Acid Toners: The ultimate skincare game changer

Your skin will never be the same

Acid toners are the best thing that happened to my skin. When I started using an acid toner (Lotion P50 is my saviour) my skin literally changed. Fine lines faded, I became much less spot prone, and the overall texture and radiance of my skin drastically improved. I can't say enough about the benefits of adding this step to your routine.

Generation I: When toner was basically rubbing alcohol

Back in the day, the word “toner” meant a witch hazel and alcohol cocktail that I would dip onto cotton balls and pat over my oily t-zone. I was obsessed with that numbing, Home Alone-like after-burn it produced. Let’s call this boozy, outdated version of a toner, "Generation I."

These types of toners were popular because of the alcohol’s ability to cut through oil and leftover residue from popular cold cream makeup removers. Unfortunately for your skin, many types of alcohol, especially at high concentrations, can wreak havoc on your skin and leave it dry and damaged. It's amazing how far skincare technology has come since the era of awful teen spirit toners. 

Generation II: The classic toners

Thank goodness the industry mostly moved on from these beasts to Generation II toners, which are what I think of today as classic, basic toners. The traditional function of these toners is to rebalance your skin’s pH level to the optimal level (about 5.5 on the pH scale, so slightly acidic), and secondarily, to clear away any lingering residue after washing your face.

Maintaining your skin’s pH level is absolutely key to keeping it healthy and glowing. Skin that is too alkaline will feel dry (read: wrinkle-prone) and harbour more bacteria (read: acne-prone). Skin that is too acidic is also more susceptible to acne, is overly sensitive and may look pink and irritated. Many cleansers tend to leave your skin a bit alkaline, which is why toners are used to get your skin’s pH back to its happy place. Your skin's outer protective layer knows what she wants and is not afraid to fight you for it.

Generation III: Welcome to the future (= acid!)

Now, for those of you who remain unfamiliar, I would like to introduce you to your new best friend: Generation III acid toners. This new generation of toner takes us far beyond the old-school “cleanse, tone, moisturise” method. 

Don’t be scared off by their psychedelic name, acid toners are the best. There are several different types of acids, so part of learning to use them is testing different combinations to see what works for you. Acids are not just for those with oily/combination skin, they are also great for mature skin, dry skin and for simple 30-year-old sexy lady skin. There is an acid toner out there for pretty much everyone.

Generation III acid toners have three main goals:

  1. Rebalance - Again to balance the pH level of your skin’s surface to the slightly acidic ~5.5.

  2. Exfoliate – Acids dissolve away the hardened, dead cells sitting on top of the skin, which allows new, fresh cells to come to the surface and be gorgeous.

  3. Hydrate – Acid toners act as humectants, which means that they attract moisture from the air or from anything you put onto your face, and trap this moisture within the top layers of the skin, leaving you hydrated and dewy!

All of these characteristics boil down to one, ultimate result, which is that acid toners prepare your skin to receive active ingredients found in your serums and face oils. This is huge. It means that after an acid toner, your skin is much better able to absorb important antioxidants and regenerating actives like retinol/vitamin A. Acid preps your skin for nourishment like it prepared your Uncle Gary for Woodstock. 

Major types of acids:

Most acids fall into two categories - alpha or beta hydroxy. I will eventually write another post that talks just about the differences, but for now, I've included the main acids and their special powers below as an overview.

  • Lactic (AHA) - resurfacing, great for dehydrated and dry skin.
  • Glycolic (AHA) - stimulating for better collagen production, resurfacing.
  • Malic (AHA) - resurfacing, good for boosting collagen production.
  • Salicylic (BHA) - best for spots/acne. Surprisingly gentle.
  • PHA's (Poly hydroxy acids) - best for those in need of hydration and deep penetration of product afterwards.

(Acid type definitions taken from the great Caroline Hirons).

How to get started

Because acid toners do contain truly active and skin-changing ingredients, it’s great to start with a milder product first and see how your skin reacts. It's also smart to start using acid toners at night only, maybe 2-4 times a week, and gradually build up to every night and some mornings. Ladies with darker skin should consult a dermatologist before using a harsh acid, as certain acids can cause discolouration in some skin types.

Hopefully you are already doing this, but especially when you are using acid toners, wear sunscreen every day as they can make your skin more sensitive to burning and sun damage.

Feel free to mix up your batch of products, switching between 2-3 products with different types of acids during morning or night or on different days. Because different acids have different benefits, you'll get the best results by rotating them like a well-curated playlist.

Certainly only use one toner in a single sitting to avoid irritation. Listen to your skin. For example, as much as I want it to, my skin can’t take high concentrations of glycolic acid, so I steer away from glycolic-heavy versions in favour of products where the acid contents are more balanced, or skewed towards gentler lactic acid.

Three cult products worth trying

Acid toners tend to come in two formats: pre-soaked disposable pads or straight liquid that you apply yourself onto cotton pads. Both are great, I don’t have a strong preference. I’ve listed these fan favourites below in order of intensity (starting with the least intense, Pixi Glow Tonic) so that you choose which level you want to start at. Enjoy!

Pixi Glow Tonic

(A cult-classic. Contains glycolic acid and aloe vera)

£18 - Click HERE to Buy

First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads

(Lactic and glycolic acid. Affordable and good for most skin types) 

£18 - Click HERE to Buy

Biologique Recherche Lotion P50

(Described as "Jesus in a bottle" it's that good. Lactic, salicylic acids among others, niacinamide) 

Prices vary and is difficult to find outside of France. In the UK - Try EF Medispa and in US try Shop Rescue Spa, but note that they force you to register before you can purchase (because they can, it's that good!)

By Renee Parker