Introducing new products into your skincare routine can be a nerve-racking experience, especially if you’ve yet to branch away from the typical cleanser+moisturizer routine that so many of us start out with! From serums and eye creams to toners and moisturizers, it can be a crazy world to maneuver on your own.
Some of the most popular skincare products at the moment are chemical exfoliants: active toners, and then AHA, BHA, and PHA-based toners. The last of which is definitively the least known, so taking the plunge and buying one may be confusing.
After all, what even is a PHA toner? PHA toners are in the same family as AHAs and BHAs and are used as chemical exfoliants for the face. They’re far gentler on the skin and have a number of benefits that make them a better choice for some people than other toners.
Consider this article your complete guide for becoming an expert in PHAs, and once you’re all caught up, we’ll give you our top choices for PHA toners that you can add to your routine!
What Are PHAs?
You may already be familiar with Alpha and Betahydroxy Acids — especially if you’ve been in the skincare game for a while. However, while we were keeping our focus on AHAs and BHAs, PHAs made their quiet entrance into the realm of skincare.
PHAs are Polyhydroxy Acids, and we wouldn’t necessarily consider them to be the direct sibling of AHAs or BHAs. AHAs/BHAs are known for their aggressive skin turnover rate. They increase skin sensitivity (especially to the sun) and can be quite abrasive on the skin when overused.
PHAs? They don’t do that. They’re considered a second-generation chemical exfoliant, so they are far more gentle on the skin, while still achieving the same results as their more fiercely-working distant cousins.
Just like other chemical exfoliants, PHAs increase your skin’s cell turnover rate to improve texture, acne, and other forms of scarring (like sun damage or hyperpigmentation). Not only does this make your skin look better overall, but it aids your other skincare products in penetrating deep into your skin’s surface!
Uniquely, they also prevent the process of glycation — which is when sugars in your body attach to the collagen in your face, effectively breaking them down and weakening them to the point where your skin loses its elasticity and ability to “bounce back.”
The reason for the gentler nature of PHAs is all in part to their high molecular size. This is what sets them apart from other chemical exfoliants, as they penetrate slower into the skin. Think of it as a “slow-release” capsule for your skin, releasing all of the benefits at a rate more easily accepted by your skin!
Who Can Benefit From PHA Toners?
We believe in the philosophy that gentler is better. Skincare should never be thought of as a race, but rather as a marathon. Sticking to a gentle routine can offer better, more long-lasting results than aggressive skincare. PHA toners offer reparative results, gently rebuilding your skin to optimum health over time.
With that said, we think that all skin types can benefit from the addition of a PHA toner. You don’t have to give up other chemical exfoliants, but if you find that your skin is reacting negatively to the daily use of AHAs and BHAs, you may find relief in alternating uses with a PHA toner.
In spite of its universal appeal, there are certain skin types that could benefit from PHA toners. We’re specifically thinking of dry skin, sensitive skin, and those who are experiencing the initial signs of aging.
Dry skin types may have initially thought that chemical exfoliants aren’t a viable option to add to your skincare routine, because they’re known to dry out the skin before being able to regulate your skin’s oil production process.
Due to the slow absorption rate and high molecular size of PHA toners, you won’t experience that sort of aggressive drying!
This goes without saying, but sensitive skin types will find that PHA toners are much kinder on the skin than other chemical exfoliants.
Those with sensitive skin can attest that with other toners and actives, they may have to limit their use down to once or twice a week, whereas pure or mixed PHA toners can be used every single day!
Last, but certainly not least, those who are looking for preventative measures for aging will love the gentle turnover rate of PHA toners.
We wouldn’t necessarily recommend that those with existing signs of aging try out a PHA toner if they want quick results, or if they have deeply impacted lines — it’s more so for younger skin or those with minute aging signs.
If you’re already familiar with the benefits of AHAs and BHAs, then it’s likely that the benefits of PHA toners won’t come as a surprise to you!
Here are a couple of notable pros to switching to a Polyhydroxy formula:
- A refinement in skin texture
- Speeding up the healing process of acne scars
- Normalizing acne-prone skin and preventing future breakouts
- Giving you “just enough” exfoliation, nothing too abrasive
- Reduces collagen loss
- Can safely be used during the daytime
Best PHA Toners
Now that we’ve learned all about the benefits of PHA toners, here are some of our favorite products on the market today!
|1.||PYUNKANG YUL Calming Deep Toner||Cystic acne, tiger grass, sebum control|
|2.||BOTANITY Makiol Toner||Mattifying, sebum control, cruelty-free|
|3.||SOME BY MI 30 Days Miracle Toner||AHA/BHA addition, Korean, low pH|
|4.||The INKEY List PHA Toner||Niacinamide, 2x daily use, super gentle|
|5.||Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow PHA||Cactus water, calming, hydrating|
|6.||BENTON PHA Peeling Toner||AHA/BHA, hyaluronic acid, clean formula|
|7.||The Vegan Glow Kombucha PHA Toner||Unscented, vegan, no “concept” ingredients|
1. PYUNKANG YUL Calming Deep Toner
The brand PYUNKANG YUL is Korean-based, but it’s recently made strides in international markets for its incredible line of skincare products such as cleansers, serums, and (of course) toners.
This toner is incredibly gentle and calming, making it an especially great choice for those with angry, acne-prone skin and sensitive skin types in general.
You can trust this formula was meticulously created, as Pyunkang Yul is named after an Eastern Medicine Medical Clinic that specialized in treating skin and respiratory diseases.
Those same formulas used in medicine were cultivated to create this line of skincare products, including this toner that features AHAs and PHAs sourced from all-natural ingredients, like white willow bark.
On top of the additions of AHA and PHA added in this formula, there are other additives like Hyaluronic Acids and Panthenols, which skillfully attract water and hydration to your skin, storing it and locking it in place.
Though PHAs don’t dry out the skin to the same effect as other chemical exfoliants, the addition of these hydrating agents makes it so you don’t have to worry about drying out at all! In fact, regularly using this toner is a fantastic way to ensure that your skin is hydrated, plump, and looks full and healthy throughout the day.
You may be used to hydrating products leaving an almost sticky finish to the skin, but rest assured that this toner has a lightweight, non-sticky texture that will leave you feeling refreshed after use.
Like most Korean skincare products, this toner features the healing powers of Cica, a plant derived from East Asia that soothes and protects skin better than most naturally sourced ingredients. This addition controls sebum protection while soothing active breakouts, making it perfect for those with rosacea or oily skin!
2. BOTANITY Makiol Toner
There’s a common misconception that naturally derived skincare products aren’t as effective as those with more chemical bases — in reality, that’s just not true!
In fact, we would even make the argument that plant-based products are better for the skin since they’re far gentler and offer lasting results, just like this PHA-based toner from BOTANITY.
This brand prides itself in making products that are “powered by plants” — they even say that the key to beauty in cosmetics in skincare lies in nature!
This toner contains ingredients like Aloe Barbadensis Leaf, Magnolia Bark, as well as Cica, all of which are deeply hydrating, healing, and soothing to the skin.
On their own, they’re incredible for facial texture and other skin concerns, but when used in this expertly concocted cocktail, then dull, sagging, generally unhappy skin will surely be a thing of the past!
And of course, the addition of PHA in this formula makes it incredible for the gentle exfoliation of the skin, expertly dealing with texture, overproduction of oil, and reducing scarring without penetrating deep enough to compromise the health of new skin cells or your moisture barrier in general!
The two main purposes of this toner are to improve skin texture and to balance your oil production.
As we mentioned earlier, other chemical exfoliants can leave your skin feeling stripped before balancing oil production, whereas PHAs work slowly enough so you’ll see the gradual balance of your skin’s oil production instead.
It’s hard to find reputable skincare nowadays, especially if you aren’t willing to drop loads of money on luxury skincare, but BOTANITY is dermatologist-tested, dermatologist-recommended, free of any parabens, phthalates, and will always be cruelty-free!
3. SOME BY MI 30 Days Miracle Toner
This product isn’t called a “miracle toner” for no reason! Imagine; with just 30 days of dedicated use, you can find yourself with better, brighter, cleaner, healthier skin than you’ve had in your whole life.
It may sound crazy, it may even sound too good to be true — but armed with a slew of positive reviews, and only gaining popularity in the skincare market, the 30 Days Miracle Toner by SOME BY MI is here to change the tides of the beauty world!
Although incredibly effective, we would say that this is one of the most gentle toners that we have on this list.
Even more impressively, that gentle approach actually contains the exfoliating powers of PHA, BHA, and AHA. The secret is that they’re all used in easily handleable percentages, so your skin won’t freak out, dry out, or break out!
Those who have used this toner have dubbed it “relief” for their skin. It’s unbelievably calming, soothing redness and dealing with breakouts while preserving the strength of your skin.
The chemical exfoliants in the formula work in tandem with 10,000ppm of tea tree leaf extract, which dries out sebum and oil production just enough to offer you relief.
With all of the ingredients in this formula being thought of as traditionally harsh or stripping to the skin, it’s surprising to think that it’s revered as being a non-aggressive toner — the secret lies in the pH balance of the product!
Coming in at only 5.5 pH, this toner holds the same pH levels as your skin, so it’s a non-disruptive way to keep your skin exfoliated and looking its best!
4. The INKEY List PHA Toner
You’ve heard us raving about how fantastic simple, gentle formulas are for the skin, and The INKEY List is definitely a big supporter of that approach to skincare.
If you’re just beginning your skincare journey, and are looking at products to ease you into having a more complex routine, The INKEY List is a fantastic place to start! They have a ton of simple ingredients, while still being immensely effective on the skin.
Their PHA Toner is quite representative of that simple philosophy, containing 3% PHAs and 3% Niacinamide. The low percentage points of both ingredients make it so the toner gently improves your skin while keeping irritation, redness, and other issues at bay!
What we love about this toner is that it’s deeply moisturizing and gentle enough to use twice a day, every day. While most chemical exfoliants are harsh and can strip the skin when used at high enough rates, INKEY list has mastered making an exfoliant that bears effective results without hurting your face in the process!
Another rockstar ingredient in this toner is the juice extracted from Aloe Barbadensis Leaves, a naturally sourced plant that helps soothe skin and lock in moisture, keeping your skin hydrated throughout the day.
The best way to use this toner is immediately after a cleanser. Soak a cotton pad or ball in the toner and swipe it around your face, placing particular focus on the areas of your skin that feel congested. Then, follow with the rest of your skincare!
5. Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow PHA
If there’s any kind of trend that will always be in, it’s the look of healthy, hydrated, glowing skin.
The key to achieving this kind of skin is by finding products that place importance on moisturizing your skin, while also repairing the skincare barrier to prevent any future issues!
Glow Recipe is a brand you can count on to give you that unparalleled dewy glow to your skin without leaving your face feeling sticky or heavy with product.
The secret? Hydrating watermelon extract. It’s naturally derived so it’s super gentle on the skin, and smells summertime fresh upon application!
The watermelon extract in this formula is deeply nourishing, while also delivering vitamins and amino acids to your skin, so with every use, your skin is left feeling supple, hydrated, and healthy.
However, the true star of this toner is obviously the PHA+BHA cocktail that works in tandem to gently shed old, dead, textured skin to reveal healthy skin underneath.
If you’re worried about using too many chemicals on the skin, you’ll be happy to hear that the BHA components of this formula are all naturally derived, specifically from Willow Bark Extract.
Don’t you hate when skincare products only leave your face feeling healthy and hydrated during initial application? So do we!
Luckily, this toner utilizes the barrier-forming powers of Cactus Water, which seals in all the moisturizing and nourishing properties of the other ingredients while also introducing your skin to a healthy mix of antioxidants and electrolytes.
6. BENTON PHA Peeling Toner
Let’s break this next product down from the outside in. When you first receive your BENTON PHA Peeling Toner, you’ll notice that it comes in paper-based packaging.
This is actually a box that’s made of leftover sugar cane byproduct that’s harvested during sugar cultivation — it’s an all-natural alternative to packaging that doesn’t hurt trees in the process!
But the packaging of this product isn’t the only thing that’s green or cruelty-free! The toner itself is certified green, as well as leaping bunny certified, so you can rest easy knowing that there wasn’t a single animal harmed during the production or testing of this toner!
Let’s dig a little deeper and take a look at the 3 main ingredients that make this toner such a great choice for all skin types. First and foremost, we have PHA: an exfoliator, oil regulator, and white and black head reducer.
On its own, it’s clear that this ingredient can work wonders on the skin, but it’s working in tandem with other ingredients like…
- Sodium Hyaluronate moisturizes the skin and keeps your face feeling dewy and plump. It’s naturally hydrating, absorbing moisture found in the air to keep you hydrated long after you applied the toner.
- Chrysanthemum is another great natural herb found in this toner. It doesn’t just give the product a great scent, but it also has Vitamins A, B1, and adenine in it that soothe the skin and reduce swelling or inflammation.
This will heal active skin issues, including traditional acne, fungal acne, and capillary vessel breakage!
7. The Vegan Glow Kombucha PHA Toner
You may be familiar with Kombucha as being a healing drink that balances out the healthy bacteria in your tummy — you may be wondering what a health food drink is doing in your skincare product.
The answer is, that it’s doing a lot. Those healthy bacteria may work wonders internally, but they also aid in balancing the moisture barrier on your face so that your first line of defense is always in tip-top shape! Oh, and did we mention that all of the PHA in this formula is found in the kombucha?
That’s right — Kombucha is naturally exfoliating, ridding your skin of any surface-level issues and balancing your oil production at the same time!
One of our favorite features about this toner is that the brand promises an ingredient list with absolutely no “concept” additives. This means that it’s only made up of the trustworthy stuff — ingredients that are known for their effectiveness on the skin, and no ingredients that could potentially yield unsavory results.
As for the formulation, you can trust that this toner is completely vegan and cruelty-free. There are no parabens, SLS and SLES, PEG, and no silicones or dimethicones, making it non-comedogenic and great for all skin types and concerns!
Now that we’ve learned all about PHA toners and some of our favorite products, here are some additional questions that we thought you might have!
Should you wear SPF when using PHA toners?
The general rule of thumb is that you should always wear SPF, regardless of what your skincare routine may look like and what products you use.
While your skin’s sensitivity may not necessarily increase with the use of PHAs, the UV rays from the sun can still ruin the healing process of your skin — a high-quality sunscreen should always be used!
Can I use PHAs with AHAs and BHAs?
Yes! They’re in the same family, so you can use all of these chemical exfoliants in conjunction with one another. In fact, we’ve listed a handful of toners that are mixtures of PHAs with other actives.
Be mindful of their potential effect on your skin, though! Those with sensitive skin may be better off sticking to one hydroxy acid at a time.
Can I use PHA with retinol?
Due to their mild nature, PHAs can actually be used alongside retinol! This sets them apart from other actives and exfoliants and may make them a better option for those who use multiple formulas and products in their skincare routines.