Basics Baby: The Toner Edition

Toners – are they a necessity in your skincare regime? Should you save the dollars on toners and get another liquid lipstick instead? And if you do need one, how do you go about choosing a good toner?

I’ve been dabbling with toners since I was 13. Went through brand after brand, drugstore to high end but never seemed to find that holy grail toner. Or even a decent toner for that matter. Toners I’ve used almost always irritated my skin and broke me out. I’ve even gone through few years here and there without the use of toners. But now, at the fine age of 30, I can finally say that I have found THE toner for me. Let me walk you through my toner journey…

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It all began with puberty. Yup, that adolescent phase where your hormones are raging and it shows up on your face as bumps and acne. I was in my early teens then, and the desire to be perfect and popular (oh, how naive) was taunted by imperfect skin. So I embarked on a mission to find the answer to my problem skin.

Due to the lack of internet resources (especially on beauty and skincare) back then, my only saviors were the beauty consultants at the department stores. It was all a blur, but I kind of remembered being sucked into the Clinique counter. Thanks to my pimply complexion, the lady jumped into her sales talk on products to combat my acne without going into any kind of diagnostic conversation with me. She introduced me to the 3-step skincare, which I remembered reading about in beauty and fashion magazines. That was the fateful day I was introduced to, and bought the Clinique Clarifying Lotion (their version of toner).

Clarifying Lotion 3

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Clinique Clarifying Lotion 3:

  • 24.00 USD for 13.5 fl oz
  • Alcohol is listed as the second ingredient – the amount is too much that it actually triggers oil production in your pores
  • Contains a high amount of witch hazel – renders the salicylic acid in this product ineffective and not to mention irritates the hell out of your skin
  • Includes ingredients meant for skin hydration and repairing BUT these benefits are cancelled out due to the overwhelming presence and effect of the first two
  • Designed for combination, oily skin


Traditionally, a toner is designed to give a final cleanse to your skin and reduce the appearance of your pores. Meant to be used after cleansing your skin, a toner is usually applied to the entire face with a cotton pad. You may see some deposits on the cotton pad, indicating the toner’s effectiveness at removing the last traces of dirt, oil or makeup from your face.

However, in achieving those aims, most toners contain ingredients that could be upsetting to skin. I do not speak for all, but for my own oily/combination and blemish-prone skin, toners that contain alcohol, menthol and astringents such as witch hazel have broken me out every single time. It is frustrating how these toners are not just ineffective at shrinking my pores, but cause damage to my complexion by breaking me out with nasty zits that eventually left me with regrettable acne scars.

That was what the Clinique Clarifying Lotion 3 did to my complexion. Immediately after application your face does feel clean. But it feels too squeaky clean and tight that it gets uncomfortable and you just know that it is sucking the soul out of your skin. Just a day after using it, small bumps began to appear on my forehead, cheeks and chin (yeah, pretty much the entire face). They developed into big, red, almost cystic like acne on my skin within the week. I thought it might be a little purging, so I continued using it for a full month (yeah, such misplaced tenacity). My skin became so bad, it was such a disaster. I stopped using the toner and the acne subsequently subsided. My skin returned to its original oily, blemish-prone condition.

I went a few years without toners. But I just couldn’t stand the idea of having an incomplete skincare regime. I’ve always felt my skin needed that touch of a toner after cleansing and before moisturizing (blame it on the OCD). So around my 20s, I braved myself to experiment with another toner. This time, I went in to the local drugstore, looked through a few different toners and finally decided on the Neutrogena Pore Refining Toner. I thought hey, since it’s a drugstore brand and cheaper, I won’t lose much monetarily if this does not work out for me. I seem to have forgotten that the real cost of these experiments is MY FACE and not so much the money.

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Neutrogena Pore Refining Toner:

  • 7.99 USD for 8.5 fl oz
  • Alcohol is listed as the second ingredient, stimulating oil production in pores
  • Contains witch hazel, a skin irritant
  • Includes peppermint and eucalyptus, both irritating to the skin


I was truly hoping for this to be a good toner, largely because the back of the packaging states that the product is non-comedogenic (won’t clog pores). In my 20s, I was a sucker for that claim. I presumed that all products with that claim is foolproof, acne-proof since acne is a result of clogged pores. Whereas my belief in that claim worked for some products that I used, it DID NOT for this toner. After using it for about 2 to 3 days, I noticed whiteheads and blackheads forming and soon enough they turned into full blown acne. Now thanks to my previous nightmare with the Clinique toner, I immediately stopped using this hell hole and dumped it into my trash. And once again, my skin recovered. Isn’t one horrifying, acne lesion filled lesson enough for me that I had to immerse myself in another one???

Unfortunately, most toners today still thrive on that same old irritable formula. (I guess it either works, or does not pose any adverse effects on people with less sensitive skin. But I do wonder about the long term effects on them.) However, a few brands actually carry toners that are not just gentle to sensitive skin, but are beneficial as well. And from this small pond have I managed to catch my fish.

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Paula’s Choice RESIST Weightless Advanced Repairing Toner:

  • 24.00 USD for 4 fl oz
  • Does not contain any alcohol, menthol, astringents (e.g. witch hazel), fragrance or any other known skin irritants
  • Key ingredients in order of appearance include (1) water; (2) glycerin meant for hydration and skin replenishing; (3) ethoxydiglycol meant for hydration; (4) niacinamide meant for skin-restoring; (5) acetyl glucosamine meant for hydration and skin replenishing; (6) willow bark extract for skin-soothing; (7) resveratrol, an anti-oxidant and (8) sodium hyaluronate meant for hydration and skin replenishing amongst other beneficial skin repairing ingredients
  • Works to improve skin tone, minimize pore size and improve visible signs of aging
  • Designed for normal, oily or combination skin


Having used this toner for almost a year now, I can safely and proudly proclaim this to be my holy grail toner. It is such a gentle, lightweight toner that essentially feels like water. But despite being so lightweight, it really works in providing me with some hydration. My skin do not feel tight after using this. It just feels supple and almost bouncy. I have had no adverse reaction to using this. Breakouts as a result of this toner – ZILCH! I’m not too sure about its claim of minimizing pores – I don’t think the amount of niacinamide in the toner is potent enough to cause a dramatic difference in pore size. But at least I feel safe knowing that it works to refine my pores, not producing an oil well in it. And it has definitely become part of my daily skincare regime, applying it day and night. It performs great under makeup too, providing skin with a good canvas before makeup.

I totally recommend the Paula’s Choice RESIST Weightless Advanced Repairing Toner to anyone out there who is struggling to find a good toner that does not irritate their skin or cause any breakouts. (FYI, there are also toners from this line that cater to other skin types e.g. dry skin)

So, in conclusion…

Toner 101

  • Avoid toners that contain alcohol, menthol, astringents (e.g. witch hazel), fragrance, peppermint, eucalyptus and other skin irritants especially if these ingredients feature as the first few in the product
  • The term non-comedogenic on toners does not necessarily mean that it will not cause any breakouts
  • Look for toners that contain skin hydrating/repairing/replenishing/soothing ingredients such as glycerin and sodium hyaluronate
  • If your toner makes your skin feel uncomfortably tight, and you subsequently notice bumps or any other irregularities appearing on your skin, STOP using that crap and trash it


Best of luck with your search for THE toner!




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