Living Next Door to Facial Toner

Toner? What the F is toner?

I recently spent an evening watching two Irishmen who were likely in their 70’s play 1970’s rock covers over a drum machine in a pub in western Ireland. The show was truly great, but the high point came after the bachelor party lads arrived (now there’s a sentence I never thought I would write). The band launched into “Living Next Door to Alice” with the entire pub—from the extraordinarily inebriated bachelor who could barely stand, to his burly bearded friend who was propping him up, to the nice elderly couple next to me—joyfully shouting along to the audience part.

…for 24 years I’ve been living next door to Alice


It was so much fun that the barkeep put the original version on the stereo after the band finished their set. But I didn’t come here to talk about Irish pubs or songs about unrequited love or communal chants: I want to talk about anti-capitalist baby steps, skincare routines, and facial toner.

Two people with hydrating face masks smiling
Photo by Anna Shvets

What exactly is facial toner? If you plug that question into Google (everyone’s favorite advertising company slash search engine), the first ad is from Nivea, and starts by noting that toner is “often misunderstood” and that “many of us aren’t sure if it’s something we should use.” Interesting, Nivea, please now explain to me why it is in fact something that is absolutely necessary to my daily life. 

The next section of their page starts with “scientifically speaking”, and then says absolutely nothing scientific (though it does include words like “molecules” and “PH levels” so it’s basically the same as reading an academic journal). They explain all the reasons why you and your skin desperately need toner, but also give themselves a convenient excuse in case you don’t notice a difference by adding that even the best toner may have little effect if it’s “not suitable for your skin type.” Not to worry — they offer a wide variety of toners for every possible skin type, so you can try (read: buy) them all! 

The next search result is from Neutrogena. Their “truth about face toners” page admits that toner is a “curious product” and “Many people who use one don’t even realize why other than because of habit.” Are you noticing a trend yet? They go on to explain how toner is actually a “secret weapon” but that you’ll have to use it twice a day to see the impact. Oh, and the proper application method is to “soak a cotton ball with the toner and gently sweep it across your skin” which sounds like a great way to use up as much as possible (so you can buy more immediately) while applying a miniscule amount to your actual face.

Smiling woman wiping her face with a cotton pad
Photo by Sora Shimazaki

This is fun, let’s do one more. Next is Women’s Health Magazine, which gives a slightly more balanced perspective, though still heavily tilted toward why you should buy toner — which, conveniently, you can do right from their article using a variety of affiliate links. They include information from three certified dermatologists (with links to Instagram, which is always a strange place to find doctors-as-influencers, but ok). This article notes that toners were historically used to offset the effect of alkaline soaps and restore the skin’s PH balance, which is no longer necessary now that cleansing products have improved. Luckily (for cosmetic companies), toner has since “evolved” and give you “extra credit” in your skincare routine. Finally, they note that while soaking cotton is the preferred way to apply toner, you can “go green” and just use your hands if you want. But… if I apply toner with my hands, who will buy all the cosmetic cotton??

Ok, enough ad copy. What, in fact, is toner? Let’s try a nonprofit — Wikipedia. Their article explains toner as a “lotion, tonic or wash designed to cleanse the skin and shrink the appearance of pores”. Emphasis on “appearance” in that sentence; the pores themselves are not going to get any smaller. The idea is that if your face is clean, your pores will be less obvious, so the important part there is “cleanse”. According to those dermatologists that Women’s Health Magazine consulted (as well as numerous other articles), the cleansing aspect of toner is mostly Wikipedia says that toner “also moisturizes, protects and refreshes the skin”, which are claims that seem to vary by product. There are many different types, from water-based ones that include a humectant (like glycerin or propylene glycol) to trap moisture in the skin, to stronger ones that use acids as chemical exfoliants, to strong alcohol-based astringents.

I’m also impressed by the word choice: when I hear “tone” as a verb, I think of exercise videos (smile! And lift! Tone those legs!) or painting (toning a canvas to set its base color). And then of course there’s the plastic-based fine powder toner that laser printers and copiers melt to form text or images on paper. Fortunately facial toner does not melt your face, adjust your skin color, or affect your face muscles, but it was named in the fitness sense. Toner came about during a frightening period in cosmetic history (though honestly the entire history of cosmetics is horrifying) during which people thought that exercising the face skin muscles was necessary for the complexion. Oh wait, some people still think this, and FACEGYM exists. Goodness me.

That belief led to everything from slapping oneself in the face, to astringent toners and skin tonics, to ice baths. You see, first one had to relax the (nonexistent) pore muscles to clean them, then tense those muscles up again to close the pores before applying makeup etc. Those practices haven’t gone away (do a quick search for facial massage tools or face workouts if you don’t believe me), but luckily the US FDA cracked down on some of the more imaginative claims about pore capabilities with the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act of 1938. This, along with another ruling by the FTC, limited what cosmetic companies (in the US at least) could claim about their products. Statements about magically shrinking pores are still rife on news sites and blogs, but the preferred regulation-abiding term used on labels these days seems to be “refining pores”. My face feels so fancy now.

My own experience with face toner started at my favorite skincare shop, Aesop; a company I (think I) trust that sells products I enjoy using. I went in to replenish my favorite moisturizer and came out with that plus toner; their sales reps are very skilled. I obediently applied it daily for months, before gradually admitting to myself that it seemed to make absolutely no difference whatsoever. Perhaps it’s just my skin type, but I don’t seem to need it. 

I want to be clear: skincare is extremely personal, and people’s needs and preferences range as widely as the ever-proliferating variety of toners. If your skincare routine brings you joy and makes you feel good, by all means keep it up. If using toner makes a difference for your skin and your life, that’s great! I’m obsessively attached to my favorite lotion, so I get it.

A person relaxing with sliced cucumbers on their eyes and a cream on their skin
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

Rather than blindly following the advice of salespeople and marketing agencies, though, I’d encourage you to take a moment to question the products you use in your daily life. Ask yourself: “do I like how using this product makes me feel, or do I use it because someone convinced me I should?” If it’s the latter, consider whether you want to continue using it, or let it go.

When making decisions about the products and companies you do choose to engage with, pause when your situation allows and ask questions. Think about where the product comes from. Were the humans involved in its production treated and paid fairly? Does its manufacture and packaging have a negative impact on the environment? Is there an alternative version that causes less environmental damage?

Think about who profits from this product, how those profits are generated, and where the proceeds ultimately go. Is it a giant corporation, or a small business? What are the company’s values? Does it treat its workers fairly and with respect? How does it help or harm communities? 

Think about your relationship to the product. Do you genuinely like it? How do you feel when you use it? Do you miss it when you don’t have it? Are you happy to identify yourself as a user of this product? Do you have other alternatives, or is this the best or only solution you can access? If other options are inaccessible, why is that true, and how could that be changed?

When we consider who benefits (and who is harmed) by producing, selling, and using a product, we can make more informed decisions about our participation in systems, challenge unspoken norms, and ultimately contribute to building a better world for everyone. 

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