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 • Skincare  • Skincare Guides  • Wait, What Comes First – Toner or Exfoliator?
should i use toner or exfoliator first after acid chemical peel

Wait, What Comes First – Toner or Exfoliator?

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Main Image – Jade M/

In this age of information overload, where TikTok trends and Instagram hacks reign supreme, navigating the meandering maze of skincare can be as confusing as choosing the perfect filter for your selfie.

With *so* many products on the shelves and tons of influencers and beauty addicts sharing their skincare routines and tips, you’d be forgiven if you’re getting slightly confused with what product goes where – and when!

Cleansers, serums, oils, acids, moisturisers… the list is growing. But two essential players often take centre stage: Toners and exfoliators.

This dynamic duo has sparked a fervent debate in the beauty community – which should take the lead in our precious skincare regime and which comes first?

Fear not, fellow skincare lovers, for we’re here to demystify this age-old question and bring clarity to your daily skincare regime, and we’ve brought on an expert to get the goss on *everything* toner and exfoliator related.

LTG HQ spoke with Deidre ‘Dee’ Albanese, a nurse practitioner and founder of Nu Glow Aesthetics, to get that all-important advice on how to achieve the most radiant, dewy, and enviable skin of your life.

So, grab a coffee and get ready to explore the world of toners and exfoliators!


should i use toner or exfoliator first after acid chemical peel

Image – IKvyatkovskaya/Adobe


Should I use toner before or after exfoliating?

There’s a pretty simple answer to this- and it all comes down to what type of exfoliator you’re using.

If you’re using a physical exfoliant (ie a face scrub, wash cloth or cleansing brush), use your toner afterwards.  This will help to remove final traces of product and prep your skin your next steps (like vitamin C serum, facial oils and moisturiser).

If you’re using a chemical exfoliant (like chemical peels or masks containing ingredients for chemical exfoliation), then Dee tells us toner should be used,  “before you exfoliate to prep your skin. This will help balance your skin’s pH level and will remove any remaining makeup, oil or impurities.”

She explains, “This step will also allow the exfoliator to work more effectively and deeply resulting in a more thorough exfoliation.”

Easy peasy advice straight from the expert!

Cleveland Clinic backs this up, saying that toners “are thought to help shrink pores. If you use one, apply it after cleansing, as a second step in readying your face for sunscreen and moisturiser.”

Of course, if your toner *is* your exfoliant (ie, it contains AHAs, BHAs or PHAs and you don’t want to overdo it on the actives) then you can also skip the additional exfoliator and simply use your exfoliating toner as your final step (after cleansing and before applying serums, moisturiser and SPF).

To find out exactly what type of toner you’ve got though- and more about the different types of exfoliators and what they can do- read on!


What does toner *actually* do and what are the different types?

Used to remove final traces of dirt, makeup and pollutants, as well as balance the PH of the skin, while toner may not exactly be a game-changer it can certainly help to cleanse skin and leave it feeling fresh and dewy.

“A toner is typically a water-based lotion or tonic that you use after cleansing and before moisturising. While it may look and feel like water, it does a lot more — think of it as a primer for the rest of your skin care routine. A toner may also be called a tonic, exfoliating acid or an essence,” says Cleveland Clinic.

Depending on your skin type, toners can also provide additional skincare benefits using a myriad of amazing skin-saving ingredients, meaning there are multiple types of toner available.

While, for the most part, they all look pretty much the same- in a liquid form and with a spray or bottle dispenser- what they can achieve, and the type you pick, will depend on your exact skin concerns.

Got acne-prone skin that needs help getting rid of excess oil? Choose an exfoliating toner that contains ingredients like witch hazel, alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or salicylic acid (a type of beta hydroxy acid).

Dry skin that needs some extra hydration and care? Opt for toners with glycerin or hyaluronic acid, since they can help to lock in moisture and help your tight skin feel soothed and plump.

If you have redness or sensitive skin, try using a toner with aloe vera, ceramides or chamomile as these natural elixirs can help to restore the skin’s natural barrier and offer some soothing relief.

And if you’re tackling fine lines or sun damage, toners containing gentle acids and ingredients like vitamin C can also help here too.

But what about exfoliators? What are the different types and what can they do? Keep reading, my friend.


toner or exfoliator first acids exfoliation toners

Image – Marina Kaiser/Adobe


And exfoliator?

Exfoliators whisk away dull, lifeless skin cells, unveiling a fresh, glowing canvas beneath. Depending on the type you have and its ingredients, exfoliants can also help to unclog pores, rid your skin of pesky blackheads, and even out skin tone to reveal a gorgeous glow.

Dee tells us, “Exfoliating is the brightening step, and should typically follow cleansing of the skin. By gently removing the top layer of dead skin cells, a more fresh and radiant complexion is able to be unveiled!” Sounds magical, eh?

Thick and gritty exfoliators are somewhat a thing of the past, with most skincare lovers now opting for acids to rid their skin of dirt and promote collagen production.

The result? Smooth skin that is plumped to the max!

Let’s take a look at the different types of exfoliators you’ll find.


Chemical exfoliators

Chemical exfoliants are acids that work to get rid of dirt and dead skin. Often sold as resurfacing serums (but also as masks, peels, boosters and exfoliating toners), they use acids or enzymes to loosen and dissolve dead cells, revealing a smoother complexion that’s ready for moisture!

Typically containing active ingredients like AHAs, prickly fruit extract, mandelic acid, salicylic acid, and lactic acid, chemical exfoliators are my *personal* fave.

They come in various concentrations and weaker formulas can be bought over the counter – Hello Face Theory, Paula’s Choice, The Ordinary and Dr Dennis Gross!

Stronger chemical exfoliants are usually applied by a dermatologist in the form of a chemical peel.

It’s *really* important that you never use overly strong chemicals intended for in-office use at home as this can leave you exposed to acid burns that can permanently damage your skin – you’ve been warned!

If your chemical exfoliant comes in liquid form, apply it to your face using a cotton pad. For lotions, masks, serums and gels, either apply with clean fingers or a mask brush.



Another option is microdermabrasion, a mechanical exfoliation treatment that gently clears away dead surface skin cells and creates a smoother, softer appearance. It helps to reduce the signs of ageing by buffing away lines, wrinkles and age spots for a more youthful appearance.

The exfoliating crystals in microdermabrasion make it a *much* safer option than other physical exfoliants that you can get from your local chemist or beauty store. Now, microdermabrasion can be done at home (if you have the right equipment and training), but we recommend treating your skin with a visit to the salon or dermatologist.


Physical exfoliators

Physical exfoliants provide a scrubbing action achieved through small particles like beads, seeds or granules found in cleansers, treatments and masks, removing dead skin and debris.

Physical exfoliators can also include cleansing brushes and face cloths or a clean towel.

We’ve got to say, many skincare aficionados and derms have moved away from this type of exfoliant, because it’s quite easy to go overboard and damage the skin, resulting in micro-tears (ouch!) on the skin.

If you’re going for this option, be *really* gentle and don’t apply much pressure – exfoliating shouldn’t hurt! Use a penny-sized amount of the product and apply it to a wet face using circular motions, taking care to get into all of those nooks and crannies around the nose (dead skin typically builds up here and causes blocked pores.)


But, a word of *caution* when it comes to all types of exfoliants, guys and gals – moderation is key!

Embrace the magic of exfoliators, but don’t overindulge. Exfoliating TOO much can actually do more harm than good, damaging the skin barrier and removing essential oils and fats from the skin – not a good idea. This can actually lead to more breakouts and skin that feels tight and dry.


should i use toner or exfoliator first after acid chemical peel

Image – Kat Ka/Adobe


When should I use a chemical exfoliant in my routine?

You should use an exfoliant AFTER cleansing. As we’ve mentioned, if you’re using a liquid chemical exfoliant like Paula’s Choice AHA toner or REN’s Ready Steady Glow though then you can use this instead of a toner.

Otherwise, use your facial cleanser then your toner and then your chemical exfoliator.  Follow with any serums, moisturiser, eye cream and SPF if using in your morning routine, or any serums, night cream and products for your eye area for your nighttime routine.

Either way, for super optimal results, Dee tells us to “incorporate exfoliation into your skincare routine 2-3 times a week.”


toner or exfoliator first acids exfoliation toners exfolaint

Image – Jacob Lund/Adobe


What is the next step after exfoliating?

As we’ve said, now you can continue with your skincare routine but be careful not to irritate your freshly exfoliated skin. Your skin will be craving moisture after exfoliating, using a hydrating facial moisturiser will help to replenish any moisture loss.

If you’re ever stuck for the order to layer your products, just apply them in order of texture, going from the thinner consistencies up to the thicker lotions and creams. For example, apply liquid products (such as boosters), then your thicker products including serums and/or treatments, and moisturisers.

And, we’ve said it once (or *multiple* times) but we will say it again – Apply. Sunscreen.


Can I use serums and other actives after exfoliating?

Freshly exfoliated skin is a great canvas for actives and serums, however don’t overdo it.

If you’re using a retinol, for example, you’ll want to wait until your skin is no longer sensitive too it before introducing any acids too.

If you’ve undergone a stronger chemical peel provided by a professional derm, it’s a good idea to ask for their advice on this. However, we suggest refraining from using strong retinoids, vitamin C, anti-acne products, and other exfoliating agents like glycolic acid, and salicylic acid until your dermatologist tells you to use them again.

If you’ve got particularly sensitive skin, always start with a lower percentage formula of any actives and avoid harsh scrubs.


should i use toner or exfoliator first

Image – Nu/Adobe


 The takeaway

*Ta-da*! There we have it, the secret to unlocking your skin’s ultimate radiance lies in a simple yet effective routine: combining your exfoliators and toners correctly.

By taking the advice of our trusted skincare expert, you’re now armed with a game-changing technique that promises to banish dullness, smooth your skin, and amp up your glow. 



Meet the expert

Deidre ‘Dee’ Albanese is a nurse practitioner who founded Nu Glow Aesthetics in 2019. With her conservative approach to injectables, Deidre has a passion for making people look and feel like the best version of themselves.




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Senior Beauty Editor

Laura Kemp started her journalism career as a news reporter for one of the largest newspaper groups in Europe before moving into features and editorial writing. Combining her love of hard-hitting journalism with her passion for beauty, she’s now Senior Beauty Editor at Live That Glow. When she’s not writing, researching, or interviewing her favourite experts, you’ll find Laura practicing her downward dog or drifting on her paddleboard.

Expertise: Hair care, nails
Education: University of Salford

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