Not a toner, not a moisturizer. It's a softener!

Toners used to be one of those skin care products I tended to skip. I had read that toners were for restoring the skin’s pH level back to its normal acidic state after cleansing but since I rarely use alkaline bar soaps, I didn't think I needed to include toning into my routine.

Over the past years though, as more cleansers became formulated to match our skins’ pH levels, toners have evolved in their functions as well. From mere skin pH adjusters, you can now use toners to exfoliate, moisturize, and even brighten your skin!

Toner formulas have diversified, too. Our options are no longer limited to runny, water-like solutions that have to be applied by pouring over a cotton pad and swept across the face. Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot more of these gel-type toners that can be poured onto your palm and patted onto the face. Saves you from using up cotton, and I feel like you're able to get every precious drop on your skin instead!

So, what exactly are these gel-liquid toner hybrids?

My first encounter with gel toners was when I got a sample of Shiseido Ibuki Softening Concentrate. The product confused me at first. It felt like a gel with a watery consistency. I wondered if it was a serum but it didn't have a high concentration of potent actives to be considered a serum. It was also not moisturizing enough to function as a gel moisturizer, so I did my research (aka googling) and found out it was actually a toner! Of sorts.

Gel toners are usually labeled as either "skin refiner", "balancer", or "softener". They are commonly included in Japanese and Korean skin care lines. Same as normal toners, gel toners are used after cleansing, and before applying serum and moisturizer.

As opposed to most Western toners that either exfoliate or remove residual dirt after cleansing, gel toners are more focused on moisturizing the skin. They’re the first step in Asian skin care hydration routines.

But why can’t we just go straight to hydrating serums or moisturizers?

I had this question before I jumped into the gel toner bandwagon. Apparently, normal liquid toners can be harsh and drying especially those with high astringent content. A milder version have more emollients that soothe skin and help give it the "watery glow" Koreans and Japanese are fond of.

Sometimes, gel toners contain active ingredients, too. Some of Shiseido’s softeners, for example, contain mild exfoliating ingredients. Others have skin soothing and brightening properties. However, the concentration of these actives is not high enough for gel toners to replace serums or essences. The softener / refiner/ balancer is meant to prep the skin and allow it to absorb more of the layers that will follow.

I know all of this sounds like hogwash, but you’ll see a difference. My skin seems to be gobbling up everything I apply after the toner. If you have dry, or mature skin, or if you’re like me who find extreme pleasure in doing your skin care routine, I highly recommend adding gel toners to your routine.

Images via brand websites

Images via brand websites

The gel toner I’m currently using is Laneige White Plus Renew Skin Refiner. I’m currently battling post-acne marks and the niacinamide in this toner seems to be helping the marks fade faster. I want to try Innisfree White Tone Up Skin next because it also has niacinamide and because Innisfree sponsors Beautiology 101, the K-Drama all of us in Project Vanity are crazy about.

I’ve only recently started shifting to more Japanese and Korean skin care products so if you have gel toner recommendations, please share in the comments!