How to choose the right exfoliating toner for your skin

First Posted on February 18, 2021 in:ahasbhadecoding activesphashop like a pro

Probably one of the first ways you get introduced to AHAs (alpha hydroxy acid) is an exfoliating toner. The only problem is that there are about a gazillion different exfoliating toners out there to choose from. And which one is going to be the best one for your skin type and how do you get the most out of your exfoliating toner? Let’s go through some chemist pro-tips shall we?

*For a quick refresher on AHAs, check out our dedicated blog post.

The who, what, when for exfoliating toners

What are exfoliating toners?

Generally speaking, exfoliating toners are an aqueous solution of chemical exfoliators (think AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs)  that are gentle enough for you to use daily.

Who should use exfoliating toners?

They are suitable for all skin types, and aim to smooth skin texture and brighten skin tone. For the most part, these are relatively low active concentration products that wouldn’t be your super powerful texture, hyperpigmentation fighters, but they are there to enhance your skincare routine.

When can I use these? Daily?

If you’ve got a high powered AHA serum or treatment, we wouldn’t consider these a “must-have” product. However, depending on the type of exfoliation toner (which we go into below), this can be a great way to slough off some dead skin cells daily to keep skin bright and glowing.  

Choosing Your Exfoliating Toner

Like many products, the exfoliating toner landscape is vast. Let’s break it up… chemist style. *break break... break it up!*

chemist confessions AHA toner landscape

“High” Concentration (8% and up):

Best for most skin types and those who are not using other chemical exfoliating products. Representative products include: Glossier Solution Exfoliating Skin Perfector, The Ordinary 7% Glycolic Acid Toning Solution, Tula Secret Solutions Pro-Glycolic 10% Resurfacing Treatment Toner, Peter Thomas Roth 8% Glycolic Solutions Toner

This group contains products that have a higher active concentration than other toners in this category. We would put the cut off at those with 8% AHA and higher. This is the concentration where daily use has a wealth of clinically-tested benefits. Products in this category could be the only chemical exfoliant you use in your routine and generally should only be used once a day. On the flip side, layering multiple AHA-containing products while using this toner could over-exfoliate and irritate your skin.

*We know TO’s glycolic is at an awkward 7%, but we’ll still put it here.

~2% to 5%: Easy Daily Upkeep

For acid beginners, those with sensitive skin, or actives layering enthusiasts. Representative products include: Pixi Glow Tonic, Mario Badescu Glycolic Toner,

Toners in this active range are very gentle and vanilla enough for all skin types, even those new to AHAs or with sensitive skin. This lower concentration is also great for introducing some chemical exfoliating benefits to a very actives heavy skincare routine. For example, if your skin is on a prescription acne regimen or a hydroquinone, you might want to opt for a lower concentration toner. The downside to this category is that there’s very very little data on essentially “micro-dosing” your AHAs, so you might not see super visible improvements to your skin texture and pigmentation. For more seasoned AHA users, this category may not provide the same exfoliating results that you’re used to.

Last and Least Recommended: Ultra Low Concentration Toners

Welp… then there are products that based on the ingredient list, more than likely contain <1% AHAs or even less. While these products contain some helpful hydrating, soothing ingredients, we wouldn’t consider them as products that offer exfoliation benefits. So just manage expectations here.

Clarifying Toners with Salicylic Acid or Willow Bark Extract

There’s a subset of toners that target oily skin woes that have BHA salicylic acid or willow bark extract. These usually combine with a low level of AHAs as well. What makes these oily skin specialists is salicylic acid’s slightly oil-soluble trait giving it the ability to exfoliate at the pore level. For those with dry but congested skin, we would recommend going alcohol-free and starting with a lower dose salicylic acid (think ~0.5%) to avoid drying out your skin.

Heavy duty clarifying toners: La Roche Posay Effaclar Clarifying Solution, Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, Farmacy Deep Sweep

Mild clarifying toners: Murad Clarifying Toner, Bliss Clear Genius Clarifying Toner + Serum, CosRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid

Exfoliating Toners Key Takeaways

Phew! That was a lot of products to go through! Ultimately, this is a relatively mild category. To get the most OOMPH out of AHAs, we’d recommend eventually leveling up or layering with a higher concentration product

  • For daily exfoliation, look for at least an 8% and up AHA concentration.
  • For an ultra gentle introduction to AHAs, look in the 2-5% AHA range.
  • For anything with a cat sneeze worth of AHAs, think of these as just a face refresher. Don’t expect any real exfoliation here.
  • BHA toners are oily skin/blackhead specialists. For dry skin types, try to avoid toners with high levels of alcohol or choosing a lower concentration of salicylic acid.


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