Welcome to the big, beautiful, bewildering world of K-beauty! By now you’ve no doubt heard all about the wonders of Korean skincare: how it’s the key to the smoothest, brightest, dewiest, most lusciously radiant skin of your life. (For the record, this is true.) And by now you’ve no doubt heard all about how complicated Korean skincare can be. (For the record, this is true.) This, I suspect, is why you’re here.

Never fear! I’m here to help demystify the mysteries of K-beauty so you can get the complexion of your dreams. First up: toners.

K-Beauty Toners: What Do They Do?

In a multilayered Korean skincare routine, the toner step typically comes right after cleansing and can be used morning and night. The basic function of a Korean toner is to quickly reintroduce hydration to skin, mitigating any water loss caused by cleansing. Keeping skin moist also helps it more effectively absorb subsequent products.

Of course, if it were that simple, there wouldn’t be so many toner options to choose from. The real magic of a K-beauty toner lies in the many different varieties available: Korean toners come formulated with all sorts of special ingredients to support the rest of your routine in helping you achieve your skin goals. No matter what your skin type is or what your skin concerns are, there’s a toner out there that fits your needs, even when they change from day to day. Let’s take a look at three of ours and what each of them can do for you.

Hydrium Watery Toner

What it does: Rapidly penetrates to plump up skin with deep hydration

What it’s for: Dehydrated skin that lacks bounce and vitality. I find myself reaching for this (and sometimes patting on multiple layers) on particularly arid days, when my skin feels like it could suck down a gallon of water and come back for more.

Ingredients: Water, butylene glycol, glycerin, 1,2-hexanediol, allantoin, panthenol, sodium hyaluronate, pentylene glycol, sodium hyaluronate crosspolymer, hydrolyzed hyaluronic acid, hyaluronic acid, ethylhexylglycerin, hydrolyzed sodium hyaluronate

What makes it special: Don’t let the thin, light, fast-absorbing consistency of this toner fool you. It’s packed with six different types of hyaluronic acid.

Hyaluronic acid is a humectant, meaning that it binds water. Different molecular weights of hyaluronic acid can penetrate to different layers of skin, with lower molecular weights reaching deeper beneath the surface while higher molecular weights remain closer to the top. COSRX formulated this toner with six molecular weights of hyaluronic acid to deliver hydration to multiple levels of skin at once, for a deeply quenching effect.

In addition to all those types of hyaluronic acid, the Hydrium Water Toner contains allantoin and panthenol to further moisturize and soften skin. What the Hydrium Water Toner doesn’t contain are alcohol, artificial fragrance, or fragrant essential oils, three ingredients that many people find drying, sensitizing, or downright irritating. This lack of common irritants helps make this hydrating product suitable for as many people as possible.

AHA BHA Vitamin C Daily Toner

What it does: Gently exfoliates while helping to fade hyperpigmentation

What it’s for: Dull, rough skin with uneven texture and tone. I find this helpful as a gentle booster for my acids, giving them a little extra oomph when I’ve been neglecting exfoliation.

Ingredients: Actinidia chinensis (kiwi) fruit extract, hylocereus undatus fruit extract, salix alba (willow) bark water, pyrus malus (apple) fruit water, butylene glycol, niacinamide, 1,2-hexanediol, ethyl hexanediol, sodium lactate, water, glycolic acid, allantoin, panthenol, adenosine, betaine salicylate, ascorbyl glucoside

What makes it special: Issues like dark spots and uneven skin tone often benefit from a multi-product approach that tackles the excess pigmentation from several angles. Exfoliation can help slough off hyperpigmented skin at the surface, while actives like vitamin C and niacinamide work to suppress melanin production and disperse existing melanin deeper within the skin.

The niacinamide and low concentrations of glycolic acid and vitamin C in the AHA BHA Vitamin C Daily Toner support your brightening routine without increasing the risk of overexfoliation or irritation. Meanwhile, the anti-inflammatory properties of betaine salicylate and willow bark water reduce blotchiness. This toner uses a blend of fruit extracts as its base, providing lightweight hydration and an extra boost of fruit enzymes to further loosen dead skin for gently accelerated skin turnover. And it’s extra light, making it the perfect consistency to layer under stronger actives.

Propolis Synergy Toner

What it does: Deeply nourishes and protects skin from external stressors and cell damage.

What it’s for: Dry or aging skin in need of improved elasticity and resilience. I reach for this the most out of all of COSRX’s toners—it’s my default option, and an extra layer when I’ve overexfoliated or otherwise compromised my skin helps replenish it and set it right.

Ingredients: Propolis extract (72.6%), honey extract (10%), butylene glycol, 1,2-hexanediol, glycerin, betaine, cassia obtusifolia seed extract, panthenol, polyglyceryl-10 laurate, polyglyceryl-10 myristate, ethylhexylglycerin, sodium hyaluronate, hydroxyethyl acrylate/sodium acryloyldimethyl taurate copolymer, caprylic/capric triglyceride

What makes it special: We’ve come to my personal favorite of this trio of toners, the Propolis Synergy Toner.

I’ve been a fan of propolis and honey in skincare for years. Honey’s deep moisturizing and healing effects pair beautifully with propolis’s calming and smoothing properties. In the right product (like this one), they come together to deliver lasting moisture and an unmistakable dewy glow. With consistent use, the antioxidants in both honey and propolis also help protect skin from free radical damage, which can lead to earlier visible skin aging.

The Propolis Synergy Toner is the thickest of the three toners we’ve discussed here, with  high amounts of propolis and honey, as well as some caprylic/capric triglyceride to provide an extra touch of fatty moisture for skin that leans more towards the dry side. But despite the deeply nourishing effects, it sinks in fully, leaving skin soft, clean-feeling, and ready to enjoy the full benefits of the rest of your skincare routine.

Tips for Making the Most of Your Toners

I’m a big fan of flexibility in skincare. Sometimes we only have time for a short routine (and sometimes that’s all our skin needs), while at other times, our skin craves more layers of hydration. The great thing about K-beauty toners is how adaptable they are.

When you’re rushing to get ready, a layer of toner under your moisturizer and sunscreen will help keep your skin plump and hydrated throughout the day. Moisturizer is important: without an emollient and occlusive layer on top of your hydrating product(?), water will escape from your skin faster than it can be replenished from within.

When you have more time or feel the need for even more hydration, try applying multiple layers of your toner. Just pat each layer on lightly with your palms and repeat until you feel your skin has drunk its fill. And when your skin needs intensive treatment, try soaking some cotton pads in toner and leaving them on clean skin for 15 minutes. These DIY masks can save dry patches!

I know K-beauty can be confusing, but taking the time to figure out what works for your skin and what to look for in your products will pay off in the long run. I hope this article has helped you decide which toner best suits your needs. Pat yours on and enjoy!


By Jude Chao
@fiddysnails influencer & author of Skincare for Your Soul.
February 16, 2021 — cosrx inc