woman looking in mirror applying skin treatment

What Skin Toner Does And Why You Should Care

Is skin toner worth it? The short answer is definitely. The longer answer is it depends on your skin concerns, toner formula and other products in your treatment. Skin toner is multifunctional. Use toner after facial cleanser to gently lift lingering oil and dirt on your face and in pores. Along with the cleaning action, toner will deposit moisturizing and skin-calming ingredients.

There's even more motivation. Skin toner helps balance skin pH and keep the acid mantle healthy. That's no small feat. According to studies, those benefits alone defend against chronic skin conditions and visible signs of aging.1,2

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What Are The Benefits Of Skin Toners?

How Do I Use Toner?

After using your skin cleanser and drying your face, soak a cotton ball or pad with toner. Then, gently apply a thin layer to your skin from the T zone outward. Do not rub. Let the toner dry before you move on to other steps.

Toners Help Your Skin Treatment Work!

Skin toners keep your skin hydrated by creating the ideal environment for them to do their job. Hydration maintains skin plasticity, enables shedding of dead skin (desquamation)3 and epidermis permeability.3,4

Applying other skin products without prepping your face with toner could be hindering their effects or even countering them. That's wasting money and possibly making your skin worse.

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Here's just one example: You cleanse your skin and then apply moisturizer. Your skin feels hydrated at first, but within minutes or an hour, it feels dry. What do you do? Apply more of the same moisturizer or a different type of moisturizer? Don't do anything and let your skin stay dry? None of those is a great choice.

Whether you're dry or oily, the goal of cleansing is to remove impurities and excess oil that have built up throughout the day. After cleansing, you expect your skin to feel a little dry. That's why you moisturize!

Don't Let Your Moisturizer Disappear Into "Thin Air"

If you skin pH and acid mantle are off, natural moisture or any that you apply will evaporate.3 Dry skin tends to produce more oil, which creates a vicious cycle of cleansing, then fruitlessly moisturizing or over doing it. 

Besides making your skin feel heavy, it can clog pores. In frustration, some people will start from scratch, cleanse again and then use the same moisturizer or try another. How frustrating! Plus, mixing moisturizers can upset your acid mantle. 

How Skin Hydration Works

The body produces its own substances to keep the outermost layer of the skin, the stratum corneum, hydrated. They are called Natural Moisturizing Factor (NMF). Poor nutrition, advancing age, skin conditions, skin pH that is too high or too low and an unhealthy acid mantle hinder synthesis and effectiveness of NMFs. Skincare formulas often contain man-made and plant-based versions of NMFs and synthetic substances that accomplish the same goal. When they don't work it's mostly because they can't enter the epidermis.

Humectants, Emollients And Occlusives Explained

  • Humectants draw water from within the skin and the atmosphere and bind it to multiple layers of the skin. Aloe vera juice and allantoin are plant-based humectants and honey is animal based. Examples of NMFs are hyaluronic acid, glycerol, ureas, allantoin and pyrrolidone carboxylic acid (PCA). 
  • Occlusives form a physical barrier on the skin to protect it from harmful substances and seal in moisture. Mineral oil, petroleum jelly, zinc, coconut oil and gamma-llinoleic (omega-6) fatty acid and alpha-linolenic (omega-3) acid. (found in hemp seed oil) are occlusives. The body makes some occlusives such as ceramides and palmitoylethanolamide by breaking down carbohydrates into fat.
  • Emollients also have occlusive properties but it is not their key function. Emollients mainly fill cracks and build up thin areas of the skin for a smooth and soft touch. Apricot kernel oil, oat amino acids, shea butter, avocado oil, and hemp seed oil are plant-based emollients. NMF emollients are lipid rich and include squalene* and sebum.

What you use on your skin and how you use it are equally important.

Obagi C Rx C-SystemToners Enhance Skin Absorption

The skin has 3 layers, the epidermis, dermis and subcutaneous layer. The epidermis is your strongest layer. It is actually composed of three layers. That's why you may sometimes read that the skin has 7 layers. Confusion cleared up ... just like your face could be if you make toner a staple in your skincare regimen.

Specialized skin treatments work at different levels of the skin. Toners helps them arrive at their destination.

  • Retinoids must reach the basal layer of the epidermis to stimulate new skin cell growth.
  • Hydroquinone inhibits melanocyte activity also at the basal level.
  • Hyaluronic acid is essential for the production of collagen which takes place in the dermis.7
  • Vitamin C promotes healing and skin cell proliferation at the basal layer,8 and like hydroquinone, inhibits pigment production in the basal layer.8

All this talk about the acid mantle and skin pH. What are they?

The acid mantle is a protective film located on the stratum corneum of the epidermis. It's composed of sebum with lactic and amino acids produced by sweat.

pH is a scale from 0-14 used to measure the acidity and alkalinity of a solution. pH stands for power (as in mathematical exponents. Remember middle school math?) A substance with a higher "power" of hydrogen is more alkaline. Substances with fewer ions are lower on the scale and more acidic.

What Does The Acid Mantle Do?

Functions of the skin include temperature regulation, physical protection and immune defense. It's also the largest gateway between the internal and external. Most of the interaction is possible due to the permeable and protective mechanisms of the epidermis.1 Although it's not as strong or complex as the epidermis, the acid mantle helps ensure healthy epidermal activity which influences:

  • Growth and preservation of elastin
  • Synthesis and maintenance of collagen
  • Balance of bacteria and fungi
  • Pathogen defense
  • Sebum production
  • Life cycle of skin cells including:
    • Keratinocyte, which comprise 90% of the skin's outer layer
    • Melanocyte, pigment-producing cells
    • Langerhans, a major player in the body's adaptive immune system5
    • Merkel, touch-sensitive cells

Illustration of the skin's acid mantle

Why Is Skin pH Important?

Nearly everything that touches your skin and much of what you eat and do impacts your skin's pH. Healthy skin has a pH of about 4.6-5.6, which is slightly acidic.

Overly alkaline skin is dry and susceptible to inflammation, irritation, fine lines and wrinkles.1,6 Bacteria, like p. acnes, thrive in alkaline environments.1 Highly acidic skin is usually oily.1 Excess oil can clog hair follicles and trap bacteria leading to acne and other conditions.

How Do I Choose A Toner?

Key ingredients to look for when choosing a toner:

  • Gentle astringents such as witch hazel and borage extract to prevent inflammation.
  • Sage leaf extract, a natural antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and pigment inhibitor.
  • Humectants like glycerin, Sodium PCA and aloe vera.
  • Allantoin, another humectant, that helps prevent dead skin cells from sticking to the face.
  • Sodium lauroyl oat amino acids, a safe surfactant that helps pull dirt and oil from the skin.
  • Plant-based emollients like squalane* that soften and soothe skin without increasing sebum production.


Did you know? The body is 70% water and the skin is the largest organ. Getting enough water and retaining it are systemically essential!


1. Lee SH, et al. An update of the defensive barrier function of skin. Yonsei Med J. 2006;47(3):293-306.doi.org/10.3349/ymj.2006.47.3.293  (https://eymj.org/DOIx.php?id=10.3349/ymj.2006.47.3.293)

2.Jackson. SM, et al. Pathobiology of the stratum corneum. West J Med. 1993;158(3):279-285. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1311754/

3. Purnamawati S, et a. The Role of Moisturizers in Addressing Various Kinds of Dermatitis: A Review. Clin Med Res. 2017;15(3-4):75-87. doi:10.3121/cmr.2017.1363

4. Björklund, S. et al. Glycerol and urea can be used to increase skin permeability in reduced hydration conditions
European Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Volume 50, Issue 5, 2013, Pages 638-645, doi:10.3390/jcm4050970

5. Seneschal, J. et al Human Epidermal Langerhans Cells Maintain Immune Homeostasis in Skin by Activating Skin Resident Regulatory T Cells, Immunity, Volume 36, Issue 5, 2012, Pages 873-884, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.immuni.2012.03.018. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1074761312001768)

6. Panther D, J.S. et al. The Importance of Acidification in Atopic Eczema: An Underexplored Avenue for Treatment. J Clin Med. 2015;4(5):970-978. doi:10.3390/jcm4050970 (https://www.mdpi.com/2077-0383/4/5/970)

7.Papakonstantinou, et al. Hyaluronic acid: A key molecule in skin aging. Dermatoendocrinol. 2012;4(3):253-258. doi:10.4161/derm.21923 (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.4161/derm.21923)

8. Pullar JM, et al. The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health. Nutrients. 2017;9(8):866. Published 2017 Aug 12. doi:10.3390/nu9080866 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579659/)

*Differentiates two different spellings. Endogenous squalene is spelled with an "e". When from other sources, it's spelled "squalane."

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