What’s the Difference Between Toners, Serums and Moisturizers, and Should I Care?

It all depends how much you care about your face.


If you ever find yourself lost in the cosmetics aisle at your local drugstore — that aisle is a freaking labyrinth, dude — you know that there are all kinds of creams, balms and goops out there, characterized under all sorts of different names. Three of the more common ones you might stumble upon are toners, serums and moisturizers, and while you might think some unscrupulous companies are slapping different labels on the same stuff — which, yeah, sometimes they are — these are three distinctly different products that do three distinctly different things. And if you want to have a nice-looking face, you should probably understand how they work.

Toners complete the cleansing process by sweeping away excess debris and helping rebalance the pH of the skin,” esthetician Gregory Dylan explains. “Most toners also target specific concerns by depositing a bit of treatment with specific ingredients, like salicylic acid to de-clog or aloe to soothe and hydrate. A great way to incorporate a toner is at night after cleansing, and some toners double as an aftershave, which is an added bonus.” Product and skincare guru John Milligan adds, “The idea of a toner, since guys tend to have bigger pores, is that it would shrink them down.” That way, your face looks smoother.

Serums, meanwhile, “are your skincare powerhouses,” says Dylan. “They’re how you hone in on treating specific concerns and can be super targeted, like as a dark spot treatment, or something more broad, like anti-aging. Serums are typically developed with a higher percentage of active ingredients than moisturizers and smaller molecular weight for better penetration.” Because of those extra active ingredients, Milligan explains, “If you have a lot of shaving-related issues, that’s where serums come in.” For instance, our Repair Serum contains salicylic acid, which has anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce redness, razor bumps and ingrown hairs. Besides being applied right after shaving, though, Dylan says, “Serums will be applied after a cleanser and/or a toner, and underneath your moisturizer.” Speaking of which… 

Moisturizers,” Dylan says, “are developed to help replenish moisture and hydration to the skin while conditioning the skin to keep the texture soft and smooth, and mostly to prevent TEWL (transepidermal water loss) by locking that hydration and moisture into the skin. People with oilier skin can opt for an oil-free moisturizer that will feel lighter and is typically non-comedogenic (which won’t clog pores). I always suggest people use a moisturizer with SPF for daily protection from the sun.”

So, there you go: If you want to treat your skin like you would something that keeps all of your organs from flopping out, get it extra clean with some toner, deal with any unpleasant bumps with some serum and soften it up with some moisturizer. Yes, you could be like a lot of guys and just rub your face with a bar of soap every once in a while, and that can be okay. But actually taking care of yourself is cool, too — if you ever find your way out of the cosmetics aisle.