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I think exfoliating acid toners were the first type of active I ever used and they were truly transformative. However, the range of acids available and the types of formula on the market have grown hugely over the past several years. At the same time, so have my skincare preferences and I'm no longer hellbent finding the strongest glycolic acid possible and putting it on my face every single day (without using sunscreen)! Today I'm sharing some of the new breed of acid toners that have been hits for me...
We'll start with one of my newest discoveries: the Youth to the People Mandelic + Superfood Unity Exfoliant* | £32. This is maybe a 3-times-a-week kind of formula for me. Mandelic acid is the gentlest AHA; it's great for hyperpigmentation and blemish-prone skin, but it's larger molecular size takes the edge off, whilst you get all of these amazing benefits. We also have a little dash of PHA which is a mild chemical exfoliant with hydrating properties. The most powerful acid in the mix, though, is salicylic: your BHA. This is at its most efficacious concentration and it's oil soluble so gets into your pores to clear out the stuff that causes you to break out, it reduces active breakouts and treats leftover blemish scars. These acids are supported by antioxidant plant extracts (such a green tea), soothing aloe, licorice (which is great for discolouration) and skin-soothers like panthenol. All-in-all it's actually quite hydrating as a toner, causing my skin no irritation whatsoever whilst being a great all-rounder exfoliant. If you have sensitive but breakout-prone skin: check this out because it's a beautiful balance between tackling breakouts and scarring and being gentle and hydrating. Divine!
The next product we'll talk about is possibly one of the most unique options out there: the Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow PHA + BHA Pore-Tight Toner* | £32. This feels like a weighty, hydrating essence; so much so that I recommend just using your hands to apply it. The combination of PHAs and BHAs means this exfoliates on a surface level so you get soft, smooth skin, but you're also getting that deeper blemish-fighting benefit. This formula counterbalances those actives with extracts like cactus, watermelon and cucumber, plus lots of glycerin and hyaluronic acid (which act as water magnets), licorice extract and a prebiotic to support the skin barrier. This is another product that really doesn't feel like an exfoliating acid but really delivers soft, smooth, glowing skin that's nicely clarified. Just don't be tempted to over-use it because it feels so hydrating and gentle on the skin! 3 nights a week is plenty.
A more recent discovery has been the Biossance Squalane + BHA Pore-Minimising Toner* | £24. Biossance (if you aren't aware) are all about sugarcane-derived squalane, which is kind of like the plant version of the oils your skin produces naturally, so it's great for dry skin and for supporting the skin barrier. They regularly pair squalane alongside stronger actives to provide a calming counterbalance to them, so your skin stays happy. This formula is their take on a salicylic acid toner. It's packed full of plant extracts rich in antioxidants, soothing cucumber, glycerin for hydration, turmeric for brightening and of course squalane. I use this as and when I need it, so if I'm breaking out or when hormonal shifts are on the horizon, around about 3 times a week. It's gentle, non-drying and works: it helps clear any little whiteheads I get and reduces the anger of red, under-the-skin bumps.
One of my earliest discoveries in this sort of family that's still a firm favourite is the PSA Skin Heroine Mandelic & Licorice Superfood Glow Toner* | £28. This gentle powerhouse is formulated with 6% lactic and mandelic acids for gentle exfoliation, niacinamide to boost the skin barrier, prevent the spread of hyperpigmentation and regulate oil production in the skin, licorice for its skin-brightening benefits, soothing panthenol and bisabolol, antioxidant green tea, soothing cica and fermented ingredients rich in vitamins. If you don't usually vibe with acid toners, this gives a very mild exfoliation but packs in the soothing, calming, hydrating goodness. At the same time it still delivers skin-smoothness, glow and clarity. Definitely start with once a week if you're sensitive but I can personally use this every other day.
I think this is one of the only single-acid formulas in this post, but it's that good: I'm talking about it anyway! The Medik8 Press & Glow Daily PHA Tonic* | £27 | is not something I personally use every day but I think every other day is fine. PHAs are one of the gentlest, most hydrating options on the market for exfoliation and this 5.5% concentration is very skin-friendly whilst still providing that glow-boost and surface softness and smoothness. This is a pretty simple formula but it does also use soothing aloe and antioxidant plant extracts. What I specifically love about this product is that whilst it's great for sensitive skin, a more advanced tip for those confident with their skincare is that you can apply it before your chosen PM active (mine is a retinoid) to increase penetration and boost its efficacy without setting your face on fire!
Possibly one of the most well-balanced salicylic acid based formulas I've used is the Farmacy Deep Sweep 2% BHA Pore Cleaning Toner with Moringa and Papaya | £27. This contains a highly-effective concentration of 2% salicylic acid but also lactic acid, fermented ingredients, glycerin and antioxidant plant extracts. It feels hydrating and it's not at all irritating, and is actually just a great toner in and of itself, but you do notice that clarifying benefit. Don't overuse this because it's easy to when a strong active like this feels so lovely on the skin: 3-4 times a week at most will allow you to reap the rewards. If you're like me and have predominantly dry skin with the occasional breakout: this is the perfect thing to have in your arsenal because it moves on your spots without being harsh or drying in the slightest.
Last, but certainly not least, is a product I didn't actually realise was an acid toner until after a few uses; I just knew it made my skin look and feel great! However the Then I Met You Birch Milk Refining Toner* | £31 | is, in fact, a gentle exfoliant. This comes out like a hydrating milky toner and I think it's lowkey one of the best products this brand makes. It's formulated with hydrating birch milk, hyaluronic acid, glycerin and squalane to support the skin barrier. Then there's a super-gentle 1% blend of lactic and glycolic acids for that AHA punch but also PHAs for gentle, hydrating exfoliation. Again: I still don't recommend using this more than every other day, but it's a great option if you want something truly hydrating for the skin that offers that little boost of smoothness and glow. It's like a good skin day in a bottle!
Have you tried any of these products? What do you look for in an acid toner?