Intelligent Beauty

The truth about toners

For something that’s looooong been a part of our lexicon, ‘toner’ continues to baffle. What exactly is it? What’s micellar water for and what on earth’s an ‘essence’? If you’re at a loss as to which to use when, read our guide to deciphering which liquid’s which…

First up: toner. Originally used by facialists to sweep away remaining cleanser, grime and ‘bad’ bacteria to leave skin clean and prepped for treatments, toner doesn’t tone or ‘tighten’ pores (nothing ‘tightens’ pores) – it’s simply meant to gently melt the residue that hinders penetration of your serum, cream and so on.

However, this ‘traditional’ definition is now a bit dated, as ‘toner’ has become the umbrella term for several different liquids which do different things – yet often occupy the same ‘slot’ in your skin care ritual. A lot of things are labelled ‘toner’, ‘tonic’ and so forth – so how do you know which is actually make up remover and which is designed to replenish lost moisture and bolster skin’s barrier function? It’s a (toner) jungle out there – which is why we’ve decided to help set the record straight…

Micellar Water – for melting your make up

Micellar water is preeeeeetty clever stuff. Thanks to surfactants – dual-ended molecules which are part hydrophilic (water-loving) and partly attracted to oil – the oil-water hybrid boasts ‘balls’ (or micelles) of dirt-dissolving oil, suspended in a water to eliminate both oil and water-based make up without leaving skin feeling greasy. A favourite of French femmes (you’ll find this in most salles des bains), micellar water is often much softer than tap (hallelujah!) – removing mascara and post-commute grime… but its talents end there.

Try: Caudalie’s {Micellar Cleansing Water}, Verso’s {Micellar Water} and skyn ICELAND’s {Micellar Cleansing Water with Arctic Algae}

Rosewater – for sensitive or stressed-out skin

A post-cleansing step to replenish dry, stressed-out or easily-upset complexions, rosewater instantly calms and relieves inflammation. Inherently soothing and often in mist form to minimise ruffling delicate feathers, rose has a legion of healing and balancing benefits, making it perfect for sensitive, petal-esque skin types.

Try: fresh {Rose Deep Hydration Facial Toner}, rå oils {Rose Mist}, Pixi {Rose Tonic} and Oskia {Floral Water Pure Rose & MSM Toner}

Witch Hazel – for oily, congested or problem-prone skin

A natural astringent, witch hazel comes from a weird looking plant and is great if you’re prone to clogged pores. Rich in tannins (like red wine and tea) which behave like a sponge, this ‘mops up’ the oil to leave skin looking matte but, avoid overuse as this can cause an overproduction of oil as your skin tries to compensate. Not for reactive or drier skin types, use sparingly when you need to ‘reset’ your complexion. 

Try: Dr. Roebuck’s {Lifesaver Skin Brightening Toner}, Aesop’s {In Two Minds Facial Toner} or January Labs {Restorative Tonic Mist}

Acid Toner – for everyone

Titled ‘toner’ but not to be used à la rosewater, acid ‘toners’ melt the cells that compromise your glow – liberating healthy skin that’s trapped beneath a veil of grime and dulling surface scurf (yuk). Laced with AHAs and/or BHAs, these potions have resurfacing, brightening, pore-purging and collagen-stimulating properties, helping to keep your complexion clear, smooth and refined. Read all about them right {here}.

Try: Alpha-H {Liquid Gold}, Pixi {Glow Tonic}, Sarah Chapman {Liquid Facial Resurfacer} and THE INKEY LIST {Beta Hydroxy Acid}

Essence – for a moisture boost

It’s probably you’ve heard of ‘essence’ even if you’re yet to use one. As Derek Zoolander once said; ‘Water is the ESSENCE of wetness’ and well, he was right… sort of.

Hailing from the Far East, essences are a pivotal part of many Asian skin care rituals. Sitting halfway between toner and serum, these slippy elixirs are brimming with hydrating, soothing and anti-inflammatory extracts to help maintain moisture levels and support your skin’s barrier function – keeping ‘good stuff’ in and ‘bad stuff’ (pollutants etc.). out.

Try: Omorovicza’s {Omoressence}, Saturday Skin {Daily Dew Hydrating Essence Mist}, Shiseido {Bio-Performance Super Refining Essence} and fresh {Black Tea Kombucha Facial Treatment Essence}.


Verity Douglas

Verity Douglas

Content Editor

Verity is our Content Editor and a Cult Beauty veteran. Currently on maternity leave, raising Cult Beauty’s honorary ‘word nerd’, Tabitha, she speaks fluent ‘beauty’ and loves nothing more than the marriage of language and lip balm (and cleanser and candles… ad infinitum). Nothing can stop her from quoting Nancy Mitford, treating herself to yet another Bella Freud candle for her desk or buying that pilgrim-esque collared or heavily fringed outfit she’s been eyeing. You can trust her to debunk widespread beauty myths and dispense invaluable advice with ease…