Best Facial Toner of 2020
Kiehl's Ultra Facial Oil-Free Toner has a great balance between cleaning power and gentleness; it would be ideal for someone who struggles with combination skin, such as an oily T-zone and dryness on other parts of the face. In our tests, we found it had an amazing ability to scrub away dirt and oil. We were impressed by its exfoliation—we honestly felt a little gross about ourselves after seeing all the dirt and neglected makeup from the night before that the Kiehl's picked up on the cotton ball the first day we used it. Kiehl's has a subtle, pleasant scent.
This Kiehl's facial toner is geared toward "normal to oily" skin. We did feel the slightest drying effect on the first day. Since then, we experienced no other dryness; it very well could have just been the sensation of pores tightening. One very minor drawback is that it comes out of the bottle quickly—and this is really only even considered a drawback because it's such a high price point product. All in all, Kiehl's is a great choice for anyone with combination skin or who needs a little T-zone oil control without a drying effect—and for those who don't mind shelling out a little extra money for a gentle, effective product from a renowned brand.
The first morning we used Bioré Witch Hazel Pore Clarifying Toner was intense. It had the wonderfully satisfying gross-out factor, removing tons of dirt and oil that had accumulated overnight (or that we missed while washing). It also gave our skin a unique cooling sensation that woke us up and made us feel invigorated. Our pores shrunk almost immediately, and we could tell that our skin was sufficiently exfoliated (thanks to salicylic acid, which is often found in acne-fighting products), but it didn't get red or irritated. We like that Bioré is affordable and easily accessible.
Unfortunately, after a few applications, our skin started to dry out and feel too tight. Looking back, the combination of witch hazel and alcohol is probably what made for the pleasant cooling sensation—but also probably what dried and tightened our skin. While using this Bioré product, we lost a lot of the softness that we'd gained while using the gentler Kiehls, Klairs, and Heritage Store toners previously. Those who want a budget-friendly toner with extra oil control, exfoliation, and an intense pore-shrinking experience will probably get good results with Bioré. However due to the drying nature of this alcohol-based toner, we'd recommend testing it out with only one application per day—or even every other day—and working your way up if your skin can tolerate it.
Klairs Supple Preparation Unscented Toner is one of our favorites. Using Klairs, a lauded Korean brand, the first time honestly felt a little magical. It left our skin silky-smooth and perfectly moisturized—but not overly so—in a matter of seconds with no redness or irritation. We like that it contains no essential oils, which can often aggravate sensitive skin or put off those who don't like scented products. Klairs was so effective at making our skin smooth and even-textured that we were able to skip wearing primer and go straight to BB cream on the days we used it. After a few days using Klairs, we probably could have even skipped the BB cream. One detail that we liked but that may be controversial for others is the texture. The Klairs toner has a viscous consistency, almost to the point of gel or liquid soap—it even lathered up like soap when the bottle was knocked over.
While all the other toners we tested have a flip-top lid, Klairs has a screw-top cap, which can make putting it on your cotton pad or ball a little cumbersome. The plastic bottle is rigid and doesn't squeeze, so we had to shake the toner out of the bottle quite aggressively, which made us nervous about dropping the bottle since it's rather expensive. Because this Klairs product moisturizes the skin quite a bit, those who have extremely oily skin or breakouts may want to use caution—and it may not be a great choice for hot, humid weather. We recommend this toner, especially for those who avoid fragrances or who have sensitive, combination, dull, or even just occasionally dry-ish skin.
Our skin felt slightly dewier and noticeably softer after two applications of Thayers Alcohol-Free Original Witch Hazel Facial Toner with Aloe; it also didn't dry or irritate our skin and had no noticeable scent. We really like the attractive, retro packaging and thought it looked nice on our bathroom shelves. The addition of aloe didn't seem to result in any tangible skin benefits, but it was at least psychologically comforting to know that it was in the mix.
This facial toner is extremely gentle, and we didn't notice any stinging when we got close to our eye area. However, it didn't pick up much dirt or oil at all—even when we knew that there would be dirt on our skin. We also didn't notice much in the way of pore tightening; overall this toner seemed relatively neutral to our skin. Those who need a lot of cleaning power or who wear a lot of makeup may want to choose a different product or add a dedicated makeup remover to their routine. We recommend Thayers for people who want to keep their skincare routine simple, don't require a lot of cleaning power, and who have "normal" skin.
Neutrogena is a solid, dependable drugstore brand, so we weren't surprised that Neutrogena Oil- and Alcohol-Free Toner worked great to clean our skin, remove stray leftover makeup and keep oil at bay. It also has a nice gentle tingle upon application and didn't dry out our skin with its oil-fighting power. We like that it absorbs quickly and gives our skin a nice matte feel so we could apply primer and get on with our day.
There weren't many downsides to Neutrogena, although it could be very drying if you were to overuse it or are prone to dry skin anyway. We did notice some very slight redness after use, but it went away quickly. Generally speaking, it didn't make our skin look or feel markedly better, but also didn't make it look or feel any worse. Overall we recommend Neutrogena for anyone who wants a toner that cleans well, reliably controls oil, and is on the more affordable side of the spectrum.
We really like Humphrey's Witch Hazel Astringent's packaging design, which made us feel carefree and whimsical while wiping dirt, makeup, and oil off our face. Despite having alcohol, Humphrey's did not dry out or redden our skin right away. It soaks in fast and has great cleaning power, cleaning up plenty of gross gunk out from our pores.
Humphrey's does have a mild alcohol odor, which isn't exactly pleasant. The alcohol also made it sting whenever we got anywhere near the eye area, so we don't recommend using it to clean up leftover eyeliner or eyeshadow. And while it didn't dry our skin, Humphrey's didn't control oil well at all—especially for a product that calls itself an astringent. This was one of only two products we tested that urged us to reapply in the middle of the day; we started the day at a high oil level, and Humphrey's only took it down slightly. We felt our skin stayed pretty dull while using Humphrey's, and didn't really notice any improvement. We would recommend this product to someone who likes witch hazel-based skincare, doesn't need as much oil control, and doesn't mind the alcohol scent.
If you want your face to glow—like really glow—Heritage Store Rosewater Facial Toner will most likely do the trick. The only option on our list with extra-moisturizing Hyaluronic Acid, Heritage Store Rosewater wasn't life-changing by any means, but we did notice slightly softer, dewier skin immediately after use as well as over the course of the testing. The smell of this rosewater toner is powerful (and absolutely divine, in our opinion), but it could be off-putting for anyone who is sensitive to scents and essential oils—or who simply doesn't want to smell like roses. Heritage Store Rosewater is very gentle, so we felt comfortable putting some into a spray bottle for a skin-freshening mist/mood booster spritz throughout the day.
One thing that we didn't like was the sticky feel that occurred on our skin right after application—likely thanks to the vegetable glycerin. This typically took a few minutes to go away. While some may like this "glow" effect, we were tempted to wash it off. Once the Heritage Store Rosewater soaked into the skin, it felt fine, but we didn't like that we had to wait for the sticky feel to go away before putting on primer or BB cream. We recommend this toner for people who like the extra dewy look—as in, "just came from an intense workout" dewy—and who want a great-smelling, skin-softening toner with gentle moisture.
Clean & Clear Brightening Lemon Facial Toner isn't one of our favorites, scoring low to medium in our cleaning power, application, oil control, and moisture retention metrics. It did just okay in the cleaning department, picking up a medium amount of dirt and oil. It is unique in that it is the only facial toner on our list with lemon—although it's actually lemon extract, not lemon juice as advertised. (We wouldn't recommend using lemon juice on your face anyway, as dermatologists warn that it can severely irritate and damage your skin and make you more susceptible to UV rays.)
We didn't notice any "brightening" to our skin as the Clean & Clear bottle promised, but we did notice more redness and an annoying cycle: the toner dried our skin out so much right after using it that our face would overcompensate and become greasy later in the day. From Day 1, Clean & Clear left our skin very dry after a morning application, but by noon we would feel the need for another application to get rid of the oil that had appeared. After four applications, our T-zone felt greasier overall than it had been before using the Clean & Clear. We could see this drying/rebound oiliness cycle causing problems after continued use, especially for those who already struggle with dry, oily, or acne-prone skin. We also didn't like the scent: a fake lemon medicinal smell that made us cringe when applying the toner. Overall, we weren't fans of the Clean & Clear lemon juice toner, but it might be okay for someone whose skin can handle the dryness/greasiness rollercoaster and who really wants a lemon- or Vitamin C-rich toner.
Why You Should Trust Us
Our expert facial astringent and toner tester, Dana Raidt, has been comparing and test-driving beauty products ever since she cracked open her first copies of Seventeen and Sassy magazines. Since then, she's kept an eye on just about every brand and product out there, from the drugstore bargain bin to the latest K-beauty trends. She has spent several years evaluating, curating and writing about skincare products—both store-bought and DIY—for travel and lifestyle magazines and beauty blogs.
We started our research by reading up on dozens of the top facial toners and astringents on the market, looking at different formulations, ingredients, claims, and packaging before narrowing it down to eight options. We opted to stick to products that were geared toward "normal" and "normal-adjacent" skin. So rather than products marketed toward more niche, specific issues like acne or fine lines, we selected toners and astringents that could work for most "middle-of-the-road" skin types: somewhere in the neighborhood of normal, combination, slightly oily, or slightly dry. We spent weeks testing toners: two days worth of twice-daily applications for each product, plus a "break" day in between where we used no astringent or toner and evaluated how our skin was reacting to the product we'd just used. To consistently measure things like oil control and cleaning power, we used the products after cleansing either only with lukewarm water (in the morning) or with the same mild, neutral facial cleanser (at night) every day. To consistently evaluate each product's effects, after the morning application of the toner or astringent, we applied only a light layer of primer and a small amount of BB cream. At night, the toner was the only skincare product we used after cleansing with the gentle face wash.
Analysis and Test Results
Our testing happened to occur during a Midwestern autumn, during which we experienced whiplash weather, going from dry and 45° to 85° and humid (or vice versa) in the span of a few hours. This turned out to be beneficial for our testing, as every toner got a chance to prove itself under all kinds of environmental conditions. We ranked each product by how well it performed in regard to oil control, cleaning power, moisture retention, package design, and application (i.e., how it felt on the face and the experience of applying the product).
Many use the terms toner and astringent interchangeably—and they are very similar—but there are some slight differences. Astringents typically contain alcohol or other drying ingredients that are specifically geared toward controlling oil, while toners are more all-purpose. With some exceptions, toners generally do not contain alcohol and are friendlier to a wider range of skin types.
Oil control can be a tricky thing to measure, as schools of thought about facial oils are evolving. Among many other dubious health and wellness trends, '90s experts would have us believe that harsh products were necessary to remove any trace of oil that dares appear on our faces. By now, we've learned that stripping away too many of your skin's natural oils may actually cause your skin to overcompensate and create even more oil. There's also increasing evidence that our natural facial oils—even in abundance—aren't so bad after all. The American Academy of Dermatology Association even cautions people with acne-prone skin not to let their skin become too dry: "Dry skin is irritated skin. Anytime you irritate your skin, you risk getting more acne."
With that whole notion in mind, we kept a watchful eye on our skin's oiliness level, rating it on the short-term, day-to-day level using a scale from 0 to 3 before and after each application, tracking the increases and decreases throughout the week. We also scored each product for longer-term oil control, or how oily (or not) our skin felt overall after the two days of applications. What we observed tracks with what the experts say: The harsher products with more oil-stripping power (namely those that contained alcohol) got rid of oil immediately after use, but caused our skin to get a "rebound" bout of oiliness, sometimes feeling downright greasy later on. Kiehl's, Neutrogena, and Bioré offered the best immediate oil control, with Kiehl's and Neutrogena performing slightly better in the longer term. Not surprisingly, Thayers and Heritage Store didn't offer great immediate oil control because they contain moisturizing ingredients. Over longer periods, though, we wouldn't be surprised if the gentler formulas worked just as well by balancing out the skin's natural oils. Clean & Clear and Humphrey's did an okay job clearing oil in the short-term. However, we experienced "rebound" greasiness a few hours later and would feel like we needed to reapply toner.
Some people are morbidly curious and like to look at the gunk that gets removed from their face when they use a toner or astringent. We are not those people, but we bit the bullet and inspected each cotton ball used for the sake of science. While, of course, environment, diet, hormones, and any number of other factors can affect how much dirt and oil ends up on your face on any given day, we tried to keep a level playing field by using only water to wash in the morning and only a gentle cleanser at night.
Kiehl's was the clear winner here, removing a fascinating amount of dirt and oil on the first application and beyond, but still not drying out our skin. Neutrogena and Bioré also picked up a lot of dirt, and Bioré gave our skin a nice "freshly exfoliated" feel (probably thanks to its salicylic acid). Clean & Clear, Humphrey's and Heritage Store scored lowest on this metric, hardly removing any dirt at all. We also noted any cases where our skin felt dirty enough that we felt we needed an extra application of astringent or toner in the middle of the day; this only happened with Humphrey's and Clean & Clear.
Great cleaning power and oil control is one thing, but a toner or astringent that can do all that without leaving your skin feeling dry, tight, or flaky is a rare gem. We measured how dry our skin felt after each of the four applications for each product, then combined those incremental moisture changes with scores for flakiness and the overall dryness of our skin at the end of each product's testing run. Klairs and Heritage Store both scored perfectly in this category. Klairs—which especially shined here—left our skin not just moisturized, but super-soft, even, toned, and ready for makeup or an au natural look, no primer required. After the four applications, each of these two toners had improved our skin's tone and texture, and we definitely noticed a change for the worse when we stopped using each of them. (Klairs actually relieved some flakiness we experienced on one of our "off" days.)
Neutrogena scored extremely low in moisture retention over time. Although it's alcohol-free (so theoretically, it wouldn't dry out skin) and didn't seem to dry us out immediately, it definitely made our skin feel drier and more uncomfortable at the end of the run. If we continued to use this product, we'd probably just go with one application per day. Bioré caused some flakiness after one application on a dry day but didn't suck the moisture from our skin like Neutrogena did.
For this metric, we evaluated the experience of using each facial toner or astringent: its smell, consistency, tingly sensation (if any), absorption speed, and whether it caused redness after applying. Kiehl's, Klairs, Humphrey's, and Neutrogena all scored well in this category. Klairs lost a point for its goopy texture, which took some getting used to. Bioré had the best tingle of the bunch, while neither Heritage Store nor Thayers gave us any sensation when applying them. One thing we didn't love about Heritage Store was that it took a long time to absorb, leaving a slightly sticky residue on the face while it did so. But if you like the dewy look, this could be a good option.
Clean & Clear was the worst smelling in our opinion, with a medicinal faux-citrus scent, while Heritage Store had a very pleasant rosewater smell. For those who are sensitive to scents or essential oils, we recommend Klairs or Thayers as neither one had a detectable smell—and Klairs is marketed as essential oil-free and unscented.
This is really a subjective category, evaluating how nice the packaging looks on our shelves, as well as how user-friendly the actual bottle and spout are. Thayers out-prettied all other products with its understated retro label. It also scored perfectly in usage testing, with a sturdy, easy-to-use flip-top and a small hole that didn't make us feel like the whole bottle of toner was going to dump out onto our cotton ball.
The Klairs product, despite all its other positive attributes, didn't do so well. While we felt pretty neutral about the label design, the screw-top lid and rigid bottle made for a somewhat awkward, cumbersome experience.
We hope that this review has helped you narrow down your toner or astringent selection so you can find a product that works for your particular skin. Our recommendations are based on plenty of research and rigorous, unbiased testing of a wide variety of beauty products. We hope you've found the toner or astringent that makes you feel great about your skin.
— Dana Raidt