This post about acid toners is one that’s long coming. It was a little hard for me to write, for a few reasons. The primary reason is because I have to suck it up, swallow my pride and admit that I wasn’t entirely correct in pursuing the skincare regimen that I was pursuing.
About 4 years ago, I discovered exfoliating lotions, or what are also known as “acid toners”. These are toning lotions that contain acids, usually in the form of glycolic acid, lactic acid (AHA) and/or salicylic acid (BHA). I primarily stuck to lotions containing AHA – Alpha Hydroxy Acids.
Fast forward 3 years later, after finding and using one of the best in the market, I now use acid toners quite sparingly, compared to before. It isn’t because they’re no good. But I’ve learnt more about my skin in that time, and I hope to be able to help you decide if acid toners are for you :)
What are Acid Toners?
“Acid toner” is the label given to a toning lotion (or toner) that contains acids in the form of AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acid) and/or BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acid), which perform an exfoliating function. Most often, these lotions will contain a form of glycolic, lactic and/or salicylic acid. These days, you may see something referenced as PHA (Poly Hydroxy Acid) included in the mix.
The concentration of acids in these acid toners are usually lower than that found in a serum or a peel solution, as they are suggested to be used daily, or at least, often. Usually, they are recommended to be used after cleansing. These acid toners are what has brought back toners into most skincare routines.
Acid toners also come in a low pH level (acid – duh!), and quite often, they may sting your skin a little depending on the concentration of the acid used. This is especially so with glycolic acid products. Lactic acid is generally more “gentle”.
Why do you need an Acid Toner?
To say you “need” it is a little misleading. Up to 2 years ago, I’d have said that you NEED an acid toner in your skincare routine. NEED!
Today, I’m revising that opinion. I’d say that having an acid toner in your skincare routine can be beneficial, with a few provisos.
If your skin is very dull, congested, acne-prone and/or combination/oily, you may benefit most from regular use of an acid toner. I can tell you from experience that it is incredibly helpful when you have congested skin. I used to go through phases of congested pores, blackheads, and the occasional spot especially around the time of my period. Using an acid toner regularly kept these spots at bay, and kept my skin clearer, and brighter, smoother and better.
Acid toners do this by gently exfoliating your skin, removing dead skin cells and expediting the cell turnover, to reveal brighter skin. The exfoliation also helps unclog pores and dry up or reduce spots. The type of acid toner you pick will depend on what you want to address:-
- For more radiant skin pick an acid toner with AHA – usually glycolic (more harsh) or lactic acid (slightly more gentle)
- For congested and acne-prone skin pick an acid toner with BHA – usually salicylic acid or sometimes with willow bark extract
Some acid toners have both AHA and BHA, some contain PHA as well, to refine skin texture and bind with moisture. Products that contain PHA are usually less drying and better for those with dry or dehydrated skin types.
Don’t be over-zealous
I used to think that I needed an acid toner with as high a percentage of acids in it, that I could tolerate. I was actually wrong. If you are going to be using an acid toner regularly (once a day for example) then you want something a little more gentle to avoid the risk of over-exfoliation.
Over-exfoliation is a problem that I ran into now and again in the past 3 years, without really understanding why it was happening. Generally for me, when my skin is over-exfoliated, it takes on a sandpaper feel, looks dull and feels very dry, bumpy and dehydrated. My skin feels taut and uncomfortable. The odd time that it happened, I’d stop everything I’m using, and embark on my routine to recover from over-exfoliation.
My experience with over-exfoliation is, by most accounts, mild. I have come across people who have experienced more breakouts and even cracked and peeling skin. This is attributed to the damage to the skin’s moisture barrier – the barrier that your skin has to hold in and retain moisture in your skin. When this barrier is damaged (often due to over-exfoliation) then your skin loses its ability to retain moisture, allows it evaporate and cause your skin to dry out.
The other thing I’ve come across are people who use an acid toner and then also use a physical exfoliator, or facial scrub or even a face washing gadget like the Clarisonic (which I do not recommend to be honest). Your poor poor skin! :(
When you choose to use an acid toner, you should be aware of the other products that you are using alongside. Exfoliating skin is good. Over-exfoliating is bad.
Always wear sunscreen
Acid toners work by exfoliating and removing the top layer of your skin. This is what makes your skin look more radiant. But it also means that you are exposing more new skin to the sun and UV rays. Sure, you can argue till the cows come home about there being no sunlight where you live at certain times of the year. But if you’re using acid toners, there really is no compromise on this.
What acid toners do I recommend?
This is tricky, because there are so many out there, and I have not even tried many of them. But of the ones I’ve tried, these are the ones I like, in descending order:-
- Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 (review) – this is hailed as the gold standard of acid toners, and I fully agree. I have finished one bottle, and I am presently using one, with one more as a back up. I really don’t need to try any other, because this is the best. Non-drying (It contains PHA), fairly gentle and makes my skin feel and look clearer with regular use.
- Pixi Beauty Glow Tonic (Review) – Hailed as a “dupe” for Lotion P50. I disagree, as it really stands on its own. I like that it feels fairly gentle, isn’t drying and works well for my skin. For those on a budget, I’d recommend this one.
- REN Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic (Review) – This one contains willow bark and I find it a little drying for me. Otherwise, this is a good option too.
- First Aid Beauty Radiance Pads – Very convenient, but I feel them to be a little more harsh than a cotton pad, and potentially dries up more quickly than you can use them. But they are portable.
- Hada Labo Mild Peeling Lotion with AHA and BHA (Review) – This one is affordable and effective. But do exercise caution as I have detailed in this post.
What about Alpha-H Liquid Gold you ask? It’s got glycolic acid too. Yes, but it isn’t an acid toner. It is a treatment product that you apply and skip everything else. So no, it does not come in this category.
What benefits do you get from an acid toner?
An acid toner exfoliates your skin chemically (using acids) and this helps with reducing fine lines and wrinkles, pigmentation (so some say), makes pores appear smaller, smoothen the skin, decongests pores and makes skin look brighter and more radiant. Exfoliation is a good thing!
Why have I stopped using acid toners?
Ok, so that was a bit of a clickbait LOL! :P I haven’t really stopped using acid toners. I’ve just dialed back a lot on their use. I used to use acid toners daily. Sometimes, even twice a day, much to the consternation of some people who I’ve spoken to. This was great then. Skin looked brighter and more radiant, my spots went away, my skin decongested, it was great.
Then, without realising it, I overdid things. I incorporated serums with acids in them. I liked Sunday Riley Good Genes and REN Wake Wonderful serum, both containing lactic acid, and I was using them often. Usually, alongside my acid toners. I also double cleanse in the evening with a cleansing balm first, and then a cream/milk cleanser. Often, when using a cleansing balm, I’d use a face cloth. That was really too many exfoliating steps right there.
As I was saying above, I noticed that I was experiencing the side effects of over-exfoliation a little more often than I felt comfortable with. So I did something drastic. I stopped using acid toners for about 2-3 months to observe how my skin reacted. In that time, I kept to my regular routine, and upped my moisture and hydration, alongside other actives.
You know what I realised?
My skin wasn’t suffering from not using an acid toner. In fact, it seemed to be doing quite well! I was using the Alpha-H Liquid Gold at least once or twice a week, and on other days, I was using serums that contained acids, or I was doing a mask that contained acids. My skin was not wanting for exfoliation at all! About this time, I discovered the moisture sandwich skincare method and my skin has never been happier! :D (Note: I don’t use facial scrubs – I find them too harsh in general, no matter how gentle they claim to be)
Does it mean I can exclude acid toners from my skincare routine? Well, not really. They are still very useful products, as I’ve detailed above. When I notice a bit of congestion, a wipe of acid toner usually clears it up quickly. If my skin feels like it needs a truly deep cleanse, one swipe of an acid toner after cleansing, and it feels ready to soak up the rest of my skincare routine.
Today, I still use acid toners, but I have cut back to using them just 1-2 times a week. I make sure that on those days I use an acid toner, I do not use any other form of exfoliation, be it manual, mechanical or chemical – which means no wash cloths as well. If I intend to use a treatment serum or mask with glycolic or lactic acid in it, I skip the acid toner. I am just more conscious of what I use, and when I use them, and my skin is thankful! :D
However, when I travel I always carry an acid toner with me and use it – the First Aid Beauty Radiance Pads and the Pixi Glow Tonic pads are useful for this purpose. The reason is because I am outside more often than in my regular daily life, and exposed to more environmental stresses and pollution. A wipe of acid toner over my skin after cleansing helps keep my skin more clarified in an unfamiliar environment, where I may not be cleansing my skin as well as I should be. This also keeps holiday breakouts at bay. I used to breakout when I go on holiday, but keeping an acid toner in my holiday skincare routine has reduced the odds of it happening.
The thing is this – there is a lot of information out there, and many of us struggle with information overload. Today, there is a trend to use a particular product or ingredient. Tomorrow, there is a new gadget or product that does something else. We must be able to think for ourselves, how that product/ingredient fits in our skincare routine, and if we are focusing too much on one aspect, to our detriment. It took me a few cycles of healing my skin after over-exfoliation to realise that it was a problem, and it took me a while to realise what it was. You can read a little more from Renee Rouleau about her take on acid toners and why they may not be the best option. I agree with her on many points, but I also disagree on some. I must say that I have experienced the benefits of using an acid toner when my skin needed it most, so I’d say work with your skin needs, not what everyone else is doing.
Skincare is absolutely fascinating. We just have to learn what works for us.
Do you use an acid toner? Have you experienced over-exfoliation?
Do share your thoughts on this. I am aware that many people are starting to use acid toners, but may not be aware of how they may cause more harm than good if we aren’t careful. Many people are also not aware that they are over-exfoliating their skin. I’d like to hear what you think.