When you first hear about a product called “acid toner,” you might be thrown off a bit.
In fact, you might think it sounds more like something a supervillain would use rather than something you smooth onto your gorgeous skin.
You may have heard about acid toners from one of your favorite beauty bloggers (we know Caroline Hirons is a big fan) or in a recent issue of your favorite magazine.
Maybe you saw some in the sidebar while you were browsing Ulta and wondered what exactly they were for.
Or, maybe you’ve never heard about acid toners, and simply clicked on this blog post because they sounded interesting!
Whatever brought you here, I’m happy to have you! And I’m excited to do a deep dive into all things acid toners so you can walk away from this piece feeling like an expert!
We’re going to cover the benefits of acid toners, how to use them, when to avoid them, and more!
I hope you’re as excited as I am!
What Are Acid Toners? What Do They Do?
Chances are, you know all (or at least a little bit) about physical exfoliation and toners — acid toners are kind of like a marriage between the two.
You may have tried an exfoliating scrub with grains, used an exfoliating sponge, or even splurged on an exfoliating brush like a Clarisonic.
Those are all examples of physical exfoliants.
But, have you heard of chemical exfoliants?
Essentially, there are certain chemicals that will exfoliate your skin without needing you to scrub your face, and acid toners are a chemical exfoliant.
Just like regular exfoliants, acid toners will unclog your pores, even out your skin tone, and help clear up acne.
Plus, they’ll get rid of any dead skin, leftover makeup, dirt, and excess oils that your face accumulates throughout the day.
Unlike physical exfoliants, chemical exfoliants won’t stress your skin with all that rubbing and rough scrubbing — which can potentially cause wrinkles, inflammation, and micro-tears in your skin (looking at you, walnut shells and microbeads).
Now, back to toners.
As a refresher, toners should be used post-cleansing to prep for the rest of your skincare routine and help to rebalance the skin’s pH (usually around 5.5).
Acid toner, as you may have guessed from the name, is also a toner.
So, to review, acid toners are kind of like the best of both worlds when it comes to toning and exfoliating.
But, being the “best of both worlds” kind of depends on what your skin needs in its world!
When it comes to acid toners, the two main types are AHA toners and BHA toners.
AHA, otherwise known as alpha hydroxy acid, are derived from natural substances like grapes, sugar cane, and milk.
AHAs are made of tiny, water-loving molecules, which makes them great for hydration (where are my dry skin ladies at?).
They also work to dissolve the glue-like substance that keeps dirt, sebum, and dead skin trapped in your pores — leaving your skin shiny and free of gunk!
In general, AHA acid toners are great for anyone struggling with sun damage, dry skin, and aging skin.
But, there are also BHA acid toners, which can be equally amazing!
BHAs, otherwise known as beta hydroxy acids, are oil-loving acids and are therefore great for those with oily and acne-prone skin.
BHAs can also be helpful to those who struggle with skin conditions such as rosacea because they are anti-inflammatory and antibacterial.
But acid toners get even more specific than just AHA and BHA, which means they are even more customizable for your skin and your needs.
In fact, there are even PHA toners (polyhydroxy acids), which are actually even more ideal for those with sensitive skin or skin conditions like eczema.
PHA toners penetrate in a shallower fashion than both AHAs and BHAs, and they exfoliate in an even gentler way.
So, let’s keep talking more about acid toners, we’ll get more specific into the world of AHAs and BHAs later on.
What’s Wrong With Some Physical Exfoliants?
You may be wondering why chemical or liquid exfoliants are suddenly being touted as superior to physical exfoliants, so let me sum it up for you!
Physical exfoliants primarily use teeny-tiny particles like crushed walnut shells and microbeads, as I mentioned above.
You may know microbeads as also being super bad for the environment because of their ability to pollute waterways — they’re now harshly regulated — but they’re also not great for your skin!
But it’s not just microbeads, it’s also the walnut pieces!
While scrubbing these particles into your skin may feel effective and cleansing, it can actually do more harm than good.
Unlike physical exfoliants, chemical exfoliants won’t stress your skin with all that rubbing and rough scrubbing — which can potentially cause wrinkles and micro-tears in your skin.
In fact, a lawsuit was actually brought up against St. Ives Apricot Scrub.
The plaintiffs claimed that the walnut shells used in the formula to help exfoliate actually caused micro-tears in users’ skin.
I don’t know about you, but I prefer my skin free of micro-tears!
And to be honest, sometimes my hands got tired from all that scrubbing — that’s why I’m all about liquid exfoliants these days, so let’s get back to acid toners!
How Can Acid Toners Benefit My Skin?
While I personally think we can all benefit from acid toners, you may particularly want to consider acid toners if you are struggling with any skin conditions that can be improved by exfoliation — think acne, uneven skin tone, dark spots, rough patches, and excess oil.
And unlike physical exfoliators, which can sometimes make your winter skin more dry and flaky (or irritate skin conditions like keratosis pilaris), acid toners actually are extra beneficial during the dry winter months because they are hydrating.
As I mentioned above, pretty much any benefits you’d get from a toner or an exfoliant can be found in an acid toner (without some of the side effects).
How Should I Incorporate Acid Toners Into My Routine?
The most common way to incorporate an acid toner into your at-home skincare routine is to simply sub it in for your regular toner in your nightly routine.
If your regular toner provides you with some benefits that your acid toner may not (for example if your regular toner is ultra-moisturizing and your acid toner isn’t), you can totally use both — just make sure you’re not using two acid toners.
If you weren’t already using a toner, that means you should use it right after washing your face with your cleanser.
While you can technically apply acid toners with your fingertips, I recommend using a cotton pad or a cotton ball.
This way, you can easily wipe away the dead skin cells, dirt, and more that the acid toner helps to pull from your skin.
Just like physical exfoliants, chemical exfoliants can be too harsh for everyday use — especially if you’re just starting to use them.
Instead of diving right into acid toners, I recommend starting with a once a week application, and slowly working yourself up to three times a week.
If you have sensitive skin, three times a week may be your sweet spot for your skincare routine.
If you have less sensitive skin, you may be able to work your way up to every-other-day usage of an acid toner — but always listen to your skin!
Ingredients to Look for in Acid Toners
Like most skincare products, acid toners are not “one size fits all.”
Different acid toners have different ingredients that will work great (or not so great) depending on your skin and your needs.
As we mentioned earlier, there are AHA, BHA, and PHA toners.
Within the AHA and BHA categories (both of which are more commonly found than PHA) are additional ingredients and acids to look for.
Here’s a list of ingredients commonly found in acid toners, and why you might want (or might not want) to seek out acid toners with those ingredients, as well as product recommendations.
Glycolic acid toners are some of the most popular acid toners and with good reason.
Glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid that’s actually derived from sugar cane — how sweet!
Glycolic acid works to stimulate collagen production in your skin, and if you know anything about collagen, you know that means it’ll help your skin look more youthful and plump.
In addition to the collagen boost, glycolic acid can help to resurface your skin, leaving you smooth like a little marble!
Unlike harsh exfoliants, the way glycolic acid toner works is that it gently dissolves the glue-like substance that causes dead skin cells to stick to your epidermis.
The result? Your smoothest, freshest skin ever!
You may especially be interested in glycolic acid if you have oily skin because glycolic acid helps to remove excess sebum (the natural oils that can clog your pores) and dead skin cells from your face.
You may remember lactic acid from your middle school science class – it’s found in our bodies.
It can also be found in sour milk, beer, and pickles!
The exfoliating properties of lactic acid remove excess pigment from skin’s surface, improving its appearance and smoothness.
It’s also great for water retention and moisture.
Say hello to softer, smoother skin!
You can probably guess where citric acid is derived from based on its name.
You guessed it – citrus fruits!
Citric acid contains antioxidant properties that reveal brighter skin.
Mandelic acid is great for pigmentation, with the added benefit of aiding with acne.
It’s derived from bitter almond!
Chances are, you’ve seen salicylic acid before — perhaps it was in your high school face wash?
Salicylic acid helps to unclog pores and therefore will work to eradicate any blackheads and whiteheads that are messing with your face!
It does this by dissolving the top layer of skin cells and exfoliating the cellular buildup.
Salicylic acid is related to aspirin, and it’s found in some plants, like wintergreen leaves, willow bark, and sweet birch bark.
It’s also synthetically manufactured.
Other Ingredients in Acid Toners
Fun fact: kojic acid is actually a by-product in the making of sake (you know, that fun alcoholic beverage you can get at sushi restaurants).
It’s also great to help with pigmentation!
It lightens skin through antioxidant activity.
Trying to get rid of dark spots? Then an acid toner with Vitamin A is your BFF!
Vitamin A helps to speed up your skin’s cell turnover rate, meaning that any scars or sun spots will fade faster, and your skin tone will be brighter and evener.
It also prevents skin from drying out and keeps it firm and smooth.
Vitamin A is a big constituent of many fish and vegetable oils.
I’m a huge fan of hyaluronic acid because I love a good glow!
Hyaluronic acid sets up shop on your skin’s top layer and grabs and hold moisture.
Fun fact: the hyaluronic acid molecule can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water!
This results in skin that is smoother, plumper, more hydrated, and more “awake” looking.
“Okay, Alana, that was a lot, I still don’t know which ingredients are right for me!”
I know, I know, sometimes there are too many options!
I recommend talking to your esthetician about which acid toner is right for you.
If that’s not an option, a lactic acid toner is a good, gentle place to start — you definitely don’t want to assume that the strongest option is better, because it will actually probably just irritate your new-to-acid-toner skin.
We’re all such unique (and beautiful) individuals with different skincare needs, and the wrong acid toner could lead to more harm than good!
Acid Toners vs. Liquid Exfoliants vs. Regular Toners: Is There a Difference?
Okay, so we mentioned that acid toners are a chemical exfoliant, which gives you the benefits of exfoliating without all the damage of scrubbing.
Chemical exfoliants are a type of liquid exfoliant.
Liquid exfoliants look like an unassuming toner, but they actually have ingredients that work hard to go deep into your skin and pull out dead skin cells, surface dirt, and any pore clogging materials.
So, how are acid toners different than regular toners?
Let’s talk toners first.
As a general rule, most acid toners will contain all the same benefits of regular toners (balancing your pH and hydrating), but with a punch of additional benefits and goodness (such as cleaning out your pores and wiping away dead skin).
While regular toners can help to remove surface-level makeup and dirt, acid toners go much deeper.
This is partially because regular toners are not chemical exfoliants, whereas acid toners are.
On top of the fact that acid toners will do added cleansing and detoxing of your pores, the added exfoliation means that the rest of your products are able to seep in deeper into your epidermis and therefore work more effectively.
Are There Any Downsides to Using Acid Toners?
As I mentioned above, you definitely want to watch how often you’re using an acid toner.
You also likely shouldn’t use acid toners if you’re under the age of 20 unless prescribed by your dermatologist.
Some signs of over-exfoliation include redness, irritation, increased dryness/flakiness, acne, and increased oil production.
If you notice signs of over-exfoliation, you should definitely take a break from exfoliating for at least a week.
Once you get back at it, try starting from once a week again, and work your way up.
In the meantime, try a hydrating sheet mask or soothing cream to ensure your skin is moisturized and able to build itself back up in a jiffy!
You also want to make sure that as soon as you start using a chemical exfoliant like an acid toner, you stop your use of any other exfoliants (including physical ones).
While I’m sure you already wear a daily SPF (right?!), it’s important to be aware of the fact that acid toners can make your skin more susceptible to sun damage.
When in doubt, always wear more sunscreen — you’ll never regret it!
As is the case with most new skincare trends, there are certainly people who argue against acid toners and believe they might not be as great as everyone claims.
Some of their main arguments are that using the wrong acid toner can cause more harm than if you weren’t using an acid toner at all.
This is why it’s important to talk to your esthetician or dermatologist about which product is right for you — and always listen to your skin!
There’s also the issue of overusing acids, which leads to similar effects of over-exfoliation.
It’s very easy for us to believe that a product is doing its job if our skin feels tight, or maybe even if it burns a little bit, but that’s not the effect you should desire when using acid toners.
In fact, that probably means you’re overusing them, or the formula you’re using is too harsh for your skin.
Even if you’re not necessarily overusing acids, the addition of products like retinoids and antioxidants can lead to similar effects — which is why you should always look at your skincare regimen as a whole before adding or subtracting anything!
In fact, skincare expert Renee Rouleau believes that an exfoliating acid serum is actually more beneficial than an acid toner.
She argues that the effects of an acid serum are longer lasting and that the effects are less harsh (and therefore better for sensitive skin).
Acid toners don’t sound so scary after all, do they now?
Keep your skin smooth, blemish-free, and glowy without rubbing any rough scrubs or washcloths on it by using an acid toner.
Due to the variety of acid toners, you can select the right one for you based on the ingredients (or with the help of your esthetician) — just make sure you take it slow and work your way up to whatever frequency is right for your skin and your routine!
Do you use acid toners? What was your experience like with them? I’d love to hear about your journey in the comments below!