This column first ran in Valerie Monroe’s newsletter, How Not to F*ck Up Your Face, which you can subscribe to on Substack.
A curious reader — who often happens to be in my sight line — has a question about whether toner can improve her complexion.
Q: I was recently told that I need to use toner to rebalance my skin’s pH — that it corrects for too much acidity. Or maybe not enough? What do you and your experts think: To tone or not to tone?
A: Did you know that a hydrangea — and I hope I see some in your balcony garden this year — produces pink flowers when the soil has a pH of 6.8 or higher (more alkaline) and blue flowers when the soil has a pH of 6 or lower (more acidic)? Is that interesting or what?
Anyway, there are all kinds of new toners now. Why? Because toners represent a lucrative marketing opportunity for Big Beauty. Do you need one? No. Or as HNTFUYF DermDiva Heidi Waldorf said, getting right to the bottom-line, “Using a toner is unnecessary.”
The pH of your skin is mildly acidic (4 to 5 on the pH scale), and it can be impacted by age, environmental factors, and what Waldorf calls “topical care.” Soap is one of the main culprits that can alter your skin’s pH level, which happens to be the reason that toner was originally marketed — to restore the skin’s pH after washing with a product that strips it, increasing its pH and making it less able to maintain a healthy barrier function and microbiome.
Plain body soaps or traditional bar soaps typically lack moisturizing ingredients and may contain irritating fragrances or dyes. Rather than using a toner to “fix” your skin’s pH, Waldorf recommends washing with a non-stripping cleanser before applying a moisturizer containing humectants (“micro-sponges” like glycerin and hyaluronidase) that absorb water and occlusives (sealants like petrolatum, dimethicone, and oils) that keep moisture from escaping.
Fun fact: The Dove bar became a dermatologist darling when it launched in the 1950s, because it was the first syndet (synthetic detergent) that promised to cleanse without altering pH levels and contained moisturizing ingredients. Since then, cleansers have new kinds of surfactants to separate dirt from the skin and moisturizing technologies that make cleansing less of a pH-disrupting experience. So it’s easy, said Waldorf, to maintain your skin’s pH with only your cleanser and moisturizer of choice. Here are some of our favorites.
Valerie Monroe was beauty director at O, The Oprah Magazine, where she wrote the monthly “Ask Val” column for nearly 16 years. Now, she writes weekly newsletter How Not to F*ck Up Your Face. Her goal continues to be to shift our thinking in the beauty arena from self-criticism to self-compassion and to learn how to be loving to ourselves and one another as we age.
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