Do You Need an Acne Toner?

Call them toners, astringents, or clarifiers, every skincare line has them. They're especially popular for those with oily and acne-prone skin. But will using a toner clear up your acne?

A woman cleaning her face
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What Is a Toner?

First, let's clarify what a toner is and why it's used. Toners are liquid solutions that are applied to the skin with a cotton ball or pad. You use them just after cleansing and before treatment and moisturizing. Toners can help remove traces of dirt, makeup, cleanser residue, and excess oil.

Can Toner Clear Acne?

Toner can help improve minor breakouts and blemishes, but it alone won't clear up a persistent case of acne.

If you have just a few blemishes here and there, and they're very mild, a toner might be just enough to keep those pesky breakouts at bay. That is, provided the toner you're using contains an acne-fighting ingredient like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. 

Products with these ingredients help keep pores clear and prevent blackheads and minor pimples from forming. Toners are good preventatives for those occasional bumps and blemishes that pop up, too.

If you have more than just a few random pimples and blackheads, toner alone isn't going to be enough to clear up your skin. They're just not powerful enough to clear up persistent or stubborn acne.

In this case, you'd be better off using a more effective acne treatment product. Over the counter, your best bet is a benzoyl peroxide lotion (good for mild inflammatory acne).

Moderate acne or severe acne won't respond well to any OTC product, so you'll need a prescription acne medication to really get those breakouts under control.

Can a Toner Fade Acne Scars?

Some toners, depending on the ingredients, can actually help fade the dark marks that pimples leave behind after the blemishes heal. Look for a product that contains glycolic acid to help speed fading of dark acne marks.

For true acne scars, though, a toner isn't going to do anything to help. Depressed, pitted scars can't be improved with toners, or any over-the-counter skin care product for that matter. These types of acne scars are a bit tougher to treat. But there are professional acne scar treatments that can help smooth out those acne scars, so ask your dermatologist which procedure is best for your skin.

Is Toner Right for Your Skin?

Like many skin care questions, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The decision to use a toner depends on many factors, including the type of products and medications you're currently using on your face and your own personal preference.

A common belief is that toners are needed to close the pores. This simply isn't true. Pores aren't like doors; they don't open and close. Bottom line: toner is not a skincare necessity.

For super oily skin types, a type of toner called astringent can help keep the skin from feeling too greasy. They can also help reduce the oily shine that appears throughout the day and might help your makeup wear longer. But for dry or especially sensitive skin types, or if you're currently using drying acne treatments, it's probably wise to forgo the toner.

Some toners are high in alcohol or other ingredients that can be drying. Using a toner can exacerbate dryness you get with many topical acne treatments (such as Retin-A, BenzaClin or other topical antibiotics). You may even find using a toner worsens your breakouts, and if you have moderate to severe inflammatory acne or cystic acne, the toner may burn or sting when applied.

If you love the way toners make their skin feel and can't imagine going without one, then go for it. But rest easy knowing you're not doing your skin a great disservice if you choose not to use toner.

How to Choose the Acne Toner That's Right for You

There are so many toner products available, it can be overwhelming when you're standing in the skincare aisle. You can narrow your choices down and find the best product for you if you know what to look for.

To help fight and prevent minor blemishes, look for a product with acne-fighting ingredients. Take a look at the active ingredients for either benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. Remember, though, that an OTC toner won't clear anything more than very mild breakouts.

Avoid toners with acne-fighting ingredients if you're using a prescription acne treatment. Using too many medicated products on your skin can leave your skin dry, flaky, and irritated. Instead, look for a non-medicated toner that contains soothing ingredients like aloe vera or glycerin.

Pay attention to how the product makes your skin feel. Burning and stinging is a big red flag that the toner is too harsh for your skin. Instead look for one that leaves your skin feeling fresh and clean, but not stripped. 

If you're seeing a dermatologist, ask before using a toner. Always get your dermatologist's OK before adding any new product to your skin care product to your acne treatment regimen. They may have products they recommend for you or may suggest you hold off on using a toner, for now, depending on what your acne treatment routine currently looks like.

A Word From Verywell

A toner isn't an absolute necessity for healthy or clear skin but can make your skin feel fresh and clean. Toner (and its close cousin, astringents) can also help brighten, soften, and smooth your skin, and may help prevent and treat minor blemishes if they contain the right ingredients. But for more powerful acne-fighting benefits, over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide lotions or prescription acne medications will give you better results.

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  1. Zaenglein AL, Pathy AL, Schlosser BJ, et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016;74(5):945-73.e33. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2015.12.037