulating our skin. This means we think of the toner’s function as a dial control knob that has the job of tuning up or down certain things like oiliness. In fact, it balances different things for different skin types; oiliness, dryness, acidity, tightness and pore sizes. When it comes to acne skin, the toner’s main job is twofold; first to regulate sebum production and second to shrink pore sizes.
Regulating sebum production
When the skin’s pH rises or falls below its natural pH of 5.5, it may start drying out. For example, washing with alkaline soaps gives a squeaky clean dryness that feels tight (3). The skin may produce a lot of oils to compensate for the dryness. This begins a cycle of excessive dryness and excessive oils. Various things such as sun and environmental exposure, smoking and health issues may also change the pH of the skin. Adding the right toner to your routine will help to restore your skin’s pH and bring balance back to the sebum production, which is the first manageable step in reducing acne.
Targeting acne causing bacteria
P.acnes is the main bacteria that is found on acneic skin. While certain skincare products kill off bacteria, it may be too harsh and drying for the skin. Natural botanicals such as tea tree oil, calendula and lavender have antibacterial properties and are great at combating bacteria while still retaining the skin’s natural moisture.
How to choose a suitable toner for acne skin?
The best kind of toner for acne skin contains some anti-bacterial botanicals and BHAs. Bonus for adult acne if it also contains hydrating ingredients such as Sodium PCA or Sodium Hyaluronate. While many skin care companies recommend using astringents for acne skin, the alcohol in the astringent may aggravate the already sensitised skin. Shifting the way we look at our skincare from a targeted purpose to an overall balance, it becomes about choosing ingredients that regulate and bring balance to the skin as an organic whole, rather than as a focused result.
Anti-bacterial botanicals - Certain natural extracts such as Tea Tree oil (melaleuca oil), Calendula, Chamomile, Lavender and Rosemary have anti-inflammatory properties that can target acne causing bacteria without unbalancing the skin’s pH too much.
BHAs - The ideal BHA for acne skin is salicylic acid. Look for toners that contain between 1 - 2% salicylic acid. When applied, it helps to slough off the top layer of dead skin cells, unclogging pores and preventing bacteria build-up in the skin.
- Hydrating ingredients - Sodium PCA or Sodium hyaluronate (aka Hyaluronic acid) is a great addition especially for adult acne skin that tends to be dry and oily at the same time. Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring compound in our skin but easily depleted by environmental damage. Applying this can gently hydrate and interrupt the excessive dry and oily cycle of the skin, keeping it in healthy balance. Arnica is also a good hydrating ingredient.
Choose a toner that contains some ingredients in at least 2 out of the 3 categories above. Dermalogica’s Multi Active Toner, PCA Skin Smoothing Toner and Obagi Nu-Derm Toner are all great additions for your acne skin. Dermalogica’s Clear Start All Over Clear Toner contains 1% salicylic acid.
Ingredient to avoid - Alcohol. Avoid 100%. As acne skin tends to be agitated, red and inflamed, alcohol is not suitable as it will aggravate the skin and strip off the moisture. Avoid all toners that contain alcohol as it will upset the balance of your skin’s pH even further than it already is. Types of alcohol to avoid are SD alcohol, denatured alcohol or isopropyl alcohol. Other forms of alcohol such as cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl alcohol are beneficial for dryness and are okay in small amounts for keeping the stability of the products.
Spray or cotton wool; how best to apply toner for acne?
Using cotton wool can help one remove residue that collects on your face during the day. This may be useful if you use makeup, sunscreen or have an active lifestyle. The cotton wool can gently clean off the residue that your cleanser couldn’t pick up. However for the rest who seldom apply make-up and have a regular office lifestyle, using a spray is sufficient.
When to apply acne toner?
Your toner is a part of your skincare routine and should be applied consistently both day and night; right after you cleanse and before you apply your serums and moisturiser. Consistent toning calms the skin and breaks the excessive dry/oily cycle. It tells your skin that things will be okay because you are caring for it in a way that it needs; not too much, not too little. In that way, you are teaching it to respond calmly every day and every moment, rather than react in inflammation.
Having acne skin is understandably one of the most challenging skin conditions that seem hard to heal. However, it doesn’t have to be that difficult. Acne skin is not something to be solved, rather, it is about shifting the overall way we approach our skin from one of “fixing” to one of balancing. With small changes in habits and mindset, perhaps we can begin a new healing journey towards a clearer and scar-free skin.