Serum vs Toner - What’s the Difference?

Skincare routes sometimes seem more complicated than they need to be. Some have dozens of steps, going so far as to tell you to cleanse your face twice or use multiple serums. 

The basic skeleton of a skincare routine is a cleanser, serum, and moisturizer. It’s three simple steps. Some people add in a toner step after the cleanse, or use it to replace the serum step. 

Before we take out a corkboard and red rope to investigate connections between products and steps, let’s take a step back. 

Your skincare routine doesn’t need to be complicated as long as you understand what the products do. 

Having basic knowledge about the difference between products like serums and toners will help you determine what benefits they provide and if you need those benefits.

An Overview of Toners

Toners are liquid products that usually come in a plastic bottle. They sometimes have a spray applicator that allows you to apply them directly to your face. Some toners need to be dispensed onto a cotton pad before use. 

Toners are intended to be used after you’ve washed your face. Their purpose at this stage in your skincare routine largely depends upon the formulation of the toner. 

Some toners are astringents that help to dry up oily acne spots while encouraging large pores to temporarily contract. 

This can lead to the appearance of a smoother, firmer face. The benefit is temporary and comes at the expense of drawing moisture out of your skin. If you have very oily skin, you may feel tempted to use an astringent toner. 

While it might seem to work, you run the risk of encouraging your skin to produce more oil as a response. It could send you into an endless cycle. 

Acid toners are toners that help to exfoliate the skin. They often contain ingredients like glycolic acid or alpha hydroxy acid

These acids help to gently remove the top layer of dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. 

People with dry skin or dry patches may benefit from using these toners on occasion, as they help to prevent flaky or dull buildup on the surface of the skin. 

There are also toners designed to be moisturizing. They’re usually made with floral extracts and ingredients like hyaluronic acid. 

These toners leave behind more moisture than they take away, making them a better option for combination, normal, and dry skin types. 

An Overview of Serums

Serums are highly potent skincare concentrates designed to deliver active ingredients, like botanicals, through the surface of the skin. 

Most of the ingredients in an expertly formulated serum will sink into the skin, hydrating it and supplying the skin with nourishment from the outside in. 

Many serums are marketed to specific skin concerns. You’ll see brightening serums, anti-aging serums, dark spot serums, and skin firming serums. Some serums offer a wealth of benefits in a single bottle. 

If you have multiple skincare concerns (as most people do), a multifunctional serum will simplify your routine. There’s no need to switch products throughout the week or attempt to layer serums if everything you need is bundled together. 

Serums are typically watery or thinner in consistency to allow them to properly hydrate the skin. 

Due to their high concentration of skin-healthy ingredients, serums are usually applied with a dropper. You don’t need to liberally coat yourself with serum. Just a few drops of serum is enough to provide benefits to your entire face. 

The Significant Differences Between the Two

Toners will help to balance and hydrate the skin, but they aren’t concentrated enough to provide benefits beyond the surface. 

They help to refresh and hydrate the top layer of your skin, but they aren’t delivering any benefits that meaningfully change your skin’s health from within. 

Serums are the exact opposite. They’ll provide enough hydration to plump up the surface of the skin, but the overwhelming majority of their benefits come from their ability to penetrate that layer. Serums work inside of your skin, rather than on top of your skin. 

Both products are good for your skin, but they’re good for you in completely different ways. It’s not like comparing apples to oranges but comparing fruits to vegetables. 

Do I Need Both a Toner and a Serum?

For people who like to keep things simple, a toner may not be necessary. 

Cleansing, applying a serum, topping the serum off with moisturizer, and using SPF during the day are the only must-do items in a skincare routine designed to address the skin’s basic health and aesthetic needs. 

Toners can provide additional hydration and cleansing. People with acne-prone skin or very dry skin may choose to use a toner after they’ve cleansed their face. 

If you’re not interested in adding an extra step, just use a well-balanced cleanser designed to work with your skin’s natural microbiome. 

Some men use hydrating fragrance-free, alcohol-free toner as a substitute for aftershave. 

Most aftershave can be irritating and drying to the skin, exacerbating the symptoms of razor burn and making sensitive skin red and angry. A gentle toner is a great alternative, especially for men with sensitive faces. 

How To Use Toner and Serum Together

If you choose to use a toner, incorporate it after cleansing but before serum. Toners are leave-on products. 

After you’ve applied them, let them evaporate away or allow your skin to absorb their water before you apply your serum. If your face still feels a little wet, gently bottling it dry with a towel will prepare it for your serum. 

Apply your serum and finish off with moisturizer. 

Finding the Right Serum

Your serum is the most important part of your skincare routine, especially if you’re using your serum to target skincare concerns. 

Instead of picking and choosing which benefits are more important to you, choose a serum formulated for multiple skincare concerns.

Caldera + Lab’s all-natural serum is free from toxins and synthetic ingredients. 

Our vegan and cruelty-free serum are made of botanicals clinically proven to improve the health and appearance of skin. 

Firming and Protecting Ingredients

  • Nettle
  • Red raspberry
  • Seabuckthorn
  • Frankincense
  • Prickly pear oil

Moisturizing and Replenishing Ingredients

  • Meadowfoam seed oil
  • Fireweed
  • Apricot kernel oil
  • Jojoba oil
  • Echinacea
  • Sunflower seed oil

Fine Line and Wrinkle Improving Ingredients

  • Spilanthes extract
  • Coenzyme Q10
  • Echinacea
  • Huang Qi

Dark Spot and Skin Tone Targeting Ingredients

  • Yarrow
  • Prickly pear
  • Frankincense
  • Alfalfa

With Caldera + Lab, you’ll always know what every ingredient is, what it does, and where it comes from. We keep a close eye on our supply chain, and we’re fully committed to transparency. 

Some of our botanicals are harvested from the wild, while others are organically hand-grown. There’s nothing but plants in the bottle, and that’s the way it should be. Our whole serum is an active ingredient. 

The Takeaway

Both serums and toners are valuable skin care products, but they don’t do the same thing. One cannot be substituted for the other. If you had to choose between the two, serums will provide more benefits to your skin than a toner will. If you’d like to use them both, they’ll work well together.

Caldera + Labs’ serum is the only serum you’ll ever need. If you want to keep your skincare simple (both in use and formulation), we have exactly what you’re looking for. 



10 skincare habits that can worsen acne | American Academy of Dermatology

An anti-aging skin care system containing alpha-hydroxy acids and vitamin | CCID

Understanding Skin Care Product Ingredients | Cleveland Clinic