If I was ever curious about what rock-bottom would look like for my skin, all I had to do was look in the mirror. Flaming red bumps had sprouted on top of a rash covering the southern hemisphere of my face. After weeks of waiting for the storm to pass, I finally resigned myself to the fact that the forecast was only getting gloomier and I needed professional intervention. The dermatologist diagnosed me with dermatitis, and I hung on his every word for a miracle cure that would turn the fate of my skin around.

Unfortunately, my condition had no corresponding miracle cure. Instead, I received not one - or two - but three prescriptions. The first two were an oral antibiotic and an anti-inflammatory gel which I could easily incorporate into my daily routine. The third prescription required me to change my cosmetic habits, paring down my skin’s diet to sunscreen only and replacing my standard rotation of cleansers with Aqua Glycolic Toner.

I was appalled at the thought of giving up my daytime cosmetics and methodical evening regimen, which usually entail over ten different products. “What am I supposed to do for anti-aging? Can’t I use targeted treatments where I have shallow wrinkles and sun spots?” I pleaded with the doctor. His response: “The best anti-aging therapy that you can give your skin is to use the Aqua Glycolic Toner every day as recommended.” Eschew all my other products for a single toner? This was a tall order. Yet my skin was visibly on strike, so I had no choice but to follow the doctor’s orders.

After picking up my other two prescriptions from the pharmacist, I grumbled as I forked over another $15 for a big plastic jug (6 fl oz) of bright blue liquid, expecting it to go the same way as all the other toners I’ve tried: into the back of the medicine cabinet. My previous relationships with toners have made me commitment-phobic. The astringent variety that I used during adolescence (Sea Breeze) sapped every last drop of moisture from my skin, while the tonic types that I tried later in life added nothing except an extra step in my routine. I believe in the benefits of good organic toners (such as the ones on this list), which contain natural actives that refresh and rebalance the skin. But my experiences have always left me underwhelmed, wondering whether my skin is too stubborn to take advantage of the toner’s perks.

Toners come in several types with different purposes, as this two-part series on toners explains in detail. My skin tends to feel dry, so I have always limited my toner trials to weak, water-based versions low on alcohol and high on plant extracts. The only two that I have stuck with on some sort of regular basis are Dermophisiologique Polivalente Tonic and L’uvalla Orange Toner. I generally only dab them on after cleansing when I want to give my face a breather from the regular serum/moisturizer routine or temper a breakout. The Aqua Glycolic Toner was entirely unlike any toner product I had used before.

For one, the dermatologist said that I should splash my face with water both before and after applying the toner. This method seemed counter-intuitive compared to most other toners I know, which are meant to be left on the skin and soaked up. The other odd thing was that I had to make a special request from the pharmacist to pull the Aqua Glycolic Toner down from the shelves behind the counter. Though it is an OTC product and can be bought online, my local pharmacy keeps it behind the counter, presumably because its formula contains medical-grade actives. I returned home to investigate these ingredients first-hand.

What jumped out at me right away was an extremely high level of alcohol. The first ingredient after purified water is SD alcohol, which is ethyl alcohol that has been denatured to prevent ingestion (and attendant lawsuits). Denatured alcohol can function as an astringent, anti-foaming, and anti-microbial agent. Because glycolic acid is water soluble and does not penetrate well with excess oil on the skin, SD alcohol is useful in the Aqua Glycolic Toner for its ability to remove residue and oil from the skin. The downside is that - unlike cetyl, cetearyl, and stearyl alcohols - SD alcohol is not a fatty alcohol that moisturizes the skin. Rather, it can be very drying, sensitizing, and irritating.

I certainly did not need any help drying out my already flaking, inflamed face. But if my skin had to be dried out in order to return to a state of equilibrium, I was willing to give it a try. For the sake of my acne-like condition, I liked the addition of eucalyptus oil, which contains chemicals that fight bacteria and fungi, as well as soothe inflammation. At least it seemed like there was nothing in it that could further clog my pores or create more bumps on my face. The rest of the minimalist formula gave me hope that the toner would pack a highly concentrated punch.

As its name gives away, the star of the Aqua Glycolic Toner is glycolic acid. This cosmetic darling, derived from sugar cane, loosens the bonds that hold skin cells together and dissolves the top layer of dull, dry, or damaged cells. Among alpha hydroxy acids, glycolic acid boasts the smallest molecular size and the deepest skin penetration. Because of its ability to penetrate, glycolic acid can reduce the appearance of fine lines, blemishes, and hyperpigmentation. Because of its power to shed the upper layer of the epidermis, it can reveal a fresh layer of underlying skin and even out tone. In the Aqua Glycolic Toner, it is accompanied by ammonium glycolate, a form of glycolic acid that serves a special purpose.

PH balance is critical in a glycolic acid formulation. The lower the pH level, the more potent the glycolic acid content will be, and the more likely it will sting and damage cells. The higher the pH level, the greater percentage of the acid will be neutralized, rendering it ineffective. Ammonium glycolate is often used in conjunction with glycolic acid to maintain an optimal pH level. To maximize results and minimize irritation, ideally you want a product that contains at least 10% glycolic acid and an acid-base balance close to your skin’s normal pH (5.5). The Aqua Glycolic Toner is comprised of 11% glycolic compound and has been partially neutralized to a pH of 4.5.

Except for its alcoholic base, everything else in the formula sounded well-orchestrated. I squeezed a generous squirt onto a cotton pad through the Aqua Glycolic Toner’s ingenious upside-down dispenser. As expected, the toner stung ever so slightly on areas that were already irritated or blemished. I think that the sting can be attributed more to the alcohol than the glycolic content, which has been pH balanced relatively close to the skin’s natural acid mantle. I was shocked (and grossed out) by the color that my cotton pad turned after a few swipes across my face. It took upwards of three cotton pads to finally achieve a negligible tint.

After using the toner twice daily for the past month, my complexion is remarkably clear and my skin didn’t become dehydrated by the alcohol, as I had feared. I think my skin’s about-face was more thanks to the medications I was prescribed than the toner. However, I know for a fact that the toner is removing far more grime and oil from my face than I would otherwise rinse off with a cleanser. This was borne out by several experiments in which I cleansed with my regular face washes and followed up with the Aqua Glycolic Toner. Even though the cotton pad turned over far less makeup after cleansing first, the toner managed to draw out yellowish debris and oils that the cleanser left behind.

Could it be detrimental to erase all of the face’s natural oils? Some theories contend that stripping oils from the skin can block its inherent ability to shed the top layer of cells and trigger an increase in oil production, thus clogging pores and leading to acne. My trial with the Aqua Glycolic Toner has had the opposite effect, giving me soft, smooth, and balanced skin. There are occasional patches of dryness around my nose, but overall my skin is surviving quite well on its restricted diet of toner and sunscreen. I’d like to believe that fine lines and brown spots are gradually becoming fainter, but I suspect that these sort of results take more time to see.

Though I appreciate how clean my skin feels after the full toner treatment, it’s a rather expensive habit. I used up my first bottle of Aqua Glycolic Toner and a bag of cotton pads in just one month, and had to purchase another round of each. More importantly, my face seems to be lacking the glow that it gets from my trusted potions and lotions (and my natural oils). Now that my skin is back to normal, I am slowly starting to reincorporate my old products. The Aqua Glycolic Toner will come into play every few days for a deep cleansing and exfoliation and will always be on stand-by in case of a breakout. It's not the holy grail of anti-aging products, but it might be for oily skin types. Now the only toner that I plan to keep in my product rotation, the Aqua Glycolic Toner helped to rescue my skin from rock bottom.

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Ingredients:
Purified water, SD alcohol (specially denatured), Ammonium glycolate, Glycolic acid, Eucalyptus globulus oil, FD&C green #3.