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First of all, you can use your face toner when you’re using retinol. And there are in fact amazing toners you can pair with your retinol. Whether it’s over-the-counter retinol serum or a tretinoin cream, you can utilize toners to help you minimize and sometimes even prevent some of the unpleasant side effects associated with retinol. The question you should be asking is which ones? I’ll tell you in a jiffy!
Vitamin A derivatives, collectively called retinoids, speed up skin turnover rate and address multiple skin concerns such as wrinkles, acne, and hyperpigmentation (1). Meanwhile, retinoids do a number on your skin and can cause skin dryness, irritation, and redness.
So that glorious ‘glazed donut’ skin people are talking about comes at the very end of the tunnel and you soon realize that the journey is more like a roller coaster ride than smooth sailing.
That’s when you start to check if there are any products you can use to manage the situation. For me, I’ll take any excuse to use multiple products and layer my 10-step skincare routine but maybe that’s just me.
Either way, toners fit right into this situation and come to the rescue. But as with any other products you use when you use retinol, you need to pay attention to the ingredients in your toner too.
Because trust me, if you think of astringents when you think of toner, we are not on the same page. Let’s put you up to speed first and get to know the best types of toner you can pair and layer with retinol.
What Kind of Toner To Use with Retinol
You can use hydrating toners made with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and glycerin. These ingredients attract water and bind it to the skin to replenish it (2). And these types of toners directly counteract the drying effects of retinol.
You can also use soothing toners made with calming ingredients like green tea, aloe, Centella Asiatica, cucumber, and allantoin. These ingredients are known to have anti-inflammatory and calming effects on the skin (3). And these types of toners directly counteract the irritating effects of retinol.
On the flip side, traditional face toners formulated with astringents like witch hazel and skin-drying alcohol are the ones you should avoid. These types of toners are supposed to mattify skin and reduce oil. And these are the exact toners you should avoid when using retinol.
In terms of formulation, try to go for alcohol-free toners. While it can help excess oil on oily, acne-prone, or combination skin, it can be too drying for the skin because retinol regulates skin turnover which already reduces excess oil production.
How about exfoliating toners like glycolic acid toners or salicylic acid toners? Again, we’re looking for toners to layer with retinol. And these ingredients shouldn’t be used together with retinol. On a side note, if you’re looking to exfoliate to get rid of flakiness and peeling from retinol, see our round-up of exfoliators to use with retinol.
The Best Toners To Use with Retinol
I’ve listed below some of the best toners you can comfortably use with retinol to minimize retinol dryness and sensitivity.
1. Kiehl’s Calendula Herbal Extract Alcohol-Free Toner
As someone with rosacea which translates to sensitive skin all day every day, I can say that this is one of the gentlest toners I’ve ever used on my skin and something I can layer together with my retinol serum without any problems. The whole thing is formulated to soothe the skin. Anti-inflammatory calendula, burdock root, and allantoin extracts instantly minimize redness and irritation on the skin.
And that’s exactly what you need when you’re using retinol. Plus, the toner is equally hydrating with glycerin. So before you move on to retinol, let the toner absorb and prep your skin for it. It’s great for all skin types and the non-drying formula is, of course, alcohol-free. It’s also fragrance-free but there is a faint calendula scent.
Quick Tip: Kiehl’s has an amazing range of toners. If this isn’t your cup of tea, you can also try their Cucumber Herbal Alcohol-Free Toner. That one is cheaper and also has soothing ingredients like cucumber, aloe, and chamomile.
Key Ingredients: Calendula, allantoin
Size: 8.4 oz/ 250 ml
Good To Know: Alcohol-free, fragrance-free, non-comedogenic
2. Clarins Soothing Toning Lotion
Normally, I don’t care for natural or all plant-derived skincare. But Clarins does this thing where they pack amazing anti-inflammatory botanicals with a heavenly smell and squeeze them into a bottle. This is the perfect example of that. It’s made with chamomile extract which is incredibly helpful in soothing redness and sensitivity you may be dealing with from using retinol.
It gets rid of the tight feeling after cleansing and just relieves redness. The toner also contains a special blend to help support the skin barrier and includes antioxidant-rich kelp extract and algae. The alcohol-free formula gives your skin a comforting layer of hydration.
Key Ingredients: Chamomile, seawater, kelp extract, saffron flower
Size: 6.7 oz/ 200 ml
Good To Know: Alcohol-free
3. Innisfree Green Tea Hyaluronic Acid Toner
This one is incredibly hydrating and soothing for the skin and an overall amazing toner for thirsty, flaky skin. After all, it’s a Korean toner and they sure do know a thing or two about healthy skin. It’s made with different forms of hyaluronic acid to better penetrate the skin and boost moisture.
Hydrated skin will soften the blow, so to speak, and hydration works like a protective shield against the drying effects of retinol. Plus, the toner has green tea extract which is, as we’ve established, a sensitive skin saver. But more importantly, the lightweight toner packs vitamin B5 to soothe and squalane to enhance the moisturizing effects. So, healthier skin is ahead.
Key Ingredients: Green tea, vitamin B5, hyaluronic acid, squalane
Size: 5.4 oz/ 160 ml
Good To Know: Alcohol-free
4. Dermalogica Multi-Active Toner
This is a toner that comes in a spray bottle. The spray is not as ‘airy’ or ‘fine’ compared to traditional face mists. Instead, it has more substance. And I actually find these types of toners to be more convenient for application when you’re using retinol. A hands-off approach, so to speak, when you don’t want to vigorously rub your skin.
The toner is made with an impressive bunch of botanicals like aloe, licorice root, cucumber, and lavender. It’s the dream team to quickly help your skin calm down such as right after shower. But the best part is that it contains several amino acids, which are super hydrating for the skin and help restore the skin’s moisture levels. And it smells simply amazing!
Key Ingredients: Aloe, cucumber, lavender
Size: 8.4 oz/ 250 ml
Good To Know: Alcohol-free, vegan, cruelty-free
5. Mario Badescu Aloe Vera Toner
And lastly, this is a very minimal, super gentle toner you can use with retinol if your skin is acting up and you have visible redness. It’s made with aloe to comfort the skin, reduce signs of irritation, and calm redness. It’s budget-friendly and suitable for all skin types.
Just let your skin drink it up before moving on to your retinol. Plus, as the formula is made with sensitive skin in mind, it’s alcohol-free and fragrance-free too.
Key Ingredients: Aloe water
Size: 8 oz/ 236 ml
Good To Know: Alcohol-free, fragrance-free, vegan, cruelty-free
So these are the best toners to use with retinol to minimize retinol’s side effects and maximize your results. You don’t have to deal with dry, red skin just because you’re using retinol. Squeeze one of these toners into your routine and let your retinol do the rest.
How to Apply Toner When Using Retinol
First of all, your toner goes first in your routine. Toners are liquid and because of their consistency, you apply them first right after you’ve washed your face. Now, here’s the most important part.
In general, you apply toner using cotton pads. You saturate a cotton pad and sweep it across the face focusing on the cheeks and the forehead. You can keep doing this. However, I’ve realized that sometimes my skin is too sensitive for this type of application.
That sweeping motion creates subtle friction and a certain amount of heat, which is something I don’t like when my skin is experiencing flare-ups. So here’s a better way. Pour your toner into the palm of your hand and then press the liquid into your skin. It’s a bit messier, and certainly not as ‘graceful’, but it eliminates the unnecessary rubbing.
Now, here’s the second most important part.
Wait for your skin to absorb your toner and dry down before applying your retinol cream or serum. Toners dampen your skin. That’s why toners are often used to ‘increase the absorption’ of skincare products. Because damp skin is more absorbent than dry skin. Applying retinol on damp skin increases the likelihood of irritation. So your skin needs to be dry.
- Zasada, M., & Budzisz, E. (2019). Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii, 36(4), 392–397. https://doi.org/10.5114/ada.2019.87443
- Harwood A, Nassereddin A, Krishnamurthy K. Moisturizers. [Updated 2022 Aug 21]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK545171/
- Wu J. (2008). Anti-inflammatory ingredients. Journal of drugs in dermatology : JDD, 7(7 Suppl), s13–s16.