Toner Vs Cleanser: What’s The Difference?

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what's the difference between toner and cleanser

When it comes to skin care, there are so many products to choose from that it can be difficult to know what’s really necessary and what’s just a sales gimmick. In this post, we’ll explore the difference between toner vs cleanser, and help you decide which is right for you. What does cleanser and toner do? Are cleansers and toners the same? We’ll answer all these (and more)!

What Is A Cleanser?

toner vs facial cleanser

A traditional cleanser, or face wash, is used to cleanse the skin and remove dirt, oil, makeup, bacteria or other impurities. Cleansers should always be used as the first step in your skincare routine. Not only do they help keep the skin clean and prevent breakouts, they can also help your other skincare products absorb and work better.

Cleansers can come in many different types and formulations. For example, oil based cleansers like cleansing balms and cleansing oils are great to break down makeup and oil from the skin. Creamy cleansers are ideal for dry, dehydrated and sensitive skin types because they usually contain hydrating and moisturizing ingredients. They can also come in gels and waterless cleansers like micellar water.

Related post: Does Micellar Water Take Off Sunscreen?

Face cleansers work by using surfactants, which are detergents that remove any impurities from the skin. Surfactants can “attract” dirt, oil, etc to help remove them from the skin. There are many different type of surfactants and they all vary in terms of strength and efficacy. One of the most common surfactants you’ve probably heard of is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, or SLS. While this one is not ideal for a facial cleanser, there are many surfactants out there that are much more gentle on the skin.

Benefits Of Cleanser

  • Cleanses Skin – keeping the skin clean is essential for a healthy skin barrier and function. When skin is not cleansed often, it can lead to a buildup of dead skin, bacteria, dirt and oil which can cause a ton of different issues like acne or other skin conditions
  • Preps Skin – cleansers help to prep the skin for the rest of your skincare routine
  • Enhances Product Absorption – when your skin is free from oil, dirt or other impurities, your products will absorb better and therefore be more effective
  • Keeps Skin Clear – cleansing the skin is one of the most important steps in any skincare routine. Without properly cleansing the skin, dirt, oil, bacteria and dead skin cells can all build up on the skin and lead to acne
  • Improves Texture – cleansers can help to sweep away dead skin cells so they don’t end up just sitting on the surface of your skin. This can help improve skin texture

While all cleansers have the benefits listed above, cleansers can also have additional benefits depending on the formulation and ingredients. For example, cream cleansers generally have hydrating or moisturizing ingredients to keep the skin barrier strong and add moisture back into parched skin. Clarifying cleansers will usually have acne fighting ingredients like salicylic acid, tea tree or sulfur. Cleansers can also contain brightening ingredients to help fade discolorations, antioxidants to help prevent aging and more.

Who Should Use Cleansers

Everyone should be using a cleanser in their skincare routine. Not only can they help keep skin clear, but they also help to keep the skin barrier healthy! Your skin can’t be healthy or function properly if it has a ton of dead skin or oil buildup!

How To Pick The Right Cleanser

Since there are so many different formulations of cleansers, it’s hard to know what to look for. Here’s a quick guide on picking out the right facial cleanser for your skin.

In general, you want to avoid sulfates like SLS. These are harsh and can disrupt the skin’s protective barrier.

If You Wear Makeup…

Go for an oil based cleanser like a cleansing balm or cleansing oil that dissolves makeup instantly (even long wearing and waterproof!). Ideally you want to follow up with a separate cleanser to remove any oil residue.

If You Have Combination, Oily or Acne-Prone Skin…

Opt for a gel cleanser. They usually contain stronger surfactants to help cleanse the skin of excess oil.

If You Have Dry, Sensitive Or Dehydrated Skin…

Look for a creamy, lotion or hydrating cleanser. These will contain gentle surfactants to cleanse the skin without stripping. They will also have hydrating and moisturizing ingredients to add moisture back into the skin.

What Is A Toner?

acne toner vs cleanser

A toner is typically water based and comes in liquid or spray form. They are designed to prepare the skin for better product penetration by removing any residue that cleansers may leave behind.

In the past, astringent toners were very popular, especially among acne sufferers. Astringents are like toners, but contain ingredients to “dry out” pimples and clear the skin. While that may sound awesome, the ingredients they use are terrible for the skin and can actually make acne worse! Bottom line, stay away from astringents!

While modern day toners are usually much better for the skin, you still need to watch out because many of them will still have irritating ingredients like alcohol, essential oils or fragrance.

Witch Hazel is also a popular toner and can be a great ingredient for oily and acne-prone skin types. Just watch out for the ingredients because many times witch hazel toners will also contain alcohol which can dry out and irritate the skin.

Toners can contain a variety of different ingredients to help with many different skin concerns. From dehydration and pigmentation to acne and aging, there’s a toner out there for every skin type and concern.

Modern-day toners tend to have lots of hydrating ingredients to add hydration back into the skin after cleansing. They can also have chemical exfoliants, anti-oxidants, brightening ingredients and more.

Toners help to remove excess cleanser residue and can also help remove makeup, dirt and oil your cleanser may have missed. They also help to balance the skin’s pH after cleansing.

Benefits Of Toner

  • Cleanses Skin – while cleansers are not meant to cleanse the skin per say, but when they’re used on a cotton pad and swept across the skin, they can help to remove any excess impurities your cleanser may have missed. However, if you just use them by pressing them into your skin with your hands, you will not get this cleansing action
  • Balances pH – cleansers will typically alter the skin’s pH slightly and toners will help to balance the pH to skin’s optimal level (around 5). This is important to keep the skin barrier healthy and strong as well as to help defend against any pathogens
  • Enhances Product Absorption – like cleansers, toners can also help product absorption. Toners will typically have humectants like hyaluronic acid or glycerin and these can help enhance penetration of your other skincare products like serums and moisturizers
  • Preps Skin – toners can prep the skin for the rest of your skincare routine by keeping the skin clear of any impurities and enhancing product absorption

Like cleansers, toners can have additional benefits, depending on the formulation. They can help soothe sensitive skin, exfoliate, fight acne and aging and more.

Related post: Should You Wash Off Toner?

Who Should Use Toner

While toners are not necessary, they can be a great addition to your skincare routine, particularly if you suffer from dry or dehydrated skin or you have some concerns you’d like to target. Toners are a great addition to your routine if you’re wanting some added benefits.

How To Pick A Toner

There are so many different toners on the market so it’s hard to narrow them all down. Here’s a guide to help you pick out a toner for your skin type and concerns.

If You Have Oily Or Acne Prone Skin…

Look for a toner with acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid. Witch Hazel, Niacinamide or other exfoliating acids like glycolic or lactic acid can also be beneficial.

If You Have Dry Or Dehydrated Skin…

Go for a hydrating and repairing toner that has humectants like hyaluronic acid or glycerin. Also look for ceramides, aloe vera, amino acids or plant oils.

If You Have Sensitive Skin…

Look for soothing ingredients like green tea, oats, centella asiatica, propolis or allantoin to reduce irritation and calm redness.

If You Have Combination Or Normal Skin…

Go for an exfoliating toner with AHA’s like lactic, mandelic or glycolic acid to keep skin smooth and healthy looking.

Difference Between Cleanser And Toner

One of the biggest toner vs cleanser differences is that a toner is not a cleanser. Its job is not to cleanse the skin, but to balance pH and add hydration back into the skin. Toners are typically used to target specific skin concerns like acne or pigmentation. Cleansers, on the other hand, are designed to cleanse the skin and don’t typically have too many targeted benefits because they aren’t left on the skin.

DefinitionA skincare product that contains surfactants to cleanse the skin of any impuritiesA skincare product that helps to balance the skin’s pH and add hydration back into the skin after cleansing
FunctionUsed to remove dirt, oil, makeup bacteria or dead skin cells from the skin. Used to hydrate, adjust pH and target specific skin concerns
BenefitsCleanses skin, keeps skin healthy, helps with acne, enhances product absorptionHydrates, balances skin pH, helps product absorption and can target specific skin concerns depending on ingredients
ApplicationUsed as the first step in any skincare routineUsed right after cleansing. Can be used on a cotton pad or applied with hands
Best ForEveryone – cleansers are an essential skincare product that everyone should useAll skin types – although not an essential product
FormulationCreams, lotions, gels, oils, balms and liquidsLiquid or milky

Main Differences Between Cleanser And Toner

  • Cleansers are an essential skincare product that everyone needs to be using to keep skin healthy and clear. Toners are not essential but can make a nice addition to your routine (but you certainly don’t have to use one)
  • A face wash uses surfactants to cleanse the skin whereas toners are used to balance and hydrate
  • Cleansers come in many different forms (like gels or oils) whereas toners are always very liquid-y (like water)

A big difference between toner and cleanser is that they’re supposed to be used for different things. A cleanser cannot replace a toner and a toner cannot replace a cleanser.

Cleanser and toner difference bottom line: Cleanser is to be used first to cleanse the skin of any impurities and toner is to be used following cleanser to add hydration and balance the skin after cleansing.

Cleanser Vs Toner Similarities

  • Both are great skincare products that can help improve your skin and target any skin concerns you have based on the formulation of the product you’re using
  • Cleanser and toner are both great for all skin types. There are so many different options on the market that there are plenty for your skin and your skin concerns.

Cleanser Vs Toner Differences

  • A cleanser cleanses the skin and helps to remove dirt, oil, makeup and other impurities while toners help to balance the skin’s pH and add hydration back into the skin after cleansing
  • Cleansers come in balm, oil, milk, lotion, foams or gels while toners come in liquid form and are often very watery but can also be slightly thicker in texture and milky
  • Cleansers are used as the first step in any skincare routine and toners are meant to be used right after cleansing
  • Cleansers are a necessary part of your skincare routine and toners are optional

Micellar Water Vs Toner Vs Cleanser

Micellar water is a liquid cleanser that contains tiny micelles. These micelles are little oil molecules, which attract dirt and other impurities like a magnet. Micellar water is great for those with sensitive skin because the formulation makes it gentle but effective.

The main difference between these is that micellar water is a type of cleanser and toner is not.

Cleanser Vs Toner Vs Face Wash

Cleanser and face wash are actually the same thing! Cleansers are also called facial washes or facial cleansers. They’re all just different words to describe the same thing!

Toner Vs Cleanser FAQ’s

difference between cleanser and toner

Is Cleanser And Toner The Same?

Nope, cleanser and toner are very different products! A cleanser is used first to cleanse the skin of makeup, dirt and oil. A toner is to be used following a cleanser to add back hydration after cleansing, balance skin’s pH and more. Depending on the formulation, toners can help with dryness, acne, large pores and more.

Is Cleanser Better Than Toner?

One is not better than the other because they do different things! Cleansers are a necessary part in your skincare routine, while toners are optional but can be great additions.

Do I Need Both Cleanser And Toner?

No, you don’t need to use both a cleanser and toner. Toners are completely optional! However, you do absolutely need to use a cleanser!

Do I Use Cleanser Or Toner First?

Cleanser should always be used before toner. Cleansers are always meant to be the first step in your skincare routine. Toner comes right after cleansing.

Can I Use Toner Without Cleanser?

Can toner replace cleanser? No, a toner does not contain surfactants or cleansing agents that will cleanse the skin like a face wash. Toners really aren’t meant to cleanse (although they can help remove impurities if used on a cotton round, but they will not replace a regular facial wash).

Can I Use Cleanser And Toner At The Same Time?

Yes! Cleansers and toners make a great duo. Although you don’t have to use a toner, you can certainly add a toner to your skincare routine. You can also use a cleanser and toner at the same time, the cleanser should always go first, followed by toner.

Is Toner Better Than Face Wash?

No , toners are not necessarily better than face washes. Toner is a skincare product you can use in addition to a cleanser and it’s completely up to you if you want to add one into your routine. However, they aren’t going to replace a good face wash.

Toners and cleansers really are meant to do two different things. Generally, cleansers will cleanse the skin, whereas toners will hydrate and balance.

Toner Vs Cleanser: Wrap Up

So, what’s the difference between cleanser vs toner? In short, a cleanser or face wash is used to cleanse the skin and remove impurities while a toner is used to balance the skin and hydrate after cleansing. Both products are great but toners are not necessary – they’re really just an added bonus if you want to go that extra mile in your skincare routine. Cleansers, on the other hand, are necessary and are the first step in any skincare routine! The main difference between cleanser and toner is that one is used for cleansing and the other is used for hydration and balancing.

Cleanser Vs Toner

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