Guys, I’ve added a new step to my skincare routine! And I know you may be wondering, Where do you even have room for a new step? or maybe Do you really need another step? Well, the answer to the second is up for debate, but I wouldn’t be here blogging about it if it hadn’t made some difference to me.
Let’s meet the newest addition to my family: the pH prep toner! Mine is called Prep School. It’s a prototype from the lab of mad genius artisanal skincare formulator Chel of Holy Snails, and it goes perfectly with my Muji facial cottons.
But first things first!
What are acid toners and what do they do?
Acid toners, like Korea’s COSRX AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner and Mizon AHA BHA Daily Clean Toner or the Western Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 or Pixi Glow Tonic, are thin, watery liquids. They contain AHA and/or BHA ingredients and are generally formulated at a pH that’s higher than optimal for chemical exfoliation but slightly lower than that of normal skin. Generally, they provide some very weak exfoliation, but not enough to count, at least not for a hardened actives user. What they’re really there to do is lower the skin’s pH slightly, allowing one’s real actives to work better than they would in a higher-pH environment. For those who use high-pH cleansers, acid toners can also mitigate some of the issues they may cause by reducing the amount of time skin spends in an alkaline state. (Some of the issues, but not all–an acid toner isn’t going to give your acid mantle back the natural, essential lipids it’s just lost. Just sayin’.)
I’ve personally never found acid toners critical. The various L-ascorbic acid vitamin C serums I’ve used and my reliable COSRX AHA and BHA have always worked just fine for me as they are. Additionally, since I always use a low pH cleanser, I’m not concerned with lowering my skin’s pH after cleansing.
So why, you may be wondering even harder now, did I decide to add an acid toner to my routine? Besides the fact that I’m always down to try anything Chel whips up?
The answer is tretinoin. The Curology prescription tretinoin that I’ve been using for a few months now, to be exact.
In my last Curology update, I talked about some of the things that my Curology provider and I agree have boosted my skin’s tolerance. I haven’t talked much about the things I’ve cut back on in the name of tolerance, though.
If I were to use my vitamin C serum, AHA, and BHA daily as I used to, while also using prescription tretinoin daily, I have no doubt that my face would be a flaking, peeling, dehydrated, overexfoliated, oversensitive mess. I can’t have that. I dialed my use back to every other day to prevent this, but with my acid frequency halved, I started to notice some SFs creeping back onto my nose. My skin also started to seem a little more prone to clogging. Neither of these changes was major by any stretch of the imagination, but I noticed them, that’s for sure.
It hasn’t been long at all since I introduced an acid toner into my every-other-day chemical exfoliation routine, but those little signs of trouble are already starting to go away. The reason why seems pretty simple. The acid toner gives my acids an extra kick. It’s enough to get my SFs and clogs back under control without exfoliating more than my skin can handle.
I can’t review Prep School for a couple of reasons. One, it’s not actually available for sale, so there’s that. Two, I don’t have much to compare it to, having never consistently used any other acid toners in my routine. And three, Chel is my friend.
What I can say is that I give a definite thumbs up to the idea of acid toners in general. If you’re looking for something to up the power of your actives without drastically increasing your chances of overexfoliation, a pH prep step may be a good one to explore.
How I fit acid toner into my skincare routine
When I showed my current actives routine in my Snapchat (mommasharkus) the other night, it got screenshotted a few times, so I thought I’d share it here as well in case any of you guys are looking for examples.
Since actives are designed to accelerate the removal of dead skin cells rather than to nourish the skin, I think of them as part of the cleansing portion of my routine. I do my non-prescription actives every other night and begin immediately after cleansing.
Step 1: Vitamin C
Like any other active, L-ascorbic acid vitamin C works best on bare skin. And the vitamin C serum I’m currently using, another Holy Snails prototype called Vita Sea, is at such a low pH already that I don’t see any need to boost it further. Therefore, I start my actives with Vita Sea.
Step 2: pH prep
After applying my Vita Sea, I let it absorb for about 15-20 minutes. By the end of that wait period, my skin has taken on all of the brightening and anti-aging vitamin C goodness it’s going to. The rest is residue. Residue that may interfere with full efficacy of subsequent actives. Meanwhile, my skin’s pH has most likely risen a fair bit from the low point it reached. That’s where my acid toner comes in. I squirt some Prep School onto a facial cotton and swipe it over my face, clearing off any vitamin C serum residue while also bringing my skin’s pH back down a bit in preparation for my AHA.
Step 3: AHA
Acid toners don’t require a wait time (actually, that would be counterproductive, since you’re using them to lower your skin’s pH, which will start rising again if you wait), so after Prep School, I go straight to the next step. For me, that’s AHA.
Generally, it’s advised to use your BHA before your AHA so that the oil-soluble BHA can cut through the gunk in pores and allow the water-soluble AHA to penetrate further. But then I thought really hard about it. Too hard, probably. To me, it would make just as much sense to use AHA first, so that the AHA can clear dead skin cells from the surface so that the BHA has less to get through. But then I remembered that acids at daily use concentrations don’t even work instantly. That made me more confused and my head started hurting and I started getting angry, so I decided to go with lower pH to higher, which is a good rule of thumb. With my COSRX acids, that puts my AHA before BHA. This works just fine for me.
Step 4: BHA
After giving my AHA about 10-15 minutes to do its thing, I move on to my final acid step, COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid. I use facial cottons with this product as well in case I have any AHA residue left over. Best to have as clean a surface as possible given how many products I like to pile on after my actives.
And that’s it! One more 10-15 minute wait time later, and I’m ready to move on to whatever else the evening has to offer.
Do you use an acid toner? Which one and why, or why don’t you use one in your routine?
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