The 4 Best Toners for Sensitive Skin (Non-Irritating) 2021

The 4 Best Toners for Sensitive Skin (Non-Irritating)

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best toner sensitive skin
In a hurry? Here are our top picks:

BEST FOR ALL SKIN TYPES, NATURAL, ALL ROUNDER

ZELEN Life Toner

BEST FOR ACNE PRONE SKIN

Mamonde Organic Rose Water Toner

If you suffer from problematic, sensitive skin that seems to be irritated even by the best product, you probably know first hand how hard it can be to pick the right skin care routine.

Finding the best toners for sensitive skin has become both easier and harder over recent years.

Just ten years ago, it was still all too easy to find toners that only people with the hardiest of skin types could use. These skin care solutions were actually recommended against by most dermatologists and skincare brands.

While they helped close pores and rid the skin of oil, these old-style toners were simply too aggressive and drying, even for normal skin.

Fortunately, in the modern skincare world, we don’t have to worry about toners feeling like a harsh chemical wash. The only minor downside is that toners and cleansers’ roles have begun to overlap, making it harder for those looking to care for a particular skin condition or type.

This article should help clear up exactly what a toner is, what it should do, and the top options on the market when it comes to the best toner for sensitive skin.

Quick summary

bb2-table__imageZELEN Life Toner
  • Balances skin pH while locking moisture, alcohol-free
  • Handmade, organic formula that soothes skin and tightens pores
  • Vitamins and antioxidants, anti-aging and anti-acne properties
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bb2-table__imageMamonde Rose Water Toner Organic Damask Facial Rosewater
  • Lactic acid provides gentle exfoliation
  • Rose Water based formula provides strong hydration benefits
  • All-natural and vegan-friendly
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bb2-table__imageSKIN&CO Roma Truffle Therapy Essential Face Toner
  • Excellent anti-aging action thanks to the lemon peel extract
  • Witch Hazel assists with controlling outbreaks and blemishes
  • Purifying action by removing dead skin cells
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bb2-table__imageELEMIS Soothing Apricot Toner
  • Conatins fatty acids that soothe irritated skin
  • Rich in vitamins that keep the skin in healthy condition
  • Natural cleansing properties due to the saponins usage from Quillaja wood
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Before you buy: 5 things you have to consider when purchasing a toner for sensitive skin

1. Toner vs. cleanser

For many people, their toner is simply the product that you use after cleansing. But with many toners also containing cleansing ingredients, and many cleansers also mopping up skin oils and balancing the pH, it can become a bit confusing.

Don’t just use one type and think you can get away with it: using a cleanser alone could leave your skin dried out and tight, the last thing you want if your skin is already sensitive.

Toners are especially important to those of us with sensitive skin: they restore hydration, deliver rejuvenating extracts, and balance skin pH to minimize irritation and outbreaks. If you are trying to get chronically sensitive skin under control, then this is a part of your skin care regime which you will not want to miss.

2. Is this toner a toner?

To keep it simple, a good toner will hydrate the skin, close your pores and balance out your skin’s pH.

Unfortunately, in the somewhat wild west of skin care, some companies have opted to remove their harsh ingredients but have failed to replace them with effective, calming, and natural ingredients that actually work.

Whatever you do, don’t buy a cheap or two-in-one cleanser and toner. In lots of cases, it would just be better to wash with water.

Using a toner separate from your cleanser will ensure you replace any lost hydration from your cleanser, clearing away the day’s grime and oil buildup while also prepping the skin for your moisturizer.

Remembering to cleanse correctly before using a toner will also allow your skin to absorb as much of the benefit from your toner as possible. As you can imagine, if you have dirt and dry skin blocking the toner, it won’t be able to do its job.

3. How to best use a toner?

If you have sensitive skin, hydrating and soothing it should be your top priority. Massaging the skin is good to maintain health. Constant scrubbing and rubbing will only serve to irritate and damage the skin. This, as we all know, can make flakiness temporarily worse, so toner application should be nice and gentle.

Try tapping or blotting the toner onto the skin either using a cotton pad or by rubbing your fingertips into the toner in the palm of your hand. Some products advertise being able to ‘spritz’ their product – just make sure you don’t get any in your eyes!

4. Keep it simple

It’s unlikely in this day and age, but double-check that any toner you use now or in the future is alcohol-free. No one should be using it these days, but it is a definite “no-no” for anyone with sensitive skin concerns. If you want the best hope of soothing sensitivity, then avoid fragranced products as well.

Salicyclic acid is found in many cleansers, but these are typically aimed at oily and acne-prone skin. The acid helps break down clogged pores and lifts away from the skin that can contribute to outbreaks. Leave this ingredient alone if you have sensitive skin and introduce it only if other solutions have failed.

As with all skincare, less is more, especially when you are starting out. Your body will try to react and adapt to all but the most innocuous ingredients, so don’t go drowning your face with toner if you have never used one before.

Consistent, daily use of a moderate amount of toner will produce far better results than applying seven layers of the same toner, for example (an interesting but unscientific skincare practice that is rising in popularity despite the lack of evidence).

5. Watch yourself

This goes without saying for anyone living with sensitive skin, but you will want to start slowly with any new product. If you find that your skin starts showing any of the following signs, then stop using the product immediately:

  • Tingling
  • Burning
  • Redness
  • Outbreaks

The 4 best toners for sensitive skin

1. ZELEN Life Toner

ZELEN Life Toner Image

Best features:

  • Handmade, organic formula
  • Great for balancing skin pH
  • A focus on effective, natural ingredients like geranium and lavender
  • Suitable for a range of skin types from oily to sensitive

The best toner for:

A range of skin types, this toner locks in moisture while tightening pores and reducing the inflammation that can lead to outbreaks and blemishes. If you have never used a toner before, this is a great place to start with its gentle, all-natural formulation.

Overview:

Some toners have drifted more into cleanser territory and forgotten their roots. However, the ZELEN Life Toner ensures that it tackles pH balance while locking in moisture – the core part of any excellent toner.

Some toners lose their ‘toning’ property once they remove their harsh alcohol and other astringents. This has been replaced by ZELEN Life with geranium and lavender,  which effectively removes dirt and dead skin cells without risking triggering irritation or dried out skin.

If you have struggled with finding a product, which is non-irritating, this toner is free from parabens, sulfates, petrochemicals, or synthetic colors and fragrances.

The good:

  • Pure-plant ingredients
  • Ensures that the skin’s pH is addressed
  • Calms skin irritations
  • Smoothes out the skin in preparation for moisturizing later
  • For those who are leaving their youth slowly behind, this toner can act as a great first anti-aging product, as it also helps smooth out fine lines and minimize differences in skin tone and inflammation.

Things to think about:

  • May not be suitable for those with significant pre-existing skin conditions

Bottom line:

If you have had issues with toners in the past and are stuck wondering which is right for your skin type, the ZELEN Life Toner could be the answer. Covering all skin types but using natural ingredients means this is an effective toner that won’t irritate or over-dry the skin. All-natural ingredients mean this is a toner that can be relied upon to keep your skin consistently feeling fresh and firm.

2. Mamonde Rose Water Toner Organic Damask Facial Rosewater

Mamonde Rose Water Toner Organic Damask Facial Rosewater

Best features:

  • 90% Rose Water is a very efficient hydrator
  • Simple ingredient list for those worried about intolerance and allergies
  • Contains lactic acid for gentle exfoliation while you tone

The best toner for:

People with stubborn blemishes, dark spots, or acne scarring which block skin hydration.

Overview:

If you are on the lookout for Korean skincare products due to their rocketing worldwide popularity, then look no further. Formulated in Seoul, South Korea, this botanical toner revolves around natural flower extracts, including Rose Damascena and Rosa Canina fruit.

Indole acetic acid also provides mild exfoliating action for tired skin in need of refreshing. This is supported by the antioxidant-rich formula that helps to soothe and hydrate the skin and prevents premature drying and damage of the new skin layer.

The good:

  • Rose water is many times more hydrating than water
  • A great rescue toner for days you may have let your skin dry out too much.
  • Natural product
  • Vegan friendly
  • Smells of the purified Rose Water it gets its name from.

Things to think about:

  • Comes out as a gel-like consistency, which is different from most. Still applies smoothly, however.

Bottom line:

Simple and minimal flower-based ingredients add up to a winning formulation from this Korean skin care brand.

3. SKIN&CO Roma Truffle Therapy Essential Face Toner

SKIN&CO Roma Truffle Therapy Face Toner

Best features:

  • Protective anti-aging toner
  • Rejuvenates tired skin by purifying and removing dead cells
  • Brightens skin and evens out tone

The best toner for:

Anyone looking for a more ‘active’ toner to combat everyday pollution and skin aging.

Overview:

The Truffle Therapy Face toner does a great job of combining multiple natural ingredients to create a strong toner that doesn’t become irritating. SKIN&CO has focussed on one of the most damaging irritants (behind UV radiation): pollution.

Containing Witch Hazel and Sage, it refreshes and cleanses the skin while helping remove impurities and unclogging pores. The main ingredient is Black Winter Truffle – this contains a high concentration of Superoxide Dismutase, which is packed with antioxidants that combat free radicals caused by pollution.

The good:

  • A great all-round toner
  • Protects as well as rejuvenating the skin
  • Witch Hazel is a natural antiseptic that should help with minor outbreaks and blemishes
  • For those with signs of aging like fine lines and uneven pigmentation, the lemon peel extract supports skin regeneration and helps prevent dark spots

Things to think about:

  • For sensitive or very dry skin, the combination of ingredients may not be suitable

Bottom line:

This is a light and well-rounded toner that will leave your skin feeling clean and refreshed. If you have combination skin and want a toner that does a bit of everything, the SKIN&CO Roma Truffle Therapy Essential Face Toner will help even out skin pH, bring fresh skin to the surface and help reduce the beginning signs of aging.

4. ELEMIS Soothing Apricot Toner

ELEMIS Soothing Apricot Toner

Best features:

  • Rich in Vitamins and fatty acids
  • Apricot extract helps soothe irritation
  • Can be used as a spritz

The best toner for:

Those with drying and irritating skin conditions like eczema, acne, and rosacea.

Overview:

Toners have come a long way since the days of astringent, alcohol-based mixes. The Elemis Soothing Apricot Toner is no different. Getting its name from the Apricot extracts, it utilizes to infuse the skin with vitamins and soothes irritation, and calms with skin with essential fatty acids.

We don’t usually recommend foaming toners, but Elemis have included Sweet Betty flower, which naturally foams and hydrates rather than drying the skin. With pH levels more in balance, many users find that their pre-existing skin conditions are more manageable with this product.

The good:

  • Great for sensitive skin that is already irritated
  • Uses saponins from Quillaja wood to act as a natural cleansing agent rather than relying on harsh chemicals

Things to think about:

  • Recent price increase may make other options more attractive

Bottom line:

Elemis is a well-recognized brand for a reason – they have great experience and expertise in crafting skin care products that are effective, natural, and great for many skin types. This gentle toner is a great pick for those with skin conditions like Lupus or eczema that can often be reactive to even all-natural products.


Sensitive skin and toners

sensitive skin and toners

Sensitive skin is a common issue worldwide, presenting with a complex mix of symptoms. These symptoms can be purely subjective (unseen and only experienced by the person) or also contain objective elements, such as skin scaling or acne.

Partly because it is a self-perceived condition, this often makes it difficult to classify, diagnose and treat.[1]

Although the reasons behind sensitive skin are still a bit unclear, fortunately, the steps to treat are not.

If you have very sensitive skin, the first thing to do is to stop using all cosmetics immediately for two weeks. After that, your products should then be introduced one at a time.

During this time, you should be using a good moisturizer to help restore proper skin hydration, which will build your protective skin barrier back up to normal. You will want to use a natural moisturizer, which does not contain any known irritants. If you have read our other articles, you will know that you should also be protecting your skin from UV radiation as well.

Using a good toner will lay the foundation for the moisturizer to have the best effect it can. The checklist below of what constitutes a good toner for dry skin is the exact formula we followed when finding our recommended products.

The toner ingredients must be:

  • Stable, and not break down to other chemicals on application
  • Should not include any unnecessary ingredients
  • Should have a minimum of active ingredients
  • Need to avoid all common irritants where possible
  • Do not contain skin penetrating chemicals such as alcohol or propylene glycol
  • Free from artificial fragrance

Frequently asked questions

frequently asked questions 2-min

What is sensitive skin?

Dermatologists typically characterize sensitive skin as an overreaction to external stimuli, such as skin care products, water, changes in temperature and humidity, and internal changes like hormonal imbalances.[2]

The most common issues you may face if you have sensitive skin include tingling or stinging, burning, itching, or feeling of generalized tightness. Much less commonly, these can occur with visible signs such as redness of the skin or flaking.

Dermatologists now refer to this as sensitive skin syndrome, covering any sensitivity reactions due to temperature, sun exposure, pollution, or air moisture changes.[3]

Although skin conditions like acne and dermatitis are associated with sensitive skin, much of the symptoms cannot be explained.

Sensitive skin is definitely a widespread concern, negatively impacting people’s quality-of-life. Even on a personal level, it can be hard to pinpoint what exactly causes sensitive skin, as symptoms may occur minutes or even hours after exposure to the responsible irritant.

In many cases, short-term exposure does not bring about a reaction. In fact, sensitivity is more the result of chronic exposure.

Bear in mind, despite what you may read on the Internet, there is no established screening test for the diagnosis of sensitive skin.[4]

The best stance to take is to judge your own experience and take sensible steps to address any symptoms that you experience.

Just how common is sensitive skin?

In the past, sensitive skin was considered a niche problem, although this was perhaps due to people trying to self treat at home rather than seeking formal medical attention.

A skin care survey carried out in the United Kingdom showed that 51% of women and 38% of men self-reported having sensitive skin. Further studies that expanded to Europe and America also found similar levels.[5]

Some researchers have calculated that almost 40% of the world’s population report sensitive skin issues at some point.[6]

Does anything increase my risk of sensitive skin?

There are a few factors that seem to impact your risk of having sensitive skin.

Race:

Differences in water loss from the skin across different races appear to change the likelihood of hypersensitivity. The limited tests using extracts from chilis, darker skins seem to be associated with a decrease in skin sensitivity.[3]

Gender:

Women tend to have a thinner skin layer, which is more often disturbed by hormonal fluctuations that affect hydration levels.[7] This is thought to be part of the reason behind the high reporting of sensitive skin amongst women. Interestingly, as men warmed to the use of skincare and cosmetic use, or recent studies have shown similar rates between the genders.

Age:

Age, of course, impacts skin sensitivity, as it does with all other aspects of skin. Interestingly, there seem to be two opposing forces at play when it comes to age. Younger people tend to self-report sensitivity issues, in contrast with the fact that their skin is naturally more resilient and healthy than an older person’s skin.[8]

This oddity is thought to be explained by the fact that our sensitivity to stimuli generally decreases as we age. This reduced sensitivity can, in fact, be greater than the increased irritation caused by weaker and thinner skin.

Anatomy:

Our skin changes due to a number of factors, including exposure to the outside environment, contact with clothing, amongst others. Our face is perhaps the most commonly exposed part of a body, including our hands, but we are much more likely to have sensitive facial skin than sensitive hands.[4]

The skin barrier on our face actually happens to be thinner than in other parts of the body, and this is compounded by the fact that it is much more likely to have cosmetics and other skin care products applied to it as well. To make matters worse, compared to our arms or back, for example, the face has a much greater number of nerve endings, which makes it even more sensitive.[9]

Environment:

Sensitive skin is rarely sensitive all the time. This is much more likely to become the case when exposure to an irritant is constant as well. Irritants are unfortunately common and can be hard to detect. They include but are not limited to air pollution, high and low temperature, high humidity, and excessive exposure to the wind and sun.

A core part of managing and treating sensitive skin is minimizing or avoiding these irritants and triggers as much as possible.

Cosmetics:

For women, the use of make-up and cosmetics is the number one factor in triggering sensitive skin. This is thought to be due to either using the wrong product for your skin or of using the correct product, rather than the products themselves being the source of irritation.[1]

We would add that the use of alcohol in skin care products can be both drying and irritating even when used as directed. Other products that we do recommend can be irritating to the wrong skin type, include alpha-hydroxy acids and retinoids.

Imbalance:

Skin imbalance is related to overuse of products or poor skincare like harsh scrubbing. The skin becomes sensitive whenever its protective barrier is broken. This barrier becomes broken either when the skin is fully hydrated or when the acidity/pH deviates heavily from the healthy, slightly acidic pH of 5.5.

What is actually happening inside sensitive skin?

The science of sensitive skin, although not complete, is closely related to hydration and pH, as mentioned. The current understanding is that when the stratum corneum, which is the layer of skin responsible for trapping hydration, becomes ‘leaky,’ then there is a greater chance of skin sensitivity.[10]

To put it simply, a ‘leaky’ stratum corneum allows too much water to escape and too many irritating chemicals to seep too far into the skin. What’s interesting is that properly hydrating the skin not only increases its water content level but also seems to reverse skin sensitivity as well.

Conclusion

Sometimes choosing the right toner can feel like you have to be a dermatologist just to find a good product. We hope that this article clears up what you should be expecting from a good toner and why.

If you already use a toner that isn’t on our recommended list, check the ingredients and make sure it doesn’t include any unknown nasties that could be setting back your skin care routine.

Getting your cleansing and toning right sets up your skin for a protected and healthy day, so it pays to get it right. If you haven’t already, sign up for the ZELEN Life Newsletter, where we release our latest findings and articles to our readers first so you can get the news and recommendations before anyone else does.

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References

  1. Farage MA, Katsarou A, Maibach HI. Sensitive skin. Sensory, clinical, and physiological factors. In: Borel AO, Paye M, Maibach HI, editors. Handbook of Cosmetic Science and Technology. 4th ed. Boca Raton: CRC Press/Taylor & Francis Group; 2014. pp. 59–69.
  2. Duarte, Ida et al. “Sensitive skin: review of an ascending concept.” Anais brasileiros de dermatologia vol. 92,4 (2017): 521-525. doi:10.1590/abd1806-4841.201756111
  3. Lev-Tov H, Maibach HI. The sensitive skin syndrome. Indian J Dermatol. 2012;57(6):419–423.
  4. Rodrigues-Barata AR, Conde-Salazar Gómez L. Piel sensible. Piel (Barc) 2013;28:520–530.
  5. Willis CM, Shaw S, De Lacharrière O, Baverel M, Reiche L, Jourdain R, et al. Sensitive skin: an epidemiological study. Br J Dermatol. 2001;145:258–263.
  6. Misery L, Jean-Decoster C, Mery S, Georgescu V, Sibaud V. A new ten-item questionnaire for assessing sensitive skin: the sensitive scale-10. Acta Derm Venereol. 2014;94:635–639.
  7. Jourdain R, de Lacharrière O, Bastien P, Maibach HI. Ethnic variations in self-perceived sensitive skin: epidemiological survey. Contact Dermatitis. 2002;46:162–169.
  8. Paquet F, Piérard-Franchimont C, Fumal I, Goffin V, Paye M, Piérard GE. Sensitive skin at menopause; dew point and electrometric properties of the stratum corneum. Maturitas. 1998;28:221–227.
  9. Richters R, Falcone D, Uzunbajakava N, Verkruysse W, van Erp P, van de Kerkhof P, et al. What Is Sensitive Skin? A Systematic Literature Review of Objective Measurements. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2015;28:75–83.
  10. Berardesca E, Farage M, Maibach H. Sensitive skin: an overview. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2013;35:2–8.

About The Author

Dr. Shane McKeown MBBS
Dr. Shane McKeown MBBS

Board-certified Doctor and Educator

Dr. McKeown is a UK based NHS clinician with over 10 years experience in both hospital medicine and surgery. After an initial career in maxillofacial surgery his focus now lies in elderly care and rehabilitation medicine. A board member for Wadham College of Science, Dr. McKeown is passionate about widening access to both education and healthcare around the world and as a result, outside of his clinical work he spends much of his time either teaching or providing medical consultancy to healthcare startups. Commercially, his interests lie in helping research and promote novel, evidence-based medicines originating from natural sources and processes.

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