Far from those toners of the spritzing floral water variety that have very little – if any – effect on skin, we are all about exfoliating toners, which use acids to dissolve dead skin cells and dirt that settle in fine lines and block pores, to leave skin clear and glowing.
They also even out tone, help the skin retain moisture, speed up cell turnover, and tackle excess oil and breakouts.
And they do all this without abrasive micro-beads, which only superficially exfoliate the top layer of skin (known as manual exfoliation) and are bad for marine life as they don’t disolve or breakdown.
There are three categories of acids used in exfoliating toners: alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) and poly-hydroxy acids (PHAs).
AHAs are mainly either glycolic or lactic acid, and are great for normal/combination skin and those concerned with the visible signs of ageing.
The most popular BHA in skincare is salicylic acid, and it’s perfect for those with congestion (such as blackheads and milia), acne and excess oil.
PHAs are not as common, but still have plenty to offer. They have a larger molecular structure than AHAs and BHAs, so they don’t penetrate the skin as deeply, leading to minimal irritation; perfect for those with sensitive skin.
The most common PHAs are lactobionic and gluconolactone acids.
Simply soak a cotton pad in your chosen toner and sweep it across freshly cleansed skin once a day, preferably in the evening (acid exfoliation can leave skin more sensitive to sun damage).
If you’ve not used an acid exfoliator before, build up use from three times a week to daily. Mild irritation or tingling is to be expected, but if you experience anything more than this, stop using it.
All our favourites give clearer, smoother, brighter skin after a few weeks of repeated use, and there’s something for everyone, whether you’re looking for mild or major irritation, struggling with teenage spots or mature lines.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.
Kate Somerville liquid exfolikate triple acid resurfacing treatment
Considering its 10 per cent acid blend – glycolic, malic and lactic – and exfoliating fruit enzymes including papaya and pineapple, you’d expect this to be quite an aggressive exfoliant. But while it’s highly effective in smoothing rough texture, improving the appearance of pores by clearing out build-up, and generally yielding glowy, clear skin, it’s also very gentle, thanks in part to the inclusion of honey in the formula. Our tester experienced no irritation whatsoever. The best of both worlds.
Alpha-H liquid gold
A long-held favourite among beauty editors and bloggers, liquid gold lives up to the bold claim of its name. It uses 5 per cent glycolic to slough away dead skin build-up and dirt, and is highly effective on fine lines (this is great for ageing skin), pigmentation issues and acne scarring. As it doesn’t have the buffer ingredients of other serums (such as aloe), it’s one to build up use with to minimise irritation. Skin is visibly clearer and more radiant after just a week.
The Ordinary glycolic acid 7% toning solution
Among skincare companies making all sorts of claims and products with impenetrable lists of ingredients, The Ordinary offers the relief of simplicity. Its 7 per cent acid glycolic acid toner is just that, along with aloe vera, ginseng and tasmanian pepperberry to brighten and reduce irritation. It might be budget but the results are just as good as pricier products.
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Sarah Chapman liquid facial resurfacer
This is worth the money for the packaging alone. It has a push-down pump, like the ones nail salons use for polish remover, so you can soak a cotton pad without even having to pick up the bottle. Inside the magic bottle, you’ll find a mix of phytic, lactic and fruit acids to smooth and digest dead skin cells, as well as vitamin C, E and sodium hyaluronate (hyaluronic acid) to nourish. The result is a clearer, more even-toned and brighter complexion.
Estee Lauder perfectly clean multi-action toning lotion
This was the first exfoliating toner we ever bought for ourselves (after years of pinching our mother’s Clinique clarifying lotion) and we still wouldn’t be without it. It contains phytic and lactobionic acids (AHAs) as well as hydrating, humectant ingredients such as glycerin, sodium hyaluronate (hyaluronic acid) and several types of algae. After application, skin feels soft and clean without tightening, though it does also contain alcohol, so some skin types may find it irritating or drying.
La Roche-Posay effaclar clarifying lotion
The French pharmacy brand’s exfoliating toner is particularly good on oily or congested skin, which, combined with its low price point, makes it a perfect choice for teen skin. It contains beta-lipohydroxy acid (LHA), which is a derivative of salicylic acid and efficiently smoothes and brightens while being less acidic than other chemical exfoliants. Effective and non-irritating, it’s great on acneic skins.
Pixi flow tonic
This is a cult product – thanks in large part to the recommendations of beauty expert Caroline Hirons – that actually lives up to the hype. Its simple combination of 5 per cent glycolic acid and soothing aloe vera effectively dissolves grime without drying out skin, leaving it brighter, nourished and, yes, glowing. It’s also a great mid-range price, for those who love skincare but don’t want to spend their life’s savings on it.
REN ready steady glow daily AHA tonic
REN’s ready steady glow may say “AHA” in its title, but it’s actually a blend of AHA and BHA – lactic and salicylic. We found it particularly effective at clearing out that in-pore build-up, so pores appear temporarily clearer and smaller, as well as the surface of the skin being softer to the touch. It does leave a slight stickiness on the skin, but we don’t mind this too much in a toner as it’s usually followed with the rest of our routine.
Omorovicza silver skin tonic
This, from the Hungarian spa brand, is ideal for anyone experiencing breakouts or problematic courtesy of hormones, whether that’s pregnancy, menopause or your monthly cycle. It contains salicylic acid for that skin-clearing exfoliation, as well as antibacterial colloidal silver and niacinamide, which reduces the appearance of blemishes and congestion. We reach for this whenever our skin is playing up and, alongside a stripped back routine, it helps everything get back to normal.
Glow Recipe watermelon glow PHA + BHA pore-tight toner
Glow Recipe is a Korean, New York-based beauty brand that makes products with fun packaging colours, surprising textures and gorgeous fruity scents. Its first product, the watermelon glow sleeping mask, sold out multiple times, resulting in thousands-strong waiting lists. The toner addition to the watermelon family contains both PHAs and BHAs, as well as cactus extract and hyaluronic acid, so it’s super hydrating. It’s very gentle, so would be ideal for those with sensitive skin or who are nervous about the idea of exfoliating with acids.
The verdict: Exfoliating toners
Quite how Kate Somerville made something that sloughs away dead skin and grime to reveal a bright, smooth complexion completely without irritation, we don’t know, but we love it. For a more budget option, The Ordinary’s glycolic acid solution is typical of the brand’s no-frills efficiency.
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