Plus the 10 most popular formulas on the market right now.
Proper pH is integral to your skin’s overall health. It impacts everything from the optimal functioning of the skin barrier to maintaining an appropriate environment for the skin’s microbiome (which is full of beneficial bacteria) to thrive. Because most cleansers increase the skin’s pH to above 6 (which is roughly the average for most people), restoring the skin’s ideal level of acidity typically means reaching for a toner. And now, exfoliating toners are all the rage for their ability to brighten the skin, fade hyperpigmentation, clear breakouts, and purify the pores.
Exfoliating toners contain active ingredients to slough away dead cells via enzymes (often fruit-derived from papaya, pumpkin, and pineapple) or chemical acids (i.e., alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs; beta hydroxy acids, or BHAs; and poly hydroxy acids, or PHAs). These components serve to remove dulling cells and excess sebum with the potential to unclog pores from the surface of the skin, promote cell turnover, and bring the skin’s pH to its ideal surface level of acidity, which research identifies as being at or below 5.
“The best exfoliating toners contain alpha, beta, or poly hydroxy acids that gently smooth out the surface of the skin by promoting cell turnover, cut through oil and bacteria in the pores, and resurface the skin,” explains board-certified dermatologist Corey L. Hartman, founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology.
Exfoliating Toners: What to Look For
It’s possible that you’ve already heard about the beauty industry’s most-beloved toner: Biologique Recherche Lotion P50. It is available in different formulations for different skin requirements — Lotion P50W is for sensitive skin, Lotion P50 PIGM400 is for hyperpigmentation, Lotion P50V possesses anti-aging benefits — the list goes on. “It is pretty hard to beat,” Dr. Hartman says. “The secret lies in its ability to balance the skin’s pH and lipid levels [in order] to optimize epidermal penetration. It covers all of the bases.”
While the experts agree that Lotion P50 is a cult-favorite for a reason (and has been since the original formula launched in 1970) there are luckily now many more formulas on the market to chose from, at a variety of price points. Choosing the right one all depends on your skin’s needs and sensitivities.
“A great exfoliating toner has the right [proportions of] exfoliating agents so as not to irritate or sensitize the skin,” explains Krupa Koestline, cosmetic biochemist and founder at KKT Consultants. You’ll also want a formula that performs its function gently enough to preserve the integrity of the skin’s components. “An ideal toner balances the oil and skin barrier, and does not cause complete depletion of all the skin’s lipids,” says Dr. Hartman.
He notes that in some cases, astringent toners containing witch hazel or alcohol can be counterproductive to oily skin, stripping away too much oil and actually triggering a rebound in oiliness. “If a tingling, burning, tight or excessively dry feeling is present after using the toner, then it could be too strong or contain active ingredients that are too harsh.”
Exfoliating Toners: Match Your Acid To Your Skin Concern
If you’re still not sure which exfoliating toner is right for you, TZR’s experts recommend selecting ingredients to suit your skin type (i.e., normal, oily, dry, sensitive) and concerns (i.e., breakouts, dryness, redness, sensitivity, pigmentation).
“For oily and acne-prone skin, salicylic acid is a great choice,” says NY-based, board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD, of the anti-inflammatory BHA, which can reduce blackheads, whiteheads, pimples and milia. “Salicylic acid is an excellent comedolytic, or pore-cleaning, ingredient because it exfoliates the stratum corneum (i.e., the surface of the skin) and penetrates into pores to remove sebum.”
Dr. King also suggests AHAs, such as glycolic and lactic acids, for smoothing out rough texture on your skin. “The difference is that while AHAs are water-soluble and work on the surface of the skin, BHAs are oil-soluble so they can penetrate into pores,” she explains. Boston-based, board certified dermatologist Ranella Hirsch, founder of Atolla, is a fan of combining AHAs and BHAs — namely, lactic and salicylic acids. “Then you are targeting both the shallow and the deep [sources] of oil and sticky cells,” she tells TZR.
SENSITIVITY / DRYNESS
If you have sensitive skin, PHAs — or polyhydroxy acids such as gluconolactone — are known for their gentleness and efficacy. “PHAs are larger molecules that stay on the surface of the skin, [helping to] exfoliate skin cells from the outermost layer, [stimulating] collagen production, [restoring] the skin’s moisture barrier, and preventing glycation [the breakdown of collagen and elastin],” Koestline says. This makes them great for sensitive, rosacea-prone, or eczema-prone skin.
BHAs are also considered appropriate for sensitive skin due to their anti-inflammatory, skin-calming properties, and non-photosensitizing nature. “They are gentle enough even for skin that is prone to redness and rosacea,” Dr. King says.
When it comes to dryness, which often comes with skin sensitivity, Dr. Hirsch is a big fan of lactic acid, citing its ability to pull in hydration from the outer skin layer. “Lactic acid is unique as an AHA because it also has humectant properties,” explains Dr. King. “Because it can hydrate while it exfoliates, this is a good ingredient by itself for treating dry skin, as well as a good ingredient to combine with other alpha hydroxy acids when treating dry skin.”
Dr. King looks to AHAs for normal to dry, sun-damaged skin because they are proven effective in reducing the appearance of sun damage like hyper-pigmentation and dark spots. Dr. Hirsch points out that highly-researched glycolic acid is her go-to for anyone seeking a retinol — or vitamin A-alternative — without losing out on brightening ability.
When it comes to darker skin tones, Hirsch recommends mandelic acid. “[It] has shown a lot of potential as the go-to acid for hyperpigmentation on darker skin tones,” Koestline advises. “It has a low pKa value, which means it is much less irritating than glycolic acid.” She goes on to explain that a 2009 study showed that a combination of salicylic and mandelic acids — in other words, a BHA and an AHA — were more effective than glycolic acid on active acne and post-acne hyperpigmentation on melanin-rich skin tones.
She also cites aldobionic acid (ABA) as an AHA alternative for darker skin tones with hyperpigmentation concerns. “ABA offers effective skin renewal without side effects [like worsening hyperpigmentation], moisturization and humectancy benefits, and can be more suitable for darker skin types than AHAs,” Koestline says. “One of my favorite is lactobionic acid which also increases firmness, thickness, and texture. It is also milder with low irritation potential, making it great for regular use.”
Exfoliating Toners: How Often to Use Them
If you’re wondering how often to use an exfoliating toner, Dr. Ranella says, “As a general rule of thumb, less than you think, and less than most labels say.” On average, the experts recommend that oily skin types use exfoliating toners one-to-three times per week, and just once or twice per week for normal skin. If you have dry, sensitive skin, you may only require use once a week or every other week.
All of the experts stressed that over-using exfoliating toners, no matter your skin type, is counter-productive. Koestline shares that when highly acidic AHA toners are used daily, they can cause damage to the skin’s microbiome, disrupt your natural skin barrier, and make your skin dry and dehydrated — all of which can exacerbate pigmentation, sun damage, and inflammation. “I would recommend using products with AHA and BHA combinations at low concentrations in order to see results without harmful side effects,” she says. When in doubt, start with once or twice per week and see how your skin reacts.
Exfoliating Toners: Can They Be Used With Other Active Ingredients?
Be especially wary of layering exfoliating toners in conjunction with ingredients like retinol and niacinamide. Dr. Ranella is adamant that combining retinol — which also speeds up cellular turnover — with an exfoliating toner risks damaging the skin. “Even if you can tolerate both in your regimen, I don’t recommend it,” Dr. King adds, pointing out that certain retinoids can actually be deactivated in the presence of exfoliating acids.
“Acid [toners] should also not be used at the same time as niacinamide [serums],” Dr. King says. The reason why comes down to pH: niacinamide has a pH of 5-7, while acids have pHs of roughly 3-4. When they are formulated in the same product, the toner has been pH balanced; applied separately, it has not. “The higher the pH, the less AHA gets absorbed by the skin. When the pH of niacinamide gets lowered, it gets converted into niacin, another form of vitamin B3 which can cause flushing and redness,” Dr. King adds. For maximum benefit, it is best to apply them at different times of the day, on alternating days (or at least 30 minutes apart).
When starting an exfoliating toner, it’s possible you might experience some skin purging (i.e., breakouts), as any other product that speeds up cell turnover (most notably, retinol) and brings burgeoning acne to the surface. Dr. King points out that it is also common to experience a little dryness and peeling at first. If these symptoms happen to you, keep the other elements of your regimen gentle, and be patient for four to six weeks. “A full skin cycle is 28 days and that’s a normal amount of time for this process to take,” Dr. King adds. “If the purge lasts longer than six weeks, consult your dermatologist.”