Choosing a toner. Guide for dummies.

I have FAR from perfect skin, I am covered in scars, I have a HUGE BLOB on my forehead (pigmentation), pores the size of JHB potholes. List is endless. I have spent years getting clued up on skincare through my mum and beautician and nowadays I actually underestimate how much I actually know! I surprise myself when I look at a product and understand the label. This is not me being arrogant, but it’s one of those things I grew up around so it’s something I just ‘know’ and love. Hence this absolutely crazy blog and Instagram page because I think I am Beyoncé or Claudia Schiffer. 


The more pages I check out on Instagram the more I realise how overwhelming it must be to someone who is just starting their skin care journey. So many products, so many ingredients, so much skin lingo. So much for us to take into account. I look at some profiles and I think “WOW, this dolls skin is flawless”. I want it too!  How how how how. Well, we need to know our shit basically. Everything I see online is soooo expensive. These women promoting all kinds of products well over £50 a pop. I don’t know about you, but I can’t compete with that. I absolutely agree that spending a bit more on your skin care routine is a ‘must’. I look at it as an investment, but there is a line, and it’s not because I don’t want to have the pigeon-poop golden-carat face cream. It’s just not within my 15 hour work day allowance.


I have spent a few weeks researching the hips and haps of skincare ingredients and instead of promoting PRODUCTS, I want to explain in the most simple dummy terms the best kind of ingredients to look for IN products that are WITHIN your budget. I will be starting with explaining toners (as I think this is a looked over skin care step) and then I will be explaining why we need to use toner and what to look for in a toner.


Each week I will cover a skin care step and explain in as much depth as possible without being complicated (might be hard but just hang in there). I do not use outrageously expensive products for my face, but stuff that is kind of in-between. I can honestly admit to you that I have never ever routinely used products that you can buy from the pharmacy (like Nivea or Garnier for example). The odd mask here and there but I choose to stick with niche kind of products that are bought from actual skin care stores (aka Kiehls) or direct from my salon.

First thing is first…..


Here is a little picture for you…


free radicals




Let me write a short (very basic) glossary before you read the rest of this blog. It’s likely that I have some things that aren’t fully correct (I am not a Dr or Skin scientist but this is just the basic knowledge I do have…)



Vitamin A – (close relationship to retinols) So Vit A thickens and stimulates the dermis, where your collagen, elastin and blood vessels are, therefore reduces wrinkles and increases blood flow to the surface of the skin.

Food example : carrots, Kale, Sweet potato.

Vitamin E – works to block free radicals from the body (see free radical story above). If free radicals are fought off we can reduce wrinkles and keep the skin youthful looking. Environmental pollutants and stress are huge factors that contribute to the formation of free radicals.  

Food examples, almonds, avo.


Alpha Hydroxy acids– collection of compounds made from familiar food products: Among the most widely known are glycolic acid (from sugar cane), lactic acid (sour milk), malic acid (apples), citric acid (citrus fruits), and tartaric acid (wine grapes). Interesting right?


  • Glycerin acid – this is part of the ‘AHA’ (alpha hydroxy acids). Derived from cane sugar and has the smallest molecules of the AHA group. Because of its properties its able to deeply penetrate the skin.
  • Hyaluronic acid – also part of the ‘AHA’ group, unlike glycerine these molecules are large therefore doesn’t penetrate the skin deeply but focuses on the skins surface. It draws water to the skin and helps prevent moisture loss.
  • Lactic Acid – also part of the ‘AHA’ and made up of SOUR MILK! This is why Cleopatra bathed in milk just FYI! Apparently helps with sunburn and sun damaged skin.


Salicylic acid – helps unclog pores! Wonderful for people with oily skin. Seriously helps with loosening black heads. It breaks down the bond that keeps dead skin cells together, hence why it is also known as an exfoliant.


Beta acid – similar to the above (stand to be corrected) 


Vitamin C – Shield from the sun, plays a role in collagen synthesis. Blabla we all know Vitamin C.

Retinols – See Vit A. Women over 30 MUST use retinol somewhere in their skincare routine…anyway it’s a chemical exfoliant, similar to a chemical peel really. It increases the production of collagen.. Remember it’s a form of Vitamin A…so fairly easy to find. Some people find retinol too harsh (it is pretty hectic on skin that isn’t ready for retinol) if that’s the case just stick to glycolic acids. Suncream MUST be used if you are using Retinol regularly. It makes the skin quite sensitive.


  • Just a disclaimer – over-use of acids can cause sensitivity as too many peels can thin your epidermis (the top layer of your skin), so always precede with caution and take a ‘less is more’ approach. As with all acids, it’s important to always wear SPF.  




Ugh toner! Do I really need it? Know your skin type!



Toner, is a bloody secret weapon and the most UNDERRATED step in the skin routine.


Our skin is made up of water and when it is dehydrated our pores look bigger, wrinkles and lines look more ‘out there’ and the skin generally looks grey and dull. Toners are lovely for hydrating the skin and most are packed with active ingredients to treat and soothe skin. Toners containing alcohol remove any oil from the skin and can actually help prevent breakouts for those with acne-prone skin (if you aren’t new to the toner circuit you will know the ‘tight’ feeling you get after using a toner with alcohol). Toners with glycerin and hyaluronic acid (see glossary) can help hydrate the skin and prevent dryness. As the weather warms up, even combination skin tends to break out, so toners with salicylic acid can be really helpful for gently unclogging your pores and preventing summer breakouts (I don’t know about you but my skin is super amazing in summer!).



Okay, Let’s go Wonder People!



I do not wash my face in the mornings. I used to, and it turned out that it was making my skin produce more oil and it was a bit much to handle. So I wake up, shower (I shower every single morning WITHOUT fail). I then tone my face with my gauze. I have mentioned this before on my Instagram about the gauze. It’s like the stuff they use to cover your wounds  at the Dr’s or in the hospital. It’s a rough texture. I buy a roll, and then I cut the roll up into squares and keep piled in my bathroom cupboard. The reason I use the gauze is because it has dramatically helped minimise my pores and I know, in my soul that it gives me a  proper exfoliation as I worry so much about the pollution in London and the way in which it affects my skin. I am particular about dirt getting stuck inside my massive pores and turning into black heads! When using my toner I feel refreshed and ‘cleaner’. My skin literally feels like it has had every impurity removed. A toner is really important in your routine as it ensures ALL the dirt/dead skin cells are gone! I read that toners are best for people with oily and acne / pimply prone skin, but I think everyone should use a toner, purely for skin cleanliness and hydration. I am so obsessed with my toner I won’t travel without it. I pack it up into little bottles and clean my face during long haul flights or long car drives. The other day my boss and I decided to go to Barcelona and I had all my little bottles to unpack at Heathrow through the bag check (we were running very late as we do) and he is like “Hurry up ELLEN!! WHAT ARE THESE MINI BOTTLES? IS IT WATER?! WE ARE NOT POOR! WE BUY WATER THE OTHER SIDE”. We ended up missing our flight but that’s beside the point. I wouldn’t leave the bottles of toner. I have been incorporating toner into my skin care routine since I was about 15 years old and a silly flight ain’t gonna stop me.


Here are my top reasons as to why we need to incorporate toner into your routine:

  • Shrinks pores!

It genuinely does as using a toner closes/tightens the pores on your face therefore stopping impurities from infiltrating into the pores (usually they are ‘open’ after a hot shower).

  • It helps with the pH balance of your skin

AHHH SKIN CARE JARGON!  Scary. Let me try simplify this for you as much as I can:

Firstly, pH stands for “potential of hydrogen”. So, pH balance is the ratio of positively-charged ions (the ones responsible for forming acid) to negatively charged (alkaline-forming) ions in your body. Lower pH levels in your blood means it’s more acidic, and higher pH means more alkaline.  I am not a Dr so I can’t go on about what it means if you have more or less of each. So anyway you need to remember that our skin is naturally acidic with a pH level of about 4.5 – 5.5. Once your skin’s pH level goes above 6.5, your skins first line of defense (also known as the acid mantle) becomes compromised and that is when your skin is more susceptible to bacteria and infection.  Toners restore your skin’s pH balance after cleansing so it’s better protected. Simple pimple!

  • EXTRA cleanser.

Tell you what – go on a night out. Come home, use make up remover, wash your face and then tone. Tell me how much more make up comes off your face even when you ‘think’ it’s been cleaned! You will be amazed.


Toners add a layer of protection.

Once you have popped out of the shower all your pores are wide open (the steam and heat loosens the pores). Although it’s a good thing to have your pores open after a shower, I like to extract any black heads after a shower (well the best time because now pores are open) and then close the pores up by using my toner. This is to avoid any impurities / bacteria creeping into the pores. It basically ‘tightens’ up the skin – we want tight bums? So why not have tight pores too?


Guide for buying the right toner for you.

There are plenty of toners out there, everyone has different needs.

If you have oily, acne-prone skin, for example, then you don’t want to choose a toner that’s going to add a lot of moisture to the skin, as this will just aggravate the skin. If you struggle with dry patches on your face, then it’s best to avoid toners that are labelled “astringent,” as these may dry out the skin even further. So many toners contain alcohol-based ingredients, which is not always a bad thing, but if you have dry skin, it’s important to read and compare ingredient lists to avoid products that include two or more ingredients that are derived from alcohol. It will just make the skin more dry. Be careful if you have super sensitive skin, certain ingredients may cause irritation, redness, and rashes that might damage the skin in the long term. Personally, if you have super sensitive skin try stick to scent free products, and products that DO NOT have base ingredients with more acid-type fruity smells (think oranges).

So what is out there?

Traditional toners consist of moisturizers, oils and extracts that help soothe your skin. They contain a small amount of alcohol and are best suited for normal, combination and oily skin. Astringents, which are alcohol-based, tighten skin, pores and remove oil. They are the strongest form of toners and are usually designed to control oil and best suited for very oily skin. However, you have to be careful when using astringents because too much usage can cause an over-production of oil. Fresheners work similarly to astringents by tightening the skin, but they do not contain alcohol. They are the mildest form of toners, suitable for all skin types, even dry and sensitive skin.

You can buy tons of gorgeous toners with gorgeous smells and the works! Prices can range from absolute peanuts to the mass balloon prices (La Mer anyone?)

Let’s go simple as we can: So I am sure you see a lot of rose based toners out there. Rose based toners are extremely hydrating for the skin, it feels ‘airy’ and much lighter on the skin and is very good for stimulating circulation. Personally, rose based toners and it didn’t work for me personally. However, I have at least 5 friends (if not more) who use rose based toners and have the most BEAUTIFUL skin you have ever seen. Rose based toners tend to (mostly) be a lot less expensive as well. Toners with a lemony/lime base are great for tightening pores without over drying the skins surface (I mean all toners tighten the pores but this gives it a bit of an extra ‘ooomp’) Chamomile is great for angry acne skin or skin struggling through a rash. Please note, I have never used alcohol based toners so I cannot recommend them on my own bat. The below are all alcohol free. 


If you are wanting to hydrate the skin and give it a more tighter feel  I would recommend Kiehls Calendula Herbal Extract Alcohol-Free Toner. It has 0 smell to it, it leaves NO harsh feeling or tingling or burning or whatever. I feel like it gets into my pores, gets everything out and closes them up again. For 250 ml you will pay £34.  I KNOW IT’S FOK OFF EXPENSIVE. BUT, the product lasts 3 months. It is beautifully packaged and an experience at Kiehls is amazing. I look at it like this : I spend £20 easily on a lunch out (yesterday bought a jug of Pimms for more) so I can buy a good quality product that will last me 2 months + . So cute because it has little flower extracts in the bottle which shake around and makes me feel like I have a snow globe thing in my bathroom cupboard. 


If your skin is the type that gets a bit inflamed and aggro (peeps with random blemishes), I would recommend Liz Earle Instant Boost facial toner. Chamomile and cucumber are some of the key ingredients here and help sooth ‘temper tantrum’ skin. You can get 200 ml for £15 which is a total bargain. This toner also contains Vitamin E and antioxidant properties which assist the skin when fighting signs of aging (also helps to have anti-oxidants when your skin has suffered from breakouts and is needing an extra bit of repair- see diagram). It is scented so if you don’t like that kind of thing (my own preference) then might want to start off with a tester. The scent has some hints of rose and maybe orange? Not entirely sure. It is for all skin types and is a lovely affordable product. 



If you want something that is a more of a ‘general’ toner (combo skin- dry and oily) I would say the good old Body shop can never fail! They have a Fresh Seaweed Clarifying toner. Its alcohol free (extra good for dry skin as well) and has algae and cucumber extracts.  It’s very cheap at around £8, you can feel there is nothing harsh in this toner once applied on the skin.


Looking for things filled with the vitamins and anti-oxidants? Look for anything with Vitamin E or Vitamin A. Vitamin E is so incredible because it protects the skin against toxins and blocks free radicals from the body. This plays a big part in fighting the aging process.  Vitamin A encourages healthy skin cell production. Vitamin A stimulates ‘fibroblasts’. These are the cells responsible for developing the tissue that keeps the skin firm. You might pay a bit more for these kind of products, but hey! It’s an investment right? In saying that, The BodyShop actually has a divine Vitamin E based toner. Surprise! It’s called Vitamin E Hydrating toner. Its inexpensive at £7.50 for 100ml!


My own, toner of choice.

As some of you might know, I absolutely adore Environ products. Everyone has their ‘product’ and this is my product. It’s so close to home for me, as this is a proudly South African product and I have been religiously using this brand since I was 13. It’s funny how we often adapt habits from our mums with skin care choices/routines/makeup.  I started going for facials when I was 13 because that’s what my mum’s mum did for her (I appreciate I am very lucky to have come from a home where this was an affordable thing for us to do. I understand not everyone has had this luxury. My sister and I are very lucky and we are very grateful). 

 I have always gone by my beauticians recommendations and she has put me on various Environ toners since I was about 15. I have very recently moved onto Kiehls because I can’t get my Environ in the UK. I can only rely on some kind people to bring for me when they visit the UK, but it becomes a mission and my poor mum rides around JHB sorting my parcels for me.  My ultimate toner of choice is from the Skin Essential Range. I used the Botanical Infused Moisturizing Toner. It’s helped with my uneven skin tone and helps soften the appearance of fine lines. A bottle costs around R180-R200 (this is like £15 for British readers) now and it lasts exactly 3 months. It has no smell at all and looks just like water (see my airport story). Now that toner has finished and I am so sad but I am going to be brave and start on the Kiehls Pore Minimizing toner (just waiting for stock) For now I am using that Calendula Herbal Extract Alcohol-Free Toner. 


Next week we will look at what to look for in moisturizers for the day time routine and for the evening time. I hope you have enjoyed this post!


Disclaimer: Please note I am not a dermatologist/beautician/ Dr. Please take care when reading this article and use all products at your own risk. 



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