Let Us Simplify Skin Toners, Essences, and Ampoules

We break down facial skin care to the basics

Edited By:
Raja Sivamani , MD, MS, AP

Modern technology and advancements in scientific research have revolutionized everyday skincare products for the face. Shopping for the best products can become increasingly difficult when there are so many options to choose from. Brands are constantly coming out with new formulations, making it hard to keep up.

Facial toners, essences, and ampoules are three prominent emerging skin care categories. It is important to understand the differences between them, their ingredients, and how to properly use them for maintaining healthy skin.


Skin Toners

Facial toners are meant to be used morning and night directly after cleansing the face, and are a vital part of your skin care routine.

Balance skin pH levels

Our skin has a very fine acidic film on the outer surface called the acid mantle that serves as a protective barrier. The environment around us such as wind, pollution, and water can break down the acid mantle and make the skin more susceptible to conditions like eczema.[1]

Skin toners were initially designed to balance the skin’s pH (or acidic content) levels. Cleansers are typically very alkaline, meaning they have a high pH.[2] The natural skin pH of the acid mantle is about 5.5; the original purpose of toners with a low pH (less than 7) was to counteract alkaline cleansers. Nowadays, synthetic detergents called syndets have been formulated in facial cleansers in place of traditional alkaline detergents. These newer cleansers have a pH closer to the skin’s natural pH, designed to lower skin irritation.[3] In response, toners have now shifted to provide additional nourishing properties other than simply balancing pH levels.

Skin hydration

Advances in skincare technology have pushed companies to develop skin toner products with multiple benefits. Therefore, today’s facial toners also focus on hydrating and fortifying the skin barrier to keep the skin smooth and protected. Cleansers, especially those containing surfactants, can strip away essential oils and natural moisture, leaving the skin dry and vulnerable.[4] Toners are infused with nutrients, hydrating glycerin, and ceramides to help the skin retain moisture.[5]

Prepping the skin

Toners prepare the skin for the next steps of your skin routine. Face toners help the skin to absorb your skin care products more effectively. One analogy is comparing the surface of the skin to a dry sponge. If you put heavy creams right away, it won’t absorb. But if you wet the sponge first, the denser creams will be absorbed more easily. Toners work the same way. They act as the primer for retaining additional products.

Final cleansing step

If any makeup or debris is still left on the skin after cleansing, a face toners will dissolve and remove any remaining impurities. Skin toners also help remove any leftover residue from your cleanser.

Other Names for Skin Toners

Skin toners go by several different terms including refresher, freshener, skin softener, and clarifier. They are all very gentle and focus on protecting the acid mantle and providing hydration.

Avoid astringents

Astringents are a type of toner that contain a high percentage of alcohol (denatured alcohol or ethyl alcohol) or witch hazel. Products with alcohol as the main ingredient are harmful for your skin, because they can irritate and damage the protective outer skin barrier.[6] It is important to distinguish between damaging alcohol and beneficial alcohol. Good alcohols such as cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol (fatty alcohols which are normally more hydrating) are used to condition and soften the skin.[7]

Although alcohol based products can initially make the skin feel “tight” and “clean”, this is actually a sign of potential skin barrier disruption. Alcohol induces dryness and irritation, and often cause the oil glands to compensate by overproducing sebum in order to combat these effects.

Common Ingredients Found in Toners


  • Natural moisturizer[5,8]
  • Maintains the healthy state of cell membranes and intracellular lipids[5]


  • Anti-aging, fades brown spots, and soothes skin[9]
  • Improve skin conditions including acne, rosacea, and atopic dermatitis[10]

Hyaluronic acid

  • Moisturizer by helping skin retain water[11]
  • Improve skin barrier function[12]

*It is important to note that that Glycerin, Niacinamide, and Hyaluronic acids are also key ingredients found in essences and ampoules discussed later.

Butylene glycerol

  • Helps product absorb faster and deeper into the skin[13]
  • Attracts water into the skin[13]

Palmitoyl tripeptide

  • Slows collagen degradation[14]

Aloe leaf extract

  • Antioxidant properties[15]
  • Anti-inflammatory[15]



Essences are used after toning and before moisturizing the skin. They are a type of skin treatments that utilize ingredients designed to combat and lessen signs of aging. The purpose of essences is to hydrate, nourish, and brighten the skin. The best essences often contain vitamins, antioxidants, and beneficial extracts to help nurture the skin. The result is hydrated, brightened skin, and reduced visibility of wrinkles.

Tip: To apply essences, do not use a cotton pad and swipe onto the face. Instead, sprinkle onto the palms of your hands and gently pat into your face.

Common Ingredients Found in Essences

Bifida ferment lysate

  • Probiotic ingredient
  • [16]

Saccharomyces ferment filtrate

  • Skin moisturization

Serine, aspartic acid, alanine, phenylalanine

  • Amino acids
  • Hydrates the skin[18]

Ascorbic acid (vitamin C)

  • Boosts skin’s collagen production[19]
  • Fades pigmentation[19]

Green tea extract

  • Antioxidant[20]
  • Protects against UV light photodamage[20]



Ampoules, serums, and boosters are all names for the same class of skin care products. They resemble a very concentrated form of essence, and tend to have a thicker consistency with more potent ingredients. Ampoules are applied after toners and essences, and can help brighten skin by increasing cell turnover, fade sunspots, and smooth fine lines.

These concentrated products are meant to be used for a finite amount of time ranging from one to two weeks. They are often sold in small glass vials with a dropper.

Common Ingredients Found in Ampoules


  • Cell-signaling[21]
  • Reduce wrinkles[22]
  • Barrier repair and protection[22]

Licorice root extract

  • Skin-brightening[23]
  • Reduce pigmentation[23]

Ethyl ascorbic acid

  • Stable form of Vitamin C[24]
  • Antioxidant, collagen booster, and skin brightener[24]

Centella asiatica extract

  • Anti-inflammatory[25]
  • Antioxidant[25]
  • Anticarcinogenic[25]


Overall Take on Skin Care Products

Skincare companies are constantly blurring the lines between face toners, essences, and ampoules, making it increasingly difficult to define them. Many ingredients can be found in all three product categories with varying amounts. The overall purpose of toners, essences, and ampoules remains the same regardless, and it is important to read the ingredients of each product carefully before deciding whether it will meet your skin care needs. Finally, it is always useful to consult a healthcare provider like a dermatologist especially if you suffer from specific allergies and/or skin disease (e.g. eczema)

Knowing how your skin tends to react can make a different in which ingredients you may choose to use or which ones will work well with your skin. Find your skin type here.

What's Your Skin Type

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