An astringent is a substance that draws water out of tissues, causing them to shrink. In skin care, people sometimes use astringent products after cleansing to temporarily tighten the skin, shrink pores, and remove oil.

However, astringents can be drying, and are not suitable for every skin type.

Some companies use the terms “astringent” and “toner” interchangeably on their product labels, but they are slightly different. Toners can contain astringent substances, but not all of them do. By contrast, a product that a brand labels as “astringent” will have a significant amount of astringency.

In this article, we will discuss what an astringent is, examples of astringents, their benefits, side effects, and how to choose the best product.

A woman in a bathroom applying astringent to her face with a cotton pad.Share on Pinterest
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An astringent is a substance that shrinks tissues. Some common examples in skin care include alcohol and witch hazel. An astringent can:

  • make skin feel tight temporarily
  • remove oil
  • reduce the appearance of pores

Many substances are astringents, particularly those that are high in tannins. Tannins are types of antioxidants present in certain:

  • berries
  • grapes
  • teas

Similarly to when a person applies astringents to the skin, the foods above can create a dry or puckering sensation in the mouth.

Skin care products with “astringent” on the label are usually liquids that a person either sprays onto the face or applies with a cotton pad. People use them after cleansing but before moisturizing.

Astringent products and toners can seem similar. Because of this, some companies use the terms “astringent” and “toner” interchangeably.

However, they are different. Toners can contain a range of active ingredients, which may or may not include astringents. It depends on the formula and what the product aims to do. As the name suggests, astringents rely primarily on astringent ingredients. They may have a high amount of:

  • alcohol
  • witch hazel
  • another astringent substance

Often, companies market astringent products toward people with:

Some astringent ingredients people may find in their skin care include:

  • isopropyl alcohol
  • witch hazel
  • calamine
  • green or black tea

A product that contains a mild astringent may benefit some people with oily or acne-prone skin. Depending on the ingredient, an astringent may help:

  • remove debris, makeup, or excess oil
  • clear acne-causing bacteria
  • shrink pores temporarily

However, the exact benefits will depend on the formula. The American Academy of Dermatology Association (AADA) states that the aim of treating oily skin and acne is to maintain a healthy balance of oil, rather than remove it entirely.

Harsh astringents have a number of downsides, particularly if they contain alcohol.

Firstly, strong astringents strip much of the oil from the surface of the skin. This can become a problem because oil, or sebum, plays an important role in skin health.

According to the AADA, people with more sebum tend to have fewer wrinkles. Sebum is also part of the moisture barrier, stopping water from leaving the skin. Stripping all oil from the skin may therefore result in dryness and irritation.

Additionally, drying out the skin is not an effective approach to treating acne. The AADA actually recommends that people with acne avoid astringents and rubbing alcohol, as drying or irritating products can make the inflammation worse.

No — while there are many astringents on the market, an astringent is not a necessary part of a person’s skin care routine.

Other active ingredients can achieve the same aims, in terms of controlling oil and reducing acne, but without the downsides that harsh astringents have.

Furthermore, astringents are not suitable for many skin types. There are five main skin types:

  • dry, which may feel rough or flaky
  • oily, which becomes shiny quickly after washing
  • combination, which is dry in some areas and oily in others
  • sensitive, which reacts to certain products or substances
  • normal, which is neither dry, oily, nor sensitive

Only people with oily skin may be able to tolerate harsher astringents. Those with combination skin may be able to use them on oily areas, while avoiding dry areas. Generally, though, the AADA does not recommend them.

Toners that contain active ingredients to target acne or oiliness are alternatives to astringents. They can still work to address these concerns, but they do so in different ways.

For example, a person may use a toner containing humectants to increase hydration, while also containing a low or moderate amount salicylic acid. This avoids creating unnecessary dryness.

Some of the active ingredients that may work to replace astringents include:

  • Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs): Salicylic acid belongs to this group of substances. In addition to helping treat acne, BHAs exfoliate the skin and remove dead skin cells, which can improve texture and appearance.
  • Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs): These acids also exfoliate the skin, but can be more gentle than BHAs, particularly for sensitive skin. They include lactic acid and glycolic acid.
  • Niacinamide: This B vitamin reduces inflammation and redness or discoloration, and minimizes the appearance of pores. A 2021 research review found that niacinamide could help with multiple skin conditions, including acne.
  • Retinoids: Some toners contain retinoids, which are forms of vitamin A that dermatologists use to treat acne and reduce fine lines or wrinkles.
  • Hyaluronic acid (HA): HA does not treat acne directly, but it can be an effective humectant. It attracts and binds moisture to the skin without increasing oiliness.

Alternatively, a person may not need a toner at all. If other steps in their skin care routine already have some of the above ingredients in them, it is not necessary to add more.

However, it is essential to wear SPF before going outside while using some of the above ingredients because they increase the skin’s sensitivity to ultraviolet light:

  • BHAs
  • AHAs
  • retinoids

Additionally, retinoids are not safe for people who are pregnant or nursing. Speak with a doctor before using them.

Astringents shrink tissues, such as the skin, causing a temporary tightening effect. They also remove oil and can be antibacterial.

Many companies that sell astringents market them toward those with oily or acne-prone skin. While some people find them effective and tolerate them well, they can also be harsh or drying, particularly if the active ingredient is alcohol.

To maintain a healthy balance of moisture in the skin, it is important for people to use products that hydrate without being heavy or oily. A toner that contains humectants, as well as active ingredients to target acne or excess oil, may be a gentler alternative to astringents.

Speak with a dermatologist about the best products for a person’s skin.