• Toners were about as useful as shoes on a newborn. A nice affectation, if you could be bothered, but by no means necessary. (Getty Images )
Toner was exposed as a largely useless step years ago, so why are we still buying them?
By
Natalie Reilly

24 May 2019 - 9:07 AM  UPDATED 24 May 2019 - 3:14 PM

Toners, the type prescribed over a beauty counter as part of a three-step skincare regime where you “cleanse, tone and moisturise” were supposed to be redundant.

Women, (for women are the bulk of skincare consumers) had wisened up to the scam hatched by cosmetics companies years ago. Toners were about as useful as shoes on a newborn. A nice affectation, if you could be bothered, but by no means necessary.

It was just another way to make women fork over cash in exchange for approval. Which is to say, that, by following a three-step process, (as opposed to just washing your face in the shower like a man) women could feel secure in the idea that they were doing skin – and by extension – femininity, correctly.

But then face wipes arrived, and dermatologists began to dismiss toners as little more than rubbing alcohol, and that was that.

Toners were about as useful as shoes on a newborn. A nice affectation, if you could be bothered, but by no means necessary. 

But was it? In the past few years, as demand for heavier makeup, like contour kits, eyeliners and false eyelashes, has shot through the roof, so too has the promotion of a new type of toner. Of course it’s not called that anymore. The toners these days are packaged up into makeup removers, mists and pre-mask prep.

La Mer, for example, has an oil absorbing tonic, infused with “shine-balancing” algae extracts, retailing for $120. Clinique, something of a master at the medicalisation of beauty, (you’ll recall they wear white coats in department stores) has a clarifying lotion; a watery exfoliant designed for use twice a day, in four different strains. They retail for $29 for 200ml.

Meanwhile, the advent of micellar water as both a makeup and dirt remover, has revolutionised the humble toner market. For $39, Skinstitut’s Microbiome Micellar Water claims to not only remove makeup, but “balance” the skin and minimise redness. And they all promise to guard against pollutants, which, conveniently, can mean anything, both seen and unseen, in our immediate environment.

But perhaps the clearest sign we’ve reached a tipping point of “toner-as-non-toner” is the arrival of Gwyneth Paltrow’s version, released this month, and available, naturally, on her lifestyle website, Goop.

But the diversification of leading players doesn’t change the narrative: the persuasive idea that the road to clean skin is paved with steps.

Sold as a “two-step regime”, the products, including a Fruit Acid pore purifying cleanser and pore-refining tonic, claim to improve skin’s appearance and shrink pores. It’s a quaint claim, like selling lemon juice to lighten freckles and Goop seem to have wormed their way around it by switching up the only thing the worldwide beauty industry can these days – the consumer. Young, old, black, white, freckled, dry – it gives off the scent of progress.

But the diversification of leading players doesn’t change the narrative: the persuasive idea that the road to clean skin is paved with steps, and that the only way to ensure you’re doing the absolute best for the exposed part on your face is to put it through its highly ritualised paces, as if it were a Tamigotchi and not a self-regulating organ.

All of this would be ludicrous, if it wasn’t so enticing.

“These types of volatile alcohols give products a quick-drying finish, immediately degrease skin, and feel weightless, so it’s easy to see their appeal,” says Dr Michael Freeman, a Gold Coast based dermatologist, who remains unconvinced about the pore-shrinkage claim.

“Pore size is fixed and genetically determined. Pores may be distended by retained sebum and skin debris thus clearing them will give a little temporary improvement.” That said, Dr Freeman believes that toners, or tonics, as they’re more commonly known these days, have better ingredients in them, and, on the right type of skin, (read: prone to blemishes) they can actually work.

The only way to ensure you’re doing the absolute best for the exposed part on your face is to put it through its highly ritualised paces, as if it were a Tamigotchi and not a self-regulating organ.

But, he adds, if you have a good cleanser, you don’t need a toner. So why are women doing it?

There’s a decade old folkloric anecdote about the original marketing behind pancake batter. The story goes that when it was originally conceived, nothing needed to be added to the mix. Sold in cartons, like yoghurt, all you had to do was pour it out onto your frying pan.

But, the story goes, consumer test groups weren’t happy. Nothing to add meant taking away the sense that you were actually ‘cooking’ as opposed to just pouring. This was the 1960s, when cooking was festishised, not for ‘foodies’ but as a huge part of a woman’s functioning identity. To skip steps in the kitchen was to admit fraudulence. How can you be a good wife, or mother if you can’t cook?

It seems like such an archaic question, but it’s pulled into sharp focus when we consider the steps or processes one has to take, not to ensure great skin, (which, honestly, is the goal post that keeps being moved) but just to ensure we don’t fall off the wagon and slide into – horror of feminine horrors – ordinary, normal, ‘wash-and-go’ skin.

Natalie Reilly is a freelance writer. You can follow Natalie on Twitter @thatnatreilly.

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