this vs. that

I Tried 17 Toners and Essences to Really Figure Out the Difference

Photo: Courtesy of the Retailers

For many of us, our first experience with toner occurred around the time of our first kiss. Back then, they were alcohol-heavy astringents that promised to nix oil, dry up acne, balance pH, and whisk away any makeup or grime that your cleanser left behind. They stung a bit — in a good way — and it was always satisfying to check the cotton round and see just how clean they made your face. But were they great for skin? Not necessarily — and somewhere along the way they fell out of fashion. “Five years ago, if you asked a dermatologist ‘what do you think about this toner,’ we’d be like, ‘you can skip that part,’” says Dr. Dendy Engelman, a Manhattan-based dermatologist. “We thought of them as another cleansing step, and they could certainly be omitted.”

But toner is making a comeback (at the same time as the rise of its easy-to-confuse relatives, essences; more on those below) and the new-and-improved versions come with real-time benefits that reflect a changing tune about how to care for skin. Thanks, in large part, to the increasing knowledge about the skin barrier and microbiome, the healthy bacteria that live in and on our bodies, “we’ve come to know that we don’t want to strip everything away. We don’t want to be Über-clean,” Engelman says. “We’ve gotten to a much more elevated sense of active ingredients, and knowing how to support skin versus disrupting it.”

The new toners still come with pH-balancing benefits (skin is naturally acidic, but most cleansers are alkaline; restoring that acidic state and “acid mantle” barrier is ideal for skin functioning) and lift away lingering impurities, but also pack in active ingredients, like gentle acid exfoliants, antioxidants, and hyaluronic acid. Bonus: “A toner drenches skin to prepare it for its next steps,” explains Jordana Mattioli a medical esthetician in New York City. “Many molecules penetrate skin better when it is damp.” Beyond the ingredient perks, rewetting skin post-cleanse makes your serum and moisturizer work even better.

This idea of nourishing skin, instead of stripping it, has also led to the explosion of essences, one of the by-products of the K-beauty boom. Though they’ve got a similar look and feel to toner, essences are ultralight hydrators that quench skin and offer instant dew with humectants like glycerin. “They’re not as light and watery as toners, and aren’t as concentrated as serums,” Mattioli explains. “The extra layer of nourishment helps skin barrier function while also targeting specific skin concerns.” An essence can sub for your moisturizer in the steamy summer months (there are no heavy emollients) and the application differs a bit from toner — instead of applying to a cotton round then swiping or blotting on your face, essences are best patted, or “pressed,” into skin with your hands.

Still, the line between the two isn’t always clear. Compare, for example, a hydrating toner and an essence, and there really aren’t too many differences. “Your essence might double as a toner or a pH-balancing toner packed with hydrating agents can double as an essence,” explains Alicia Yoon, founder of K-beauty brand Peach & Lily. It’s easier to resist trying to categorize them and instead just choose what feels good and works for your skin. “We’ve come to such an elevated space in skin care,” Engelman says. “We used to have ointments, creams, lotions, and gels. Now we have hybrid gel-creams. Skin care is more nuanced now.” An unexpected benefit of all of the new options: You’re a lot more likely to find the perfect fit for you. Some worthy options, below.

The Toners

The Smelly French Favorite to Get Baby Skin Overnight

Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 is something of a skin-care legend for its ability to shrink pores, slough off dead skin, clear up acne, and make skin feel freakishly soft in a matter of days. “It’s often someone’s first experience with acid exfoliation, and that’s a special moment when you feel the tingle and see your skin smoother the very next day,” Mattioli says. “Over time, your skin gets even smoother, brighter, and clearer.” There are five versions, but P50 1970, which contains a controversial E.U.-banned exfoliator called phenol (and makes your face go numb), is the most intense. “Phenol gets demonized, but dermatologists have historically done phenol peels in very high concentrations,” Engelman says. “I’m not scared of phenol; I’m a fan of it.” One thing to note: It isn’t uncommon to look a little red/sunburned as your skin adjusts to P50. For me it usually lasts about a week, but you can temper it by watering it down; just soak your cotton pad with water before dabbing it with the toner.

The Creamy Mix That’s Both a Moisturizer and Toner

Laneige Cream Skin Toner & Moisturizer could pass as either an essence or a toner. Either way, it’s got an entire jar of cream submerged in the liquid, so you can skip your lotion. In a world trending toward endless skin-care steps, the idea is a welcome respite, particularly if you have sensitive skin and product overload makes your face freak. For a single step, it leaves my skin surprisingly dewy.

The Gentle Amazon One That Smells Like Crushed Roses

If your serums and creams contain exfoliating actives (think retinol and acids), a basic toner, like Thayers Rose Petal Toner, is a better fit. This old-school Amazon best seller functions more as a traditional toner, without any of the drying side effects. Connecticut-grown witch hazel cools, rose water soothes, and aloe vera reduces redness for skin that’s clean, moisturized, calm, and dewy. I love it whenever my skin is feeling angsty or needs a break from the harsh stuff.

The Nontoxic Toner That Balances Oil

Leave it to Goop to create a toner that contains crystals. Goop Beauty’s G.Tox Malachite + AHA Pore Refining Tonic smells like a spa waiting room (thanks to peppermint, geranium, and lemon) and works to make pores tiny and clear with an exfoliating acid mix, while malachite, a green stone that’s high in copper, aids skin detox. I noticed improved texture and an overall glowiness the next day.

The Jasmine-Scented Toner That Controls Breakouts

Adult acne is a drag, but Herbivore Jasmine Green Tea Toner has witch hazel and white willow bark, which simultaneously clarify and soothe, as well as ginger to tone down inflammation. It’s nice in that it’s a gentler way to stifle breakouts than your teenage spot treatment, which can ultimately make skin more red and angry. Skip the cotton pad and simply spray it on your face after cleansing.

The Derm-Created Toner That Restores pH

This basic toner from German doctor Dr. Barbara Sturm checks all the boxes: It balances pH so your acid mantle can function at its best, removes excess grime, hydrates, and quells inflammation. I personally love a good foaming face wash, and this makes my skin feel balanced and less squeaky afterwards. If you want a straightforward option that’ll keep your skin healthy and does everything a toner is supposed to do, here she is.

The Resurfacing Toner That Has Adaptogens

The very glowy Moon Juice founder Amanda Chantal Bacon sought to make a clean version of P50 when she created Moon Juice Beauty Shroom Exfoliating Acid Potion, a blend of glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids to treat pores and lines as well as adaptogens like tocotrienols and reishi mushroom to strengthen skin barrier. Like P50, my skin felt more like my 9-month-old baby’s the morning after — and I found myself skipping foundation, à la Bacon (and baby).

The Triphase Toner That Moonlights As a Highlighter

The StriVectin Advanced Glow Tri-Phase Daily Glow Toner looks more like an eye-makeup remover with its three parts — there’s a water phase, with hyaluronic acid and aloe leaf; a milk phase, with exfoliating lactic acid and amino acids; and an oil phase, with mandelic acid (another exfoliator), squalane oil, and licorice root — and you’ll need to shake it before you use it. Of all the acid-boosted toners on this list, I found this one to be particularly gentle. It leaves behind an oily sheen in a good, glow-y, I-just-got-back-from-hot-yoga way.

The Toner That Amps Up Cell Turnover

Ren Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic smells so good — like an Emergen-C packet — and it tingles in a way that makes you feel like it’s really working. Three types of acid do away with flakes and add radiance, as well as bring skin’s pH to an acidic 3.4, naturally boosting cell turnover. It’s also gentle enough to use twice a day — just remember sunscreen since chemical exfoliants (like acids) make your skin more prone to burns.

The Essences

The Original Essence

Before we were singing the praises of K-beauty essences, there was SK-II Facial Treatment Essence. Its key ingredient is something called pitera, which comes from fermented yeast. Legend has it that it was discovered because sake brewers, constantly in contact with the ingredient, had unusually silky hands, and although it seems like you’re simply putting water on your face, I find it works wonders in terms of brightening, softening, and hydrating skin. (See: Cate Blanchett, who was the brand’s spokeswoman and genuine fan for years.)

The Over-the-Top Essence That Saves Skin in Winter

La Prairie Skin Caviar Essence-In-Lotion casually contains both caviar water and caviar extract, which is meant to firm and replenish with omega-3s, along with a host of antioxidants and smoothing ingredients. It’s a splurge, but lasts forever, firms, totally wipes out dryness, and makes my skin immediately plump and radiant. I always go back to it when it’s frigid out and 24/7 forced heat is tormenting my face.

The Ultramoisturizing Toner I’m Using As an Essence

Dr. Jart calls its Ceramidin Liquid a moisturizing toner, but it feels and acts like an essence, so I’m putting it here. It contains ceramides, the natural lipids in our skin barrier, and soothing botanicals, making it a great option for ultradry, sensitive types. Use it before you apply your serum and moisturizer, or alone if you tend to get oily. The cool, unisex geranium scent is a nice bonus.

The Essence That Has Your Microbiome in Mind

Orveda was co-founded by a former CEO of Lancôme and L’Oréal, and the luxe brand’s goal is to work with skin’s natural flora with ingredients like kombucha, hydrating bamboo water, skin-brightening papaya enzymes, and hyaluronic acid. The Healing Sap, which has a velvety-green scent, is their toner-serum hybrid and leaves my skin totally supple and luminous, while also readying it for subsequent skin care.

The Internet-Famous Essence That’s Powered by Snails

If you’re a frequent visitor to the Strategist, you’ve likely read about Rio’s devotion to Korean-made Cosrx Advanced Snail Mucin Power Essence. The first and main ingredient is “snail secretion filtrate,” and if you’re skeptical, just glance at the over 600 reviews on K-beauty site Soko Glam, which call out its ability to soothe, hydrate, temper zits, improve hyperpigmentation, smooth skin texture, and heal old acne scars. Consider me the latest convert.

The New, Natural Pick That’s Like a Superfood for Skin

Vintner’s Daughter founder April Gargiulo is a firm believer that you don’t need a 15-step routine to have great skin, and calls her new Active Botanical Essence the yin to her beloved face oil’s yang. Like the oil, it’s meant to act like nutrition for your face with ingredients alfala and astragalus as well as two types of hyaluronic acid, probiotics, and gently exfoliating lactic acid and fruit enzymes. The experience of using it is completely different from any other essence on this list — it’s brown, has a weirdly addicting kombucha smell (each bottle is fermented for 14 days), and it made my skin tingle. After using it for a few days (along with the cult oil), my skin looked more alive, radiant, and California-resident-level healthy.

The K-Beauty Essence I Use As a Summer Moisturizer

Hanskin Real Complexion Hyaluron Skin Essence has a slightly more viscous texture than other essences and the ideal amount of moisture for a steamy August day (it also absorbs without any tacky residue). It’s packed with humectants glycerin and sodium hyaluronate to flood skin with moisture, and it’s fragrance-free, making it a good one for sensitive skin.

The Fermented Essence That Adds Glow

Neogen Real Ferment Micro Essence calls to mind SK-II’s original in that it’s a blend of 93 percent fermented ingredients, such as bifida ferment lysate and saccharomyces ferment filtrate. It’s lightweight, so I add a few layers and my skin slurps it up like a sponge, immediately feeling more hydrated, soft, and bright.

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I Tried 17 Toners and Essences to Figure Out the Difference