Korean skincare is all about hydration and maintaining a healthy moisture barrier. This is because skin that is hydrated not only has that dewy glow, but is less prone to irritation and breakouts and helps prevent fine lines and wrinkles.
Hydrating toners (which are commonly called ‘skin‘ in Korea or ‘lotions‘ and ‘softeners‘ in Japan) are beneficial for any skin type and they’re an extremely popular product category in Korea.
In this article, I’m going to explain to you what a hydrating toner is and how it differs to Western toners. I’m also going to give you some recommendations for some Korean hydrating toners that you can try.
What Is The Difference Between Korean And Western Toners?
Korean (and Japanese) toners are very different to the type of Western toner you might be familiar with. Western toners tend to be very astringent due to the alcohol they contain and are usually used to wipe off any residue after cleansing.
Western toners can be harsh and drying on the skin and damaging to your skin’s moisture barrier (you know that tight, squeaky-clean, slightly stinging feeling they leave you with?).
Often people will use them to try to get rid of excess dirt and oil and control sebum production. However, this only makes your skin produce more oil as it tries to compensate for the loss of water that occurs when you use these products.
Korean toners usually don’t contain any astringent ingredients and are formulated to be very gentle on your skin.
Rather than using them to remove excess dirt and oil like Western toners, their purpose is to help to prepare your skin to better absorb beneficial ingredients in subsequent steps of your skincare routine by either:
- Hydrating the skin
- Strengthening the skin’s moisture barrier
- Returning your skin to its optimal pH, and/or
- Decreasing skin sensitization
What Is A Hydrating Toner?
Hydrating toners are basically a mixture of water with one or more humectant ingredients (as well as some other beneficial ingredients for your skin too). Humectants help to keep your skin hydrated by attracting water molecules from the air to your skin.
As I’ve already mentioned, hydrating toners are also commonly referred to as ‘skins’ in Korea and ‘lotions’ or ‘softeners’ in Japan.
There are also other types of Korean toners (cleansing toners, pH-balancing toners and first treatment essences) and each has a different effect on the skin. However, you’ll find that many toners fill more than one of these categories. Nevertheless, they all help to prepare your skin for the subsequent steps of your skincare routine.
- Cleansing toners: Also called cleansing water. These are formulated with purified water infused with cleansing as well as other beneficial and skin-balancing ingredients. A cleansing toner is a gentler alternative to using a cleanser in the morning if you have very dry or sensitive skin. A terrific cleansing water to try is the Son & Park Beauty Water (available at SokoGlam and Jolse).
- pH-balancing toners: help to bring your skin back to it’s natural pH after cleansing (since many cleansers tend to be alkaline and can raise the pH of your skin). Some pH-balancing toners also contain ingredients that are hydrating as well as other beneficial ingredients (such as the Etude House Soon Jung pH 5.5 Relief Toner, which contains Centella asiatica, a plant extract which helps to relieve skin irritation and redness). You can find this toner at SokoGlam or Jolse.
- First treatment essences: Arguably, a first treatment essence isn’t a toner, however it also provides your skin with hydration and helps to balance the skin. First treatment essences differ from other toners by the high concentration of fermented ingredients they contain (such as galactomyces ferment filtrate) and that they need to be applied slightly differently to the skin. First treatment essences also differ to traditional essences (which are more similar to serums). One of the best first treatment essences to try is the Secret Key – Starting Treatment Essence (Rose Edition), which is available at Jolse and Amazon and contains a massive 94% galactomyces ferment filtrate!
You’ll also find exfoliating toners, which generally aren’t used daily like the toners above (unless your skin can handle chemical exfoliants well without irritation). These types of toners usually contain some form of AHA or BHA (or both) as well as other beneficial and hydrating ingredients.
Why Are Hydrating Products Important?
During the day, our skin loses water through evaporation to the air (known as trans-epidermal water loss or TEWL for short).
Although trans-epidermal water loss is a natural process that your skin regulates, some factors can increase the rate at which it occurs (this includes low humidity, high heat and windy conditions, using skincare products with sensitizing ingredients or a high pH as well as over-cleansing or over-exfoliating your skin).
Higher rates of TEWL are associated with impaired skin barrier function – and can result in dehydrated skin, which affects how your skin looks and feels.
If you suffer from acne, rosacea or sensitive skin, using a hydrating product can go a long way in improving these skin concerns.
Ingredients To Look For In Hydrating Toners (And Other Skincare Products)
There are so many Korean toners on the market right now, that it can be hard to know which one to choose (it can also sometimes be difficult to know if a toner is hydrating or not). My biggest tip for you would be to choose a toner which contains humectant ingredients such as:
- Hyaluronic acid (or sodium hyaluronate)
- Aloe vera (and other plant extracts that have the ability to hold water)
- Butylene glycol
- Panthenol (also called pro-vitamin B5)
- Snail mucin (which contains hyaluronic acid and other humectant compounds)
What Are Humectants?
Humectant ingredients typically contain many OH groups (oxygen bonded to hydrogen) or NH groups (nitrogen bonded to hydrogen), which allows them to attach to water molecules from the surrounding air through hydrogen bonding.
You won’t just find humectants in toners. You’ll also often find them in serums, moisturizers and eye creams too. I’ve also written a very detailed article about the importance of humectants in skincare products.
I actually tried a hydrating foot mask this weekend gone, and to my delight, the ingredients list contained many humectants – allantoin, aloe vera, glycerin, panthenol, urea and butylene glycol! So knowing what ingredients are humectants will not only help you keep your face hydrated, but even your feet too!
Ingredients To Avoid In Hydrating Toners (And Other Skincare Products)
There are some ingredients which you should try to avoid when looking for a good hydrating toner as they can irritate the skin and actually cause it to become dehydrated.
The most irritating skincare ingredients that cause skin dehydration are:
- Many types of alcohol (including SD or denatured alcohol, ethyl alcohol and isopropyl alcohol)
- Fragrances (both synthetic and natural)
- Plant-derived ingredients high in tannins (such as witch hazel)
Not only are these ingredients irritating and dehydrating – they can damage your skin’s moisture barrier and cause your skin to produce too much oil, causing your pores to become clogged and blackheads and acne to form.
Other ingredients you should avoid in your skincare products are essential oils (plant-derived fragrant oils), especially citrus oils and mint oils. Citrus oils includes lemon, lime, tangerine, grapefruit, mandarin, and bergamot while mint oils includes peppermint, wintergreen, pennyroyal, and balm mint.
Although essential oils smell really good, they cause significant irritation of the skin (even if used in minute amounts over longer periods of time). Citrus oils can also increase your skin’s photo-sensitivity due to a type of organic compound they contain (called furanocoumarins).
What Is The Difference Between Dry And Dehydrated Skin?
Your skin can be dry, or it can be dehydrated (and it can actually be both), and there’s an important difference between the two.
There are some people that are prone to having particularly dry skin and there are people that are more prone to having oily skin (I’m referring to different skin types). These skin types are a result of the amount of oils or lipids that your skin produces. If you have dry skin, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your skin is dehydrated, because dehydrated skin is caused by a lack of water, not oil. Conversely, if you have oily skin, it can still be dehydrated (because it’s lacking water, not oil).
So, whether you have dry or oily skin (or somewhere in between), your skin can still be dehydrated and require hydrating skincare products. I have oily skin and avoided all types of moisturizing products until I started this blog. But I soon realized that my skin was actually dehydrated due to a damaged moisture barrier, which wasn’t allowing my skin to heal itself properly after breaking out or being in the sun. This resulted in my skin pumping out more oil to try to compensate and protect itself from all the water loss that was occurring.
When I found out this information, I stopped using a high pH cleanser and an astringent toner, and started incorporating both hydrating and lightly moisturizing skincare products. My skin soon began to regulate its sebum production as I worked to repair my skin’s damaged moisture barrier and I no longer felt like I had a visible oil slick on my forehead and nose! My acne also began to improve and I could start addressing other skincare concerns such as hyperpigmentation and aging.
Do I Have To Use A Hydrating Toner? Why Can’t I Just Use A Moisturizer That Contains Humectants?
It’s true that moisturizing products can also hydrate your skin as they too contain humectants (as well as emollients for creaminess and occlusives for locking in that moisture).
However, your skin really benefits from the intense hydration that hydrating toners provide immediately after cleansing. If you’re using skincare products containing acids such as vitamin C, BHA or AHA or if you’re using a first essence in your routine, you would use a hydrating toner following these.
Using a hydrating toner also ensures that your skin is better able to absorb the beneficial ingredients in the rest of your skincare routine.
The Best Korean Hydrating Toners
So now you know all about hydrating toners – what’s in them and how they help your skin. If you’re looking to include a hydrating toner in your skincare routine, I highly recommend that you try one of the following:
Isntree Hyaluronic Acid Toner
Hydrating Ingredients: Sodium Hyaluronate, Glycerin, Butylene Glycol, Trehalose, Beta-Glucan, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract, Panthenol
Full Ingredients List: Sodium Hyaluronate, Water, Glycerin, Butylene Glycol, Trehalose, Betula Platyphylla Japonica Juice, Beta-Glucan, Soluble Collagen, Althaea Rosea Flower Extract, Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe Vera) Leaf Extract, Portulaca Oleracea (Green Purslane) Extract, Panthenol, Zanthoxylum Piperitum Fruit Extract, Pulsatilla Koreana Extract, Usnea Barbata (Lichen) Extract, Hydroxyethylcellulose
Why You Should Try This Hydrating Toner: Isntree is a Korean skincare brand that’s been around for a while but they have only recently become what I’d call a best-selling brand due to their focus on simple, clean and natural formulations as well as environmentally friendly packaging (which is where Korean skincare has been heading recently).
This toner contains 50% sodium hyaluronate, which is the water-soluble salt form of hyaluronic acid created by scientists to increase the stability and lessen the likelihood of oxidization. Sodium hyaluronate is also a smaller molecule than hyaluronic acid, which means that it penetrates the skin much easier.
On top of sodium hyaluronate, this toner contains many other humectant ingredients (most notably glycerin, beta-glucan, aloe vera and panthenol). The pH of this toner is 5.4, which also makes it an ideal pH-balancing toner.
Gothamista actually recommends this toner in more than one of her informative skincare videos, including the one below:
Secret Key Aloe Soothing Moist Toner
Hydrating Ingredients: Aloe Vera Leaf Water, Glycerin, Aloe Vera Leaf Juice, Sodium Hyaluronate, Beta-Glucan, Snail Secretion Filtrate (which contains humectant compounds including hyaluronic acid and glycosaminoglycans)
Full Ingredients List: Aloe Vera Leaf Water (9700ppm), Glycerin, 1,2-Hexanediol, Aloe Vera Leaf Juice, Sodium Hyaluronate, Beta-Glucan, Snail Secretion Filtrate, Portulaca Olearacea Extract, Psidium Guajava Fruit Extract, Allantoin, Zanthoxylum Piperatum Fruit Extract, Pulsatilla Koreana Extract, Usnea Barbata Extract, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Polysorbate 80, Hollyhock Root Extract, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract, Green Tea Extract, Disodium EDTA, Fragrance(Parfum), Nonoxynol-12
Why You Should Try This Hydrating Toner: If you’re looking for a toner where aloe vera is the star ingredient, then this is the one. This popular hydrating toner contains both Aloe vera leaf water and Aloe vera leaf juice as well as Aloe barbadensis leaf extract.
This toner contains lots of other hydrating ingredients as well as lots of soothing plant extracts, making it great for skin that is irritated or acne-prone.
It also contains snail mucin which is one of my favorite skincare ingredients as it is so unbelievably good at hydrating and plumping my skin (this is because snail mucin contains humectant compounds, including hyaluronic acid).
Pyunkang Yul Essence Toner
Hydrating Ingredients: I found this toner to have some of the best reviews when it comes to hydrating toners, but at first I couldn’t work out how it was so hydrating (people rave about how extremely hydrating this toner is). It contains 91.3% milk vecht root extract (which has some pretty big antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and nutrient-boosting properties), however it’s not a humectant. Instead of containing very well known humectants such as hyaluronic acid, aloe vera or glycerin, this toner instead uses butylene glycol and 1,2-hexanediol as humectants (although they also have other important functions in skincare formulations).
Although these ingredients don’t sound like beneficial ingredients, they are what makes this toner so wonderful and hydrating that it is regarded as one of the best hydrating toners (even Gothamista recommends this toner for the 7 skin method in her video on hydrating toners below):
Full Ingredients List: Astragalus Membranaceus Root Extract, 1,2-Hexanediol, Butylene Glycol, Bis-PEG-18 Methyl Ether Dimethyl Silane, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Carbomer, Arginine
Yep, this extremely popular and effective hydrating toner contains a silicone (Bis-PEG-18 Methyl Ether Dimethyl Silane), however did you know that silicones aren’t actually bad for your skin? Not only is there no research to back up the claims that silicones are damaging to your skin (there is a belief that silicones suffocate your skin and cause clogged pores and acne). Instead, research shows that silicones are extremely beneficial in skincare formulations, and they actually form a breathable occlusive layer on the skin – allowing water and oxygen to pass through! If you’re interested in learning more about how silicones aren’t bad for your skin, then I recommend you watch this video by the lovely Liah Yoo:
Why You Should Try This Hydrating Toner: The Pyunkang Yul Essence Toner means serious business when it comes to skin hydration. It’s so effective, with a simple formulation. You won’t find any unnecessary ingredients in this toner – including fragrances!
I really like how Pyunkang Yul takes pride in making skincare products that really work in addressing skin concerns, while keeping their formulations very basic. I also love how this brand incorporates traditional Korean medicine into their skincare range. For example, the main ingredient in this toner (milk vecht root extract) has been used in eastern medicine for thousands of years and when used on the skin, it has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It also helps nutrients be better absorbed into the skin by improving circulation and it’s been shown to protect against UVB-induced photoaging (see study here).
Etude House Soon Jung pH 5.5 Relief Toner
Hydrating Ingredients: Propanediol, Glycerin, Betaine, Panthenol, 1,2-hexanediol, Butylene Glycol, Ethylhexylglycerin (mild humectant), Polyglycerin-3 (has a larger molecular size compared to glycerin, allowing it to penetrate the skin slower for longer lasting hydration)
Full Ingredients List: Water, Propanediol, Glycerin, Betaine, Panthenol, Madecassoside, Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Scutellaria Baicalensis Root Extract, 1,2-hexanediol, Butylene Glycol, Ethylhexylglycerin, Carbomer, Polyglycerin-3, Disodium EDTA
Why You Should Try This Hydrating Toner: I really love this toner and it’s a staple in my current skincare routine as it really helps to soothe and calm any active breakouts I’ve got. Not only does this toner contain Centella asiatica (which is a plant extract that is good at soothing and calming red and inflamed skin), but it’s very simple formulation also contains a whole bunch of humectants to help hydrate your skin after cleansing AND it doubles as a pH-balancing toner (it has a pH of 5.5).
This toner is suitable for all skin types (even sensitive skin) since it contains no irritating ingredients such as fragrances. If you do choose to give this toner a try, I highly recommend keeping it in the fridge in the summer time! I do this and if feels so refreshing and soothing (it really feels like my skin is having an icy cold drink). This toner is also suitable for the 7 skin method since it is so watery and lightweight. It absorbs into your skin very quickly without leaving any sort of sticky, oily or greasy residue.
You can also see Liah Yoo recommending this toner in this video on the best hydrating skincare products:
Just like we need to drink water, your skin needs water too – and hydrating toners are one of the best ways to provide your skin with the hydration it needs after cleansing. Using a hydrating toner is one of the best ways to help restore a damaged moisture barrier.
As you can see, there are many humectant ingredients that are used in hydrating toners, such as hyaluronic acid, glycerin, aloe vera and panthenol. There are so many toners to choose from, but checking ingredient lists for humectants will help you to know if a product is good at hydrating the skin. Remember to make sure that the toner you choose is also free of harsh and astringent ingredients, such as alcohol, fragrances and essential oils as these can dehydrate and irritate your skin.
Please let me know in the comments if you’ve tried any of the toners I’ve listed in this article. I’d love to know what you thought of them. Are there any other hydrating toners you would add to this list?