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If you suffer from problematic, sensitive skin that seems to be irritated even by the best product, you probably know first hand how hard it can be to pick the right skin care routine.
Finding the best toners for sensitive skin has become both easier and harder over recent years.
Just ten years ago, it was still all too easy to find toners that only people with the hardiest of skin types could use. These skin care solutions were actually recommended against by most dermatologists and skincare brands.
While they helped close pores and rid the skin of oil, these old-style toners were simply too aggressive and drying, even for normal skin.
Fortunately, in the modern skincare world, we don’t have to worry about toners feeling like a harsh chemical wash. The only minor downside is that toners and cleansers’ roles have begun to overlap, making it harder for those looking to care for a particular skin condition or type.
This article should help clear up exactly what a toner is, what it should do, and the top options on the market when it comes to the best toner for sensitive skin.
Before you buy: 5 things you have to consider when purchasing a toner for sensitive skin
1. Toner vs. cleanser
For many people, their toner is simply the product that you use after cleansing. But with many toners also containing cleansing ingredients, and many cleansers also mopping up skin oils and balancing the pH, it can become a bit confusing.
Don’t just use one type and think you can get away with it: using a cleanser alone could leave your skin dried out and tight, the last thing you want if your skin is already sensitive.
Toners are especially important to those of us with sensitive skin: they restore hydration, deliver rejuvenating extracts, and balance skin pH to minimize irritation and outbreaks. If you are trying to get chronically sensitive skin under control, then this is a part of your skin care regime which you will not want to miss.
2. Is this toner a toner?
To keep it simple, a good toner will hydrate the skin, close your pores and balance out your skin’s pH.
Unfortunately, in the somewhat wild west of skin care, some companies have opted to remove their harsh ingredients but have failed to replace them with effective, calming, and natural ingredients that actually work.
Whatever you do, don’t buy a cheap or two-in-one cleanser and toner. In lots of cases, it would just be better to wash with water.
Using a toner separate from your cleanser will ensure you replace any lost hydration from your cleanser, clearing away the day’s grime and oil buildup while also prepping the skin for your moisturizer.
Remembering to cleanse correctly before using a toner will also allow your skin to absorb as much of the benefit from your toner as possible. As you can imagine, if you have dirt and dry skin blocking the toner, it won’t be able to do its job.
3. How to best use a toner?
If you have sensitive skin, hydrating and soothing it should be your top priority. Massaging the skin is good to maintain health. Constant scrubbing and rubbing will only serve to irritate and damage the skin. This, as we all know, can make flakiness temporarily worse, so toner application should be nice and gentle.
Try tapping or blotting the toner onto the skin either using a cotton pad or by rubbing your fingertips into the toner in the palm of your hand. Some products advertise being able to ‘spritz’ their product – just make sure you don’t get any in your eyes!
4. Keep it simple
It’s unlikely in this day and age, but double-check that any toner you use now or in the future is alcohol-free. No one should be using it these days, but it is a definite “no-no” for anyone with sensitive skin concerns. If you want the best hope of soothing sensitivity, then avoid fragranced products as well.
Salicyclic acid is found in many cleansers, but these are typically aimed at oily and acne-prone skin. The acid helps break down clogged pores and lifts away from the skin that can contribute to outbreaks. Leave this ingredient alone if you have sensitive skin and introduce it only if other solutions have failed.
As with all skincare, less is more, especially when you are starting out. Your body will try to react and adapt to all but the most innocuous ingredients, so don’t go drowning your face with toner if you have never used one before.
Consistent, daily use of a moderate amount of toner will produce far better results than applying seven layers of the same toner, for example (an interesting but unscientific skincare practice that is rising in popularity despite the lack of evidence).
5. Watch yourself
This goes without saying for anyone living with sensitive skin, but you will want to start slowly with any new product. If you find that your skin starts showing any of the following signs, then stop using the product immediately:
The 4 best toners for sensitive skin
ZELEN Life Toner (Best for clean skincare)
- Handmade, organic formula
- Great for balancing skin pH
- A focus on effective, natural ingredients like geranium and lavender
- Suitable for a range of skin types from oily to sensitive
The best toner for:
A range of skin types, this toner locks in moisture while tightening pores and reducing the inflammation that can lead to outbreaks and blemishes. If you have never used a toner before, this is a great place to start with its gentle, all-natural formulation.
Lavender, geranium, honey
Some toners have drifted more into cleanser territory and forgotten their roots. However, the ZELEN Life Toner ensures that it tackles pH balance while locking in moisture – the core part of any excellent toner. Its main ingredients are lavender, geranium, and honey.
Lavender is an excellent ingredient with multiple benefits when applied to your skin. It reduces excess oil, gently moisturizes the skin, and minimizes the chances of acne breakouts and blemishes. It is a natural antibacterial that detoxifies the skin from harmful toxins.
Geranium is another soothing ingredient that packs a lot of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. It also balances the skin’s pH and reduces excess oil, maintaining a healthy natural balance. It can also calm irritations and redness due to its impressive wound healing qualities.
Honey is an ingredient that does it all. It cleanses the pores because it is antibacterial. It treats acne due to its anti-fungal properties, it exfoliates and hydrates the skin as it draws moisture from the air. Due to its multipurpose qualities, it can assist several skin conditions such as acne, eczema, psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis, etc.
If you have struggled to find a product in the past that is non-irritating, this toner could be the solution. It is free from parabens, alcohol, sulfates, petrochemicals, or synthetic colors and fragrances. Now let’s discuss the application experience and texture.
The ZELEN Life Toner is very lightweight and doesn’t leave any greasy residue on the skin when applied. It makes your face feel refreshed and calm, and absorbs really quickly.
The bottle design also makes the application process very easy as it features a spray pump. This makes it possible to both, apply directly on your face or apply with the more traditional method – using a cotton pad.
The packaging of the toner is eco-friendly, which goes in line with the green lifestyle that the brand wants to promote. The bottle is made with recyclable glass instead of plastic. This has been done without compromising quality, the bottle feels premium and looks luxurious.
What about the scent?
It is hard not to enjoy the scent of this toner. It is a mixture of honey and geranium aroma that is subtle and very relaxing to the nose. Geranium is known for its aromatherapy and calming qualities, which are proven to reduce stress levels in several studies. Whatsmore, the scent is not artificially derived and comes purely from its natural ingredients. This makes it even suitable for sensitive or easily irritated skin types.
One of the potential drawbacks of this toner is the premium price tag. If you are budget-conscious then Mamonde Rose Water Toner might be a more affordable option. Its price is about the same but you get more than double the quantity. It is also formulated with natural ingredients such as damask rose and rosa canica, which are known for their antioxidant action and soothing effect.
- Pure-plant ingredients
- Ensures that the skin’s pH is addressed
- Calms skin irritations and prevents conditions like acne
- Smoothes out the skin in preparation for moisturizing later
- Luxurious bottle with a spray pump
Things to think about:
- A bit expensive
If you have had issues with toners in the past and are stuck wondering which is right for your skin type, the ZELEN Life Toner could be the answer. Covering all skin types but using natural ingredients means this is an effective toner that won’t irritate or over-dry the skin. All-natural ingredients mean this is a toner that can be relied upon to keep your skin consistently feeling fresh and firm.
- Value for money
Mamonde Rose Water Toner Organic Damask Facial Rosewater (Best for hydration)
- 90% Rose Water is a very efficient hydrator
- Simple ingredient list for those worried about intolerance and allergies
- Vegan friendly
The best toner for:
Dry sensitive skin types that require more hydration
Rosa Damascena flower, castor oil extract, rosa Canina extract
If you are on the lookout for “K-beauty” skincare products due to their rocketing worldwide popularity, then look no further. Formulated in Seoul, South Korea, this botanical toner revolves around natural flower extracts, including Rose Damascena, and Rosa Canina flowers.
Let’s take a closer look at the ingredients.
Rose Damascena is known to reduce inflammation due to its rich antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. It soothes irritations and reduces redness. If you are suffering from rosacea, this is a great ingredient to minimize its effects. Furthermore, it prevents premature aging. It is rich in antioxidants and vitamins that protect the skin from oxidative stress, helping it to stay healthy and youthful. It is also very hydrating.
Rosa Canina extract is also rich in antioxidants. It cleanses the skin from dead skin cells while also restoring its natural glow and balance. Castor oil provides great hydration. It also helps to reduce the effects of acne and other bacteria on your face that can clog pores. It maintains good skin health while also reducing puffiness and swelling.
The texture of this toner is lightweight and watery. It is absorbed very quickly by the skin, making it feel hydrated and cool.
Unlike the ZELEN Life Toner and ELEMIS’ Soothing Apricot Toner, its bottle doesn’t feature a spray pump. This forces you to apply it either using a cotton pad or your hands. While it is not an issue for many, having the ability to directly spray on your face makes it more convenient, in my opinion.
The bottle design is nothing special and is made of plastic. It does not have the same luxurious feel as ZELEN Life’s or ELEMIS’ bottles. Nevertheless, I didn’t experience any leakage from the cap when it placing it sideways.
The scent of this toner is very nice. It is balanced rose aroma – not overpowering or lightweight. However, it is important to note that it does contain artificial fragrances, which might irritate those very sensitive to fragrance.
If you are looking for a toner that doesn’t have any artificial fragrance in its formulation, the ZELEN Life Toner wins in that department. Its light aroma comes purely from its organic ingredients – honey, rose geranium, lavender.
- Rose water is many times more hydrating than water
- A great rescue toner for days you may have let your skin dry out too much.
- Smells of the purified Rose Water it gets its name from.
- Value for money
Things to think about:
- Comes out as a gel-like consistency, which is different from most. Still applies smoothly, however.
Simple and minimal flower-based ingredients add up to a winning formulation from this Korean skin care brand.
- Value for money
SKIN&CO Roma Truffle Therapy Essential Face Toner (Best scent)
- Protective anti-aging toner
- Rejuvenates tired skin by purifying and removing dead cells
- Brightens skin and evens out tone
The best toner for:
Anyone looking for a more ‘active’ toner that has a great scent to combat everyday pollution and acne
Black winter truffle, witch hazel, rosemary, calendula, and glycerin
The SKIN&CO Truffle Therapy Face toner combines multiple natural ingredients that balances a powerful action without being irritating.
Witch winter truffle is a special ingredient that is not often used in skincare products. Yet it is a powerful antioxidant that protects and repairs damage caused by free radicals and environmental stressors. Truffles are also loaded with essential fatty acids that not only hydrate the skin, but also reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It is also very rich in vitamin C, which soothes the skin and protects from conditions such as acne and psoriasis.
Witch hazel is an excellent ingredient that balances the amount of oil produced by the skin. This prevents the pores from getting clogged which reduces the chances of blemishes. In addition, witch hazel can make your pores appear considerably less than they originally are.
Rosemary and calendula have many qualities. They are rich in antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, and antibiotic properties. Another quality of rosemary and calendula are the fact that they prevent the aging of the skin. They tighten sagging and skin that has become loose, making it appear firmer and more elastic. Glycerin is a well-known ingredient when it comes to hydration. It moisturizes the surface of the skin while also creating a barrier that protects against irritants and environmental stressors.
Like other toners on our list, this is a very lightweight that doesn’t leave a sticky or greasy feel. It it well absorbed by the skin and preps it ready for your moisturizer. You may feel a slight tingling feeling when applying with the cotton pad. However, this is very brief and as the product soaks in quickly. If you’re looking to remove any remaining dirt or makeup on your face after cleansing, then this toner does the job well.
The gold color of the bottle appeals to the luxurious shopper. Despite it being standard in design and not having a spray pump, the minimalistic packaging resonated with me.
Now let’s discuss the scent:
This has to be one of the best smelling toner’s you’ll find on the market. It’s a fantastic aroma, very sensual and lightweight. The scent is so unique that it is difficult to describe. I’d say it’s earthly and nutty in character. While it does contain parfum, it is alcohol-free.
Overall, this is an excellent toner if you have acne-prone skin. This is due to its inclusion of witch hazel, which has a soothing and calming influence on the skin. However, I found it a bit lacking when it comes an antiaging action. In my opinion, there are better options on our list that are superior in this department.
If you are looking for something with stronger antiaging properties, consider ELEMIS’ Soothing Apricot Toner. Its formulation includes apricot which, contains vitamins A, C, and E, along with essential minerals. It is particularly known for its effectiveness in reducing wrinkles and fine lines, as it is a great source of building collagen. Thus, bringing back the skin’s elasticity.
- A great all-round toner
- Protects as well as rejuvenating the skin
- Witch Hazel is a natural antiseptic that should help with minor outbreaks and blemishes
Things to think about:
- For very dry skin, the combination of ingredients may not be suitable
This is a light and well-rounded toner that will leave your skin feeling clean and refreshed. If you have combination skin and want a toner that does a bit of everything, the SKIN&CO Roma Truffle Therapy Essential Face Toner will help even out skin pH, bring fresh skin to the surface and help reduce the beginning signs of aging.
- Value for money
ELEMIS Soothing Apricot Toner (Best anti-aging)
- Rich in Vitamins and fatty acids
- Apricot extract helps soothe irritation
- Can be used as a spritz
The best toner for:
People who are looking to reduce signs of aging and irritations
Apricot, quillja wood, sweet berry flower
Toners have come a long way since the days of astringent, alcohol-based mixes. The Elemis Soothing Apricot Toner is no different. Getting its name from the Apricot extract it utilizes, this toner infuses the skin with vitamins and soothes irritations. It also contains saponins from quillaja wood and sweet betty flower.
Apricot is a superb ingredient when it comes to skincare. It is rich in vitamins A, C, E, andother important minerals, such as potassium, magnesium and iron. These help to reduce signs of aging (i.e. wrinkles and fine lines) but also boost collagen production. This brings back the elasticity and healthiness of the skin, making it appear more radiant and youthful.
But there’s more. Apricot is effective in removing irritations and blemishes due to the rich antiseptic and softening effects of vitamin C. It helps get rid of itchiness, eczema, etc.
Saponins from quillaja wood are used in this toner as a cleansing agent. They assist in removing any leftovers from cleansing, such as dirt, makeup, dead skin cells, etc. Lastly, I don’t usually recommend foaming toners but sweet betty flower naturally foams and hydrates rather than drying the skin. It balances pH levels and brings back the skin’s natural health and shine.
This toner feels very refreshing. It didn’t produce the same tingling sensation that the SKIN&CO Roma Truffle Therapy Essential Face Toner did. What I particularly liked is that the bottle does contain a spray pump like ZELEN Life’s Toner. This contributes to easier application.
What about its scent?
I found the scent to be a bit on the stronger side. Some of you may find it is a bit overpowering. This is because it is artificially derived, which might cause irritations to extremely sensitive skin types. This should not be an issue for most users, and on checking reviews, the general consensus is that the scent is pleasant and non-irritating. Therefore, it is suitable for sensitive skin.
- Great for sensitive skin that is already irritated
- Uses saponins from Quillaja wood to act as a natural cleansing agent rather than relying on harsh chemicals
Things to think about:
- Recent price increase may make other options more attractive
Elemis is a well-recognized brand for a reason – they have great experience and expertise in crafting skin care products that are effective, natural, and great for many skin types. This gentle toner is a great pick for those with skin conditions like Lupus or eczema that can often be reactive to even all-natural products.
- Value for money
Sensitive skin and toners
Sensitive skin is a common issue worldwide, presenting with a complex mix of symptoms. These symptoms can be purely subjective (unseen and only experienced by the person) or also contain objective elements, such as skin scaling or acne.
Partly because it is a self-perceived condition, this often makes it difficult to classify, diagnose and treat.
Although the reasons behind sensitive skin are still a bit unclear, fortunately, the steps to treat are not.
If you have very sensitive skin, the first thing to do is to stop using all cosmetics immediately for two weeks. After that, your products should then be introduced one at a time.
During this time, you should be using a good moisturizer to help restore proper skin hydration, which will build your protective skin barrier back up to normal. You will want to use a natural moisturizer, which does not contain any known irritants. If you have read our other articles, you will know that you should also be protecting your skin from UV radiation as well.
Using a good toner will lay the foundation for the moisturizer to have the best effect it can. The checklist below of what constitutes a good toner for dry skin is the exact formula we followed when finding our recommended products.
The toner ingredients must be:
- Stable, and not break down to other chemicals on application
- Should not include any unnecessary ingredients
- Should have a minimum of active ingredients
- Need to avoid all common irritants where possible
- Do not contain skin penetrating chemicals such as alcohol or propylene glycol
- Free from artificial fragrance
Frequently asked questions
What is sensitive skin?
Dermatologists typically characterize sensitive skin as an overreaction to external stimuli, such as skin care products, water, changes in temperature and humidity, and internal changes like hormonal imbalances.
The most common issues you may face if you have sensitive skin include tingling or stinging, burning, itching, or feeling of generalized tightness. Much less commonly, these can occur with visible signs such as redness of the skin or flaking.
Dermatologists now refer to this as sensitive skin syndrome, covering any sensitivity reactions due to temperature, sun exposure, pollution, or air moisture changes.
Although skin conditions like acne and dermatitis are associated with sensitive skin, much of the symptoms cannot be explained.
Sensitive skin is definitely a widespread concern, negatively impacting people’s quality-of-life. Even on a personal level, it can be hard to pinpoint what exactly causes sensitive skin, as symptoms may occur minutes or even hours after exposure to the responsible irritant.
In many cases, short-term exposure does not bring about a reaction. In fact, sensitivity is more the result of chronic exposure.
Bear in mind, despite what you may read on the Internet, there is no established screening test for the diagnosis of sensitive skin.
The best stance to take is to judge your own experience and take sensible steps to address any symptoms that you experience.
Just how common is sensitive skin?
In the past, sensitive skin was considered a niche problem, although this was perhaps due to people trying to self treat at home rather than seeking formal medical attention.
A skin care survey carried out in the United Kingdom showed that 51% of women and 38% of men self-reported having sensitive skin. Further studies that expanded to Europe and America also found similar levels.
Some researchers have calculated that almost 40% of the world’s population report sensitive skin issues at some point.
Does anything increase my risk of sensitive skin?
There are a few factors that seem to impact your risk of having sensitive skin.
Differences in water loss from the skin across different races appear to change the likelihood of hypersensitivity. The limited tests using extracts from chilis, darker skins seem to be associated with a decrease in skin sensitivity.
Women tend to have a thinner skin layer, which is more often disturbed by hormonal fluctuations that affect hydration levels. This is thought to be part of the reason behind the high reporting of sensitive skin amongst women. Interestingly, as men warmed to the use of skincare and cosmetic use, or recent studies have shown similar rates between the genders.
Age, of course, impacts skin sensitivity, as it does with all other aspects of skin. Interestingly, there seem to be two opposing forces at play when it comes to age. Younger people tend to self-report sensitivity issues, in contrast with the fact that their skin is naturally more resilient and healthy than an older person’s skin.
This oddity is thought to be explained by the fact that our sensitivity to stimuli generally decreases as we age. This reduced sensitivity can, in fact, be greater than the increased irritation caused by weaker and thinner skin.
Our skin changes due to a number of factors, including exposure to the outside environment, contact with clothing, amongst others. Our face is perhaps the most commonly exposed part of a body, including our hands, but we are much more likely to have sensitive facial skin than sensitive hands.
The skin barrier on our face actually happens to be thinner than in other parts of the body, and this is compounded by the fact that it is much more likely to have cosmetics and other skin care products applied to it as well. To make matters worse, compared to our arms or back, for example, the face has a much greater number of nerve endings, which makes it even more sensitive.
Sensitive skin is rarely sensitive all the time. This is much more likely to become the case when exposure to an irritant is constant as well. Irritants are unfortunately common and can be hard to detect. They include but are not limited to air pollution, high and low temperature, high humidity, and excessive exposure to the wind and sun.
A core part of managing and treating sensitive skin is minimizing or avoiding these irritants and triggers as much as possible.
For women, the use of make-up and cosmetics is the number one factor in triggering sensitive skin. This is thought to be due to either using the wrong product for your skin or of using the correct product, rather than the products themselves being the source of irritation.
We would add that the use of alcohol in skin care products can be both drying and irritating even when used as directed. Other products that we do recommend can be irritating to the wrong skin type, include alpha-hydroxy acids and retinoids.
Skin imbalance is related to overuse of products or poor skincare like harsh scrubbing. The skin becomes sensitive whenever its protective barrier is broken. This barrier becomes broken either when the skin is fully hydrated or when the acidity/pH deviates heavily from the healthy, slightly acidic pH of 5.5.
What is actually happening inside sensitive skin?
The science of sensitive skin, although not complete, is closely related to hydration and pH, as mentioned. The current understanding is that when the stratum corneum, which is the layer of skin responsible for trapping hydration, becomes ‘leaky,’ then there is a greater chance of skin sensitivity.
To put it simply, a ‘leaky’ stratum corneum allows too much water to escape and too many irritating chemicals to seep too far into the skin. What’s interesting is that properly hydrating the skin not only increases its water content level but also seems to reverse skin sensitivity as well.
Sometimes choosing the right toner can feel like you have to be a dermatologist just to find a good product. We hope that this article clears up what you should be expecting from a good toner and why.
If you already use a toner that isn’t on our recommended list, check the ingredients and make sure it doesn’t include any unknown nasties that could be setting back your skin care routine.
Getting your cleansing and toning right sets up your skin for a protected and healthy day, so it pays to get it right. If you haven’t already, sign up for the ZELEN Life Newsletter, where we release our latest findings and articles to our readers first so you can get the news and recommendations before anyone else does.
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- Richters R, Falcone D, Uzunbajakava N, Verkruysse W, van Erp P, van de Kerkhof P, et al. What Is Sensitive Skin? A Systematic Literature Review of Objective Measurements. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2015;28:75–83.
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- Balances skin pH while locking moisture, alcohol-free
- Handmade, organic formula that soothes skin and tightens pores
- Vitamins and antioxidants, anti-aging and anti-acne properties
- Lactic acid provides gentle exfoliation
- Rose Water based formula provides strong hydration benefits
- All-natural and vegan-friendly
- Excellent anti-aging action thanks to the lemon peel extract
- Witch Hazel assists with controlling outbreaks and blemishes
- Purifying action by removing dead skin cells
- Conatins fatty acids that soothe irritated skin
- Rich in vitamins that keep the skin in healthy condition
- Natural cleansing properties due to the saponins usage from Quillaja wood