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Astringents vs Toners vs Essences: What's the Difference and Which One Do You Need?

Astringents, toners, essences. When it comes to post-cleansing products like these, there are a ton of options - along with a fair amount of confusion.

For some, they seem altogether unnecessary. Slap a little more water-like product on your face right after you wash? Will it really make a difference?

For others - really the majority of people who use these products - they know that they’re important, but they don’t really know the differences between them or whatexactly they do for the skin.

Ultimately, the product you use will depend largely on your skin type, skin concerns, and your skincare goals. Here’s everything you need to know.

The Definitions: Astringent, Toner, and Essence

Toner: The Balancer

What it is:

In the old days, toners were meant to reduce acne and reduce excess oil on the skin - but today, that’s more an astringent’s job. The modern toner is a gentle, alcohol-free, water-based formula that ultimately exists to balance the skin’s pH and remove any excess debris from its surface.

This may not seem necessary, but it is. See, the skin’s pH needs to remain within a very narrow range (at around 5.5) if it’s to function optimally and actually defend against pollutants and environmental aggressors. Something as seemingly insignificant as hard water or a pH-imbalanced cleanser can throw that pH off - and the time it takes for your skin to normalize itself is time that it’s left vulnerable to bacteria, free radicals, and other issues (you can read more about how this works here).

Toner’s primary function is to instantly restore that pH so your skin can focus on more productive tasks than trying to get back to normal.

Additionally, toners can function to remove any oil, makeup, or debris that was missed during cleansing and to add moisture back into the skin.

Who it’s for:

Anyone can benefit from using a toner, particularly if you live in an area with hard water or you use products that can throw off your skin’s pH, like an unbalanced cleanser or an abrasive scrub.

That said, toners are particularly well-suited for those with sensitive, normal, dry, or mature skin typesbecause it’s so gentle and non-irritating.

Astringent: The Purifier

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What it is:

Astringents, on the other hand, are specifically formulated to remove excess oil from the skin. They’re typically alcohol-based, though many natural astringents use less harsh botanical ingredients like witch hazel, green tea, or apple cider vinegar to get the job done.

That said, even natural astringents are largely drying, which is why many experts warn that daily use can be too harsh and irritating for most.

Along with reducing excess oil, astringents also work to:

  • Remove any lingering debris from the skin
  • Reduce acne and surface bacteria
  • Cleanse the skin
  • Control any excess sebum production

Who it’s for:

Astringents are best suited for those with oily, acne-prone, combination, or broken out skin.

In short, if you notice excess shine or skin congestion, an astringent can help. That said, remember that astringents are inherently much more drying than toners, so they shouldn’t be used daily for an extended period of time.

Essence: The Hydrator

What it is:

Finally, there are essences. A key part of Korean skincare, essences have become popular around the world for their ability to drive moisture and nutrients into the skin.

The idea here is simple: dry skin is congested skin, and active ingredients can’t penetrate the skin as deeply if it’s dry or dehydrated. Essences work to add moisture into the skin so that other skincare products can penetrate easily and effectively.

Who it’s for:

If you have dry, flaky, or unbalanced skin, consider an essence. Many contain powerful humectant ingredients like algae and hyaluronic acid that can help deeply moisturize the skin, while others have some extras, like antioxidants, that can give your skin an extra nourishing boost.

Generally speaking, an essence should be applied after your toner or astringent, but many use it as a replacement as well.

You Can Switch Between the Three

Ultimately, you may find it most beneficial to have all three products and to switch between them as your skin requires.

Washing with hard water or using a pH altering product like an exfoliant? Reach for the toner. Feeling a little extra shine? Grab an astringent. Feeling dry and looking for some skin-soothing TLC? Find a new favorite essence.

The goal, overall, is to give your skin what it needs at the moment as you gain a greater understanding of what each product can do for you.