What do Kendall Jenner, Adam Levine, and Olivia Munn have in common? They have all been spokespeople for Proactiv, one of the most popular skin care brands of all time, according to the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology.
Proactiv was launched by two dermatologists, Dr. Kathy Fields and Dr. Katie Rodan, the same duo behind Rodan + Fields. According to Forbes, after a particularly long day at work, Rodan yearned for an ideal acne product that she could prescribe to her patients. She reached out to her friend and fellow Stanford University School of Medicine graduate Fields, and they began their journey to create Proactiv.
The women pitched the brand to Neutrogena. The company passed on it, but its CEO suggested selling the products through infomercials. And that’s exactly the path the brand took. When it launched in the United States in 1995, Proactiv became the world’s first at-home acne treatment regimen.
Proactiv has grown substantially over the years, and so has their product selection. Today, the brand offers three different 3-step systems for various skin types and concerns. This may leave you wondering which Proactiv skin care system is right for you. To help you out, we’re going to give you all the details on each Proactiv system, as well as the key ingredients in each product, Proactiv reviews from real customers, and more.
What Is the Proactiv Philosophy?
Most acne products are designed to be applied to a pimple once it appears on the face. Proactiv takes a different approach, which it calls “combination therapy.” Instead of chasing pimples once they appear, Proactiv adopts a preventive strategy to acne with their three-step systems.
What Are The Proactiv Skin Care Products?
Okay let’s get into it. You already know that Proactiv offers three different 3-step systems, but what’s the difference between them? And what kind of results can you expect? We’ll answer these questions (and more) below.
Proactiv Solution is the brand’s original 3-step system that debuted more than two decades ago. After being around for so long, there’s one thing we know about this system: it works! So Proactiv Solution is a great place to start if you have acne-prone skin and you’d like to clear existing blemishes while also preventing new breakouts.
The first step of Proactiv Solution is the Renewing Cleanser. This benzoyl peroxide cleanser not only clears away excess oil and impurities, but also kills the bacteria that are responsible for blemishes. Next is the Revitalizing Toner. Fortunately, this toner is alcohol-free and features a high concentration of glycolic acid. Glycolic acid is a powerful alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) that will help exfoliate dead skin cells to keep your skin clear and smooth. Lastly, the Repairing Treatment gives your skin another dose of benzoyl peroxide along with soothing ingredients like panthenol and allantoin.
If you have acne-prone skin but you often deal with signs of sensitivity — like dryness, redness, flaking, and irritation — then the Proactiv+ 3-step system is for you. Similar to the original Proactiv Solution, this system is formulated to clear and prevent breakouts. But Proactiv+ is designed to take things a step further with ingredients that help to hydrate, brighten, and even out your skin tone.
The first step is the Skin Smoothing Exfoliator. We think this name is a tad misleading because there aren’t any exfoliating ingredients in the formula. But that’s okay, the formula contains surfactants to wash away impurities and benzoyl peroxide to keep acne at bay. Next is the Pore Targeting Treatment, which contains benzoyl peroxide along with sweet almond oil to lock in moisture. You’ll finish the Proactiv+ routine with the Complexion Perfecting Hydrator, a non-comedogenic moisturizer that contains 0.5% salicylic acid. Plus, there are plenty of brightening ingredients in this moisturizer, such as licorice root extract, kojic acid, mulberry root extract, and more.
Alright, if you have stubborn breakouts that don’t respond well to benzoyl peroxide, then ProactivMD is your best bet. This is the brand’s most advanced 3-step system that takes advantage of the fact that adapalene, a type of retinoid, is now available without a prescription. Retinoids have vitamin A activity, which helps regulate cell turnover to keep the pores from clogging and target acne before it even starts.
The ProactivMD system starts with the Deep Cleansing Face Wash, which contains surfactants to cleanse the skin along with soothing ingredients like green tea extract and aloe vera. The Daily Oil Control Moisturizer SPF 30 is the next step to be used during the day. The formula contains chemical sunscreen ingredients to provide broad spectrum SPF 30 protection, as well as emollients and silicones to keep the skin soft and smooth. The final step of the ProactivMD system is Adapalene Gel 0.1%, which is to be used in the evening after cleansing.
Other Proactiv Products
There are also some Proactiv products that are sold individually or included a complimentary gift, such as the Proactiv Green Tea Moisturizer, Proactiv Deep Cleansing Wash, and Proactiv Blackhead Dissolving Gel.
The Proactiv Green Tea Moisturizer is a non-comedogenic formula made especially for acne-prone skin. It is designed to deliver deep hydration and gently rejuvenate dull, tired-looking skin — without clogging pores. It can be used everyday, as your step three in the morning or at night, alone or under makeup, to soothe and nourish your skin.
The Proactiv Deep Cleansing Body Wash contains maximum strength salicylic acid (2%) that gets deep into pores to clear out bacteria, oil, dirt, and debris and prevent body breakouts. It’s a medicated two-in-one treatment and cleanser that can be used anywhere you’re struggling with breakouts.
The Proactiv Blackhead Dissolving Gel is a treatment gel that can help dissolve blackheads, unclog pores, absorb excess oil, and deep clean blemish-causing impurities. The formula includes 0.5% salicylic acid, one of the best ingredients to clear pores and keep skin blemish-free.
What Are The Key Proactiv Ingredients?
The key ingredients that you’ll find in Proactiv skin care products are standard acne ingredients, including benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and a retinoid. Below we’ll discuss which Proactiv products contain these ingredients and how they may benefit your skin.
Benzoyl peroxide can be found in the original Proactiv Solution system and the Proactiv+ system. As the name implies, benzoyl peroxide is something known as a peroxide, the technical term for an unstable bond between two oxygen atoms that can create free radicals. While free radicals often have a negative connotation, in this case they can be used to effectively kill P. acnes bacteria by destroying the cell walls. Additionally, benzoyl peroxide can exfoliate and help peel the outer layer of skin.
One drawback of benzoyl peroxide is that while it does effectively kill P. acnes, it also kills the good bacteria that keep your skin healthy. This can leave skin feeling dry and irritated, which for some people can make skin look worse.
Salicylic acid is a key ingredient in the Proactiv+ Complexion Perfecting Hydrator, Proactiv Blackhead Dissolving Gel, and the Proactiv Deep Cleansing Body Wash. Salicylic acid is a type of beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that works by exfoliating the pore lining, which loosens clogged dirt and oil. It also has the ability to dissolve keratin, the protein that acts as a “glue” to keep dead skin cells together in the stratum corneum. This is effective because dead skin cells can build up on the surface of your skin, leaving it looking dull and also possibly clogging pores.
Another way salicylic acid helps to fight acne is through its antibacterial activity. Salicylic acid has the ability to inhibit the production of various aspects necessary for binary fission (bacterial reproduction), such as fibrinogen, fibronectin, and alpha-hemolysis. Therefore, salicylic acid can neutralize the bacteria P. Acnes that is present in acne papules. Lastly, salicylic acid possess anti-inflammatory properties, which is ideal for treating acne since inflammation will worsen breakouts.
The retinoid that the brand uses is adapalene gel 0.1%, which you’ll find in the ProactivMD system. According to Healthline, adapalene slows the process of excessive growth in the lining of pores and desensitizes the skin to inflammation, making it an ideal treatment for acne.
Adapalene has been shown to be as efficacious as Retin-A. For instance, one study compared the efficacy, safety, and tolerability of adapalene gel 0.1% vs. tretinoin gel 0.025%. Tretinoin is another type of retinoid, known by the brand name Retin-A. The study concluded that adapalene offers comparable efficacy to tretinoin, but is less irritating.
Lastly, we wanted to point out that many of the Proactiv products contain parabens as preservatives. The use of parabens in cosmetics and skin care products is controversial because there is conflicting research on the potential health consequences of long term exposure to parabens.
According to the EWG, parabens can act like the hormone estrogen in the body and disrupt the normal function of hormone systems affecting male and female reproductive system functioning, reproductive development, fertility, and birth outcomes. Parabens are easily absorbed into the skin, which means that continuously using products that contain parabens could lead to elevated estrogen in the body.
Where Are Proactiv Skin Care Products Sold?
Proactiv skin care products are sold on the brand’s website, as well as third party online retailers such as Amazon, Sephora, Ulta, and more.
How Much Do Proactiv Products Cost?
All three of the Proactiv three step systems start at $29.95 per month with a subscription.
What is The Proactiv Return Policy?
Proactiv offers a 60-Day Money Back Guarantee that states, “With every purchase on Proactiv.com, you enjoy a 60-day money-back guarantee. If you are not absolutely delighted with your clear skin and radiant new complexion, you are welcome to return the containers – even if empty – within 60 days of receipt for a complete refund of your purchase price (less S&H), no questions asked.”
Is Proactiv Cruelty Free?
The company doesn’t address this on their website. According to Cruelty Free Kitty, the brand is in a “grey area” as the information is unclear.
Does Proactiv Work?
Proactiv is arguably the best known acne system available directly to consumers, and has its fair share of fans. According to the brand, Proactiv has received more than 40 awards and honors from the beauty and health industry. Redbook named Proactiv a Beauty MVP Award winner in 2013, and Seventeen magazine gave it a Beauty Award for Best Acne System in 2009.
Kendall Jenner claimed the products cured her acne, and some beauty editors rated it positively. Allure’s take on the ProActiv Solution 3-Step System is “Three separate products may seem tedious, but the results are worth the trouble. Skin feels softer after one use (surprising for an acne treatment) and pimples are noticeably calmer after a couple days. Those with drier skin may need to finish with a moisturizer.
In 2013 a Cosmopolitan editor tried the system for her acne. Her conclusion? “A few weeks into religiously using Proactiv, my skin feels softer and definitely fresher. I think the key with this one is not to expect results straight away. I definitely have less blemishes than before (so it helps), but I don’t think it’s going to go as far as eradicating my breakouts.”
However, it’s clear that Proactiv doesn’t work for everyone. The senior editor for Shefinds.com wrote about her Proactiv experience in the 2016 article, “I Didn’t Realize How Bad Proactiv Was For My Skin Until I Stopped Using It.” She wrote that she “suffered from all-over breakouts, redness, cystic, painful zits, for seven years until I STOPPED using Proactiv and realized how truly awful it was for my skin.” But to get the best idea of how well these products work, let’s take a look at the Proactiv reviews from real customers.
Proactiv reviews on the brand’s website are a mix of positive and negative. For example, after more than 3,000 reviews the Proactiv products have received an average rating of 3.8 out of 5 stars.
There are many positive reviews from customers who noticed that the system really helped to clear their acne. For example, one review says, “This system really works! Highly recommend it. The mask calmed my acne, and it helped it heal quicker. I have sensitive skin and I tolerated this just fine.”
However, there are quite a few negative Proactiv reviews from customers who were disappointed that they (or their children) didn’t see any results whatsoever.
For example, one review says, “My daughter has been using this now for over 10 months. I keep buying it for her and she’s been using it as recommended but it hasn’t helped. She had her first dermatologist appointment yesterday and we will now follow their recommendations. We are canceling our subscription.”
Overall, we think that the Proactiv skin care products could be a good option for clearing and preventing acne, although we’re concerned about the presence of parabens and synthetic fragrances in the Proactiv products.
- Products contain evidence-based ingredients for treating acne (benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, adapalene, etc)
- Three different 3-step systems to choose from based on your skin type and concerns
- Low cost
- Many positive Proactiv reviews
- Some Proactiv products contain parabens
- Some Proactiv products contain synthetic fragrance ingredients
- It’s unclear if Proactiv is cruelty free
What Are Some Alternatives to Proactiv?
Although Proactiv has its fair share of fans, it may not work for everyone. But that’s okay because there are plenty of other skin care brands for you to consider. One brand we recommend is Formulyst because they believe in long-term skin care treatments rather than short-term cover-ups.
If you have acne-prone skin or you simply want a cleanser that clears pores and exfoliates your skin, we’d recommend Formulyst’s Clarifying AHA Cleanser. The Clarifying AHA Cleanser is formulated to gently cleanse and exfoliate the skin while removing dirt and makeup. It contains glycolic acid, a type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that helps to exfoliate, refine pores, control excess oil, and smooth away any surface-level roughness.
Fans of skincare kits, which take all the guesswork out of creating your own regimen, should try Advanced Dermatology. This no nonsense brand offers a pared down approach to skincare. The packaging is simple and streamlined, and the products bring skincare back to the basics. The kit contains just six essential items including a daily cleanser; serum; anti-wrinkle firming treatment; night cream; day cream and an eye cream. In other words, everything you need to achieve your best possible looking skin.
There’s no need to compromise when it comes to finding skincare that is effective and safe. Carrot & Stick takes a tough love approach to skincare, perfectly balancing the power of plants with cutting edge science. Not only is Carrot & Stick good for your skin, it is also good for the environment as the formulas skip harmful chemicals commonly found in skin care products.
J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2012 May; 5(5): 32–40.
Healthline “13 Facts to Know Before Adding Retinoids to Your Skin Care Routine”.
J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2001;15 Suppl 3:31-6.
EWG “What Are Parabens, And Why Don’t They Belong in Cosmetics?” April 2019.