It has been a few years since we've discussed it in depth, so I will begin by reiterating that there are five steps to the perfect facial skin care regimen. Number one, you must cleanse the skin properly to rid it of makeup, dirt and excess oil see this post for recipes for non-soap cleansers. Number two, is to steam. A good steam [which could be just a good hot, in the shower steam] opens the pores and increases the blood circulation in the facial capillaries, as well as deep cleansing the skin check this post out. for more about steams. Step three is using a mask or a peel to further remove residue, that which lies deep in the pores. They also nourish the skin, as well as replenishing it with essential vitamins and minerals. For more about masks, look here and here. Step four is the toner. A toner tightens the pores and prepares it to accept the final step, the moisturizer. The moisturizer replenishes the skin with fluid, and also provides it with a fine layer of protection. For more tips on the basics of face care check this old post.
So, let's go back and look at step four, since this is the one that usually trips up most people. Toners are skin care products that work to balance the PH of the skin, close the pores, remove excess dirt that was missed during the cleansing phase, and soothe irritated skin. As previously stated, toners are used after cleansing and before moisturizing. Generally speaking, toners can be used by any of the eight skin type categories (those being; dry, mature, oily, combination, normal, sensitive, sun damaged, and acneic, which means acne.
Astringents and toners are not interchangeable words, or treatments. Even though they are frequently used to mean the same thing by the unknowing, they are really two different skin care products, with two different end purposes. Astringents are similar to toners, in that they are used at the same time in the facial care process, and they both act to close the pores. An astringent though will not necessarily soothe irritated skin. It will, however, remove the dirt, debris, and excess oil that is found in oily or acneic skin types. The rest of the properties of the astringent depend upon the ingredient that is being used for the "astringent" action.
Commercial astringents rely on alcohol to provide the astringent properties, which tend to excessively dry out the skin, and can even damage skin cells. On the other hand, organic skin care makers, such as myself, utilize witch hazel to create the astringent properties. Witch hazel, botanically known as Hamamelis Virginiana, is a deciduous shrub that is native to eastern North America, from Nova Scotia west to Minnesota, and south to central Florida and eastern Texas. Interestingly, its forked twigs are the preferred diving rod! But for the purpose of skin care, the leaves and the bark are used to create an extract, and you can find it in your local pharmacy, just look for witch hazel.
Witch hazel has been used medicinally for centuries. Among other things, it is frequently used to treat insect bites, poison ivy, varicose veins, hemorrhoids (and is found in many commercial hemorrhoid preparations) ingrown toenails, to prevent facial sweating, as an aftershave, and as a natural remedy for psoriasis, eczema, and cracked or blistered skin. Witch hazel reduces swelling, has antiseptic properties, and while being a strong anti-oxidant and astringent, also acts to soothe the skin, which makes it very useful in fighting acne. And much more skin friendly than alcohol.
Because of the alcohol, commercial astringents are harsh, and can strip the skin of its natural PH balance, not to mention that they tend to sting when applied. Because historically the majority of astringent products have been, made with alcohol, astringents have gained a bad reputation in the skin care world. Today, however, there is a movement toward more natural ingredients being included in skin care products. Not just the products that Indie companies make either, but some of the larger companies, seeing the swing toward natural, are beginning to incorporate some natural ingredients into their lines as well. You will still need to be vigilant when choosing a commercial brand, because many times they play up the one natural ingredient they have, only to hide several nasty ones. So make sure that you read the labels and know what those words mean. Remember, not all long words are bad ingredients. For example, butyrospermum parkii is the official name for shea butter, so do some research!
Now, back to toners and astringents. Unless you have very oily skin, are having an acne flare up, or are in need of a deep cleansing, you generally do not need an astringent, instead you should choose a toner. Even if you need the astringent, as soon as the need has past, change to a toner.
That being said, with some Indie formulations you can manage to get a product that will offer the best of both worlds for your skin type. Of course this depends upon the sensitivity of your skin, the severity of your skin problems, and the knowledge level of your Esthetician. So again, research is extremely important.
If you have combination skin, or have problem "spots", you can always use an astringent on just those areas where it is needed, by applying with a q-tip or cotton ball, or you could always use the astringent in the mornings and the the toner at night, or the astringent on odd days and the toner on even ones. However it works best for you. With time and experimentation, you will discover what works best for you. Keep in mind though, the seasons and your activities will also play a part in your skin care needs. The harsh elements of Winter, forced air heating, cold, wind, and lack of sunshine, tend to dry out the skin. So switching to a mild toner is usually most beneficial, regardless of your skin type.