When it comes to blemishes, stronger isn’t always better. The best toners for acne-prone skin add a powerful punch of skin-boosting ingredients to your routine while helping you remove the last traces of pore-clogging dirt, debris, and makeup that cleansers might not catch. Most importantly, though, these bottles won’t irritate or dry out your delicate skin which can cause future issues.
“People with acne-prone skin often use too harsh of toners,” said Dr. Deirdre Hooper, a dermatologist and Associate Clinical Professor at Tulane and Louisiana State University in an interview with Bustle. Instead, look for products that will “not dry [skin] out” while it “gently removes excess oil.” Soothing botanicals like green tea are great, and for dry skin, zero in on moisturizers like hyaluronic acid.
Toners should be applied right after cleansing your skin and before serum, acne treatments, moisturizer, or SPF. Because acne-prone skin is often in need of ingredients that can balance your natural oils and reduce inflammation, it’s important to read labels on toners and choose formulas that are free of alcohol and harsh chemicals. Those with sensitive skin might also want to avoid witch hazel or skip the traditional toner altogether and instead opt for a gentle micellar water for that final clean, according to Dr. Hooper.
Many shoppers look for exfoliating toners to tackle acne, and if you’re dealing with blackheads, Dr. Hooper recommends looking for toners with salicylic acid. Those with dark spots should opt for glycolic acid, on the other hand, according to Dr. Hooper. However, the doctor notes to make sure you’re not overexfoliating. “Stingy or itchy means the barrier is impaired,” Dr. Hooper explains. “If it looks oily but feels irritated and red. Your skin is producing excess oil so you end up getting on this cycle that your skin can’t get off.” After you’re done applying toner, your skin should not feel tight or look red.
Scroll on for the best toners for acne-prone skin no matter your skin type.
1. An Alcohol-Free Toner With Salicylic Acid For Acne-Prone Skin
Unlike many other exfoliating toner‘s on the market, this bottle from NxN is alcohol free so it’s less likely to irritate delicate, acne-prone skin. Beyond the 1% salicylic acid to help clear out pores, it features soothing green tea, niacinamide, and gotu kola (also referred to as centella asiatica) extracts. And the easy-to-use pump-style dispenser? Genius. However, those with extra sensitive skin might want to avoid this since it contains witch hazel and a small amount of fragrance. “I absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE this toner. It smells delicious, it has an easy way to get the toner out without wasting a bunch and my skin has NEVER looked so good! I use it every night before bed and I can see a total difference in the appearance of my skin. I have a sensitivity to salicylic acid and this has such a mild amount that it doesn’t hurt me like other toners and treatments do,” one customer wrote.
2. This AHA Exfoliating Toner With Aloe Vera & Witch Hazel
With an impressive 7% glycolic acid, this toner from Touch is formulated with other soothing ingredients like aloe vera and rosewater to hydrate while exfoliating. This toner is also alcohol-free, and has witch hazel on its ingredient list, which is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. It’s also cruelty-free and comes with an 100% satisfaction guarantee should you try it out and not love it. One reviewer raves, “Fixed my dry scaling acne prone skin. Regular witch hazel was too drying for me, but this has the perfect balance of what your skin needs…… exfoliating, soothing, moisturizing and refreshing. Makes blemishes less severe and speeds up skin healing process.”
3. The Best Toner Alternative For Sensitive Skin
Alcohol, oil, and soap free, this gentle micellar water is designed to remove makeup and oil without having to be rinsed off, making it a great step after cleansing, that’s recommended by Dr. Hooper as well. With hydrating glycerin and tested by dermatologists, it’s a great pick for all skin types but especially for those with sensitive skin.
4. An Affordable Korean Toner With Soothing Centella
This Korean toner from the cult-favorite brand COSRX is alcohol-free and formulated with soothing centella-water which goes on gentle — perfect for sensitive, acne prone skin. It’s also vegan, cruelty- and paraben-free, and hypoallergenic. While this toner doesn’t have the exfoliating power of some of others on this list, for anyone with sensitive skin that’s easily irritated, this toner is a fantastic way to balance the pH of your skin without any redness or inflammation.
5. A Glycolic Acid Toner For Dark Spots
This alcohol-free toner gently exfoliates with glycolic acid, papaya extract, and alpha hydroxy acid so that your pores stay clean and clear and skin cells turnover quickly for a more radiant complexion, and Dr. Hooper says that glycolic acid is an especially great ingredient for those with uneven skin tone or dark spots. Add soothing aloe vera to the mix and you have the perfect toner for sensitive acne-prone skin.
6. A Gentle Toner With Hyaluronic Acid & Essential Oils
The optimized pH levels in this Korean toner balance your skin’s moisture and ingredients like hyaluronic acid, lipidure, and a slew of essential oils (including lavender and orange) decrease surface oils but also help retain moisture so that your skin stays soft and smooth. Even the most sensitive skin types will notice an immediately soothing and calming effect on red, irritated skin. For those sensitive to fragrance, there’s also an unscented version of this toner.
7. A Cult-Classic Salicylic Acid Exfoliator
This powerful salicylic acid exfoliator from Paula’s Choice is a cult-classic with hundreds of Amazon reviewers singing its praises. Packed with moisturizing ingredients and soothing green tea to avoid irritation, it’s a powerful exfoliator that’s best used at night. Those with sensitive skin should start with two or three times a week in the beginning, too. Follow it up with a strong moisturizer as well. “I have every skin issue you can think of. Rosacea, acne (hormonal, cycstic, Whiteheads, blackheads), dehydration, excessive oiliness, redness, all of it. I’ve spent probably thousands on a multitude of different products, trying to find one that would at least make a dent. I’ve had many procedures, many trips to the dermatologist. Nothing I’ve ever used, nothing I’ve ever done, has made such a profound difference in the appearance of my skin. […] this has seriously covered all my bases in a gentle and effective way. I’ve been trying to turn my skin around for YEARS!! this was the product that did it,” one fan commented.
8. A Hydrating Micellar Water That Might Be Better For Sensitive Skin
For those with sensitive skin, a micellar water might be a good alternative. This popular micellar water from the cult-favorite brand CeraVe doubles as a makeup remover and facial cleanser, freeing up so much space in your bathroom cabinet. And, since it’s unscented and alcohol free, it’s a great option for anyone with acne-prone skin that tends to irritate easily. One reviewer raves, “I have acne-prone skin and this toner has helped with removing access oil/make up seamlessly.I paired it with the hydrating foam cleanser and the duo work great together.”
9. A Tried-And-True Toner From The Brand Know For Acne Treatment
This has been a trusted brand in acne treatment for years, so you can be assured that Proactiv’s revitalizing toner is effective and reliable. This toner is alcohol-free and is formulated with a blend of calming botanical extracts including aloe, chamomile, and vitamin B to sooth skin, remove surface oil, and gently exfoliate skin. Incorporated into your daily skin care routine and you’ll be left with soft, clean, and moisturized skin. However, it does have witch hazel.
This article was originally published on Jun 16, 2017. It was updated on November 26, 2019. Additional reporting by Jen Fiegel.
Dr. Deirdre Hooper, dermatologist with Audubon Dermatology in New Orleans and an Associate Clinical Professor at Tulane and Louisiana State University.