How Does Proactiv Work?


Many of my patients ask me about Proactiv. You know, the stuff that makes Vanessa Williams, Jessica Simpson, Kelly Clarkson, Sean Combs, Brooke Shields, Elle MacPherson, and Jennifer Love Hewitt beautifully blemish free. Patients want to know if Proactiv really works. I’ll address that here, but first, here’s a short intro on acne.

If you have acne, then you are like most people. Acne is common — about 85% of teenagers develop it and many adults, especially women, have acne in their 20’s, 30’s and even later. Proactiv is an acne treatment system, designed by two dermatologists, that uses non-prescription medications to clear up acne. It was designed with adult women in mind, but is used by millions of teenagers all over the world. Proactiv does not cure acne (nothing does), but it does work. Here’s how.

The basic Proactiv solution is a three part system comprised of a cleanser, a toner, and a lotion. There are several add-on products, but the acne treatment is in this three part system. In order to understand how Proactiv works, you have to first understand what causes acne.

Acne is a skin disease where red bumps, clogged pores, and tender cysts develop in the skin. It is sometimes painful and almost always embarrassing. The bumps you see on your skin today began about 2 weeks ago. Each acne blemish starts as a clogged pore. These pores are the opening of hair follicles. The skin cells at the surface of some of the pores do not shed normally. Instead, they stick together, clogging the pore. When the pore is clogged, the natural oils from the hair follicle accumulate in the pore, building up pressure and creating an airtight, warm environment for bacteria to grow. Bacteria build up in the blocked pore; as a result, white blood cells accumulate to attack the overgrown bacteria. The combination of blocked sebum, bacteria, and white blood cells (pus) lead to tender red bumps that we call acne.

The Proactiv system works to stop this process. The first step is to use a cleanser. The cleanser has tiny beads that help to physically exfoliate the dead skin cells, unblocking the pores. The cleanser also contains benzoyl peroxide. This is a powerful oxidizer that both exfoliates the skin as well as kills bacteria (similar to hydrogen peroxide).

The second step is to use a toner. The toner contains glycolic acid. This is a natural acid found in citrus fruits. It also works to exfoliate the skin and to unstick sticky-cells. It is a chemical exfoliant and compliments the physical exfoliant in the cleanser.

The third step is to use a repairing lotion. In actuality, it is another dose of benzoyl peroxide, now in lotion form. Again the benzoyl peroxide helps exfoliate the skin and kill the bacteria.

Although there are other anti-inflammatories, moisturizers, and botanicals in Proactiv, the main treatment is from the exfoliants and the benzoyl peroxide.

Proactiv is effective for many people with acne. The main reason why it works is because people actually use it. The system is designed to be used everyday and over your entire face. The whole concept is for you to be “proactive” about treating your acne. It is also a good product because the benzoyl peroxide, which is one of the most effective treatments for acne, is a mild strength, only 2.5%. At this strength, the benzoyl peroxide is mild enough to not be too irriating, but strong enough to treat your acne, especially since it is used in two products and applied twice a day.

Photo: Specialkrb

21 thoughts on “How Does Proactiv Work?”

  1. Would Proactiv also be an effective treatment for pseudofolliculitis barbae?

  2. There’s a world of difference between acne proper and a few teenage spots, as you presumably know. I’m also not sure that 85% incidence rate is correct, although it is on Wikipedia and elsewhere. This rather terse (and possibly out of date) reference from U of Utah suggests totally different figures although restricts to mid to late teens

  3. Proactiv will help with inflammatory acne. It will not help with comedones. (blackheads and whiteheads.)
    The wash has a “scrubbing” agent, which can irritate inflammatory acne, but its benzoyl peroxide will help with the inflammation and redness. Same with the leave on treatment.
    The toner has glycolic acid. This is the closest thing that will help with comedones, but alas, not enough to clear them.
    You can get a rx for a topical retinoid from your dermatologist and use it in conjunction with the Proactiv system.
    THAT would give you the best possible chance at clear skin.

  4. Proactive is crap. Yes it can help with acne, but it also doesnt with others. A lot of people use it wrong, and it is too harsh for their skin. It can dry the skin out and overstrip it. If you stop using the products, your skin just goes back to the way it used to be. It doesnt solve the problem. Acne and most other skin conditions are a sign of an internal imbalance. There is inflammation inside, and that is what should be focused on.

  5. I have been using Proactiv for almost 10 years. It helped with my acne, but never made it go away. However, in the last two years I slightly modified the system and have had great success. My skin is super smooth and acne free (except for the one zit I get around ‘that time of the month’). I quit using the facial scrub and toner. After running out of the facial scrub I bought Clean and Clear’s benzoyl peroxide face wash, while waiting for my next shipment. It has 10% benzoyl peroxide and no “scrubbies.” After about a week, my skin seemed to clear up. When I got my new shipment from proactiv, I went back to the regular facial scrub. After about 3 days, my skin started to break out again. So I went back to the Clean and Clear. Voila, clear skin again. I think quit using the toner. My skin quit being so oily and quit breaking out. I determined that the toner and scrub were over stressing my skin, causing it to produce more oil to compensate for what I was stripping away. Here is the routine I have been using for the past two years, and I have been acne free: Clean and Clear face wash. Proactiv lotion. Neutrogena Norweigan formula around my eyes. SPF lotion all over face. Right now I’m alternating b/c Aveeno Positively Radiant SPF 15 for when I’m at the office all day, and Garnier Anti-Sun Damage SPF 28 for the weekends. Then I use plain old lemon juice a few times a week just as I would the toner. The vitamin C really brightens my skin. I use a mask, biore pore strip, or exfoliator about once a week, but no more than that. I think the instinct as a teen is to scrub, and scrub your face to get rid of zits, and just as picking and popping will make it worse, overdoing it on the “cleaning” can do. Oh, and I drink a lot of water and green tea – that just makes you feel better all around!

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  7. I used Proactive and that stuff is CRAP! It made my acne worse, not better, and bleached my clothing. Total waste of money. I used it every day for four months and it did NOTHING except make things worse.

    I don’t even believe those stars actually use it. They, after all, can afford to have $1,000 facials every day if they want, not to mention the $400 prescriptions.

  8. I stopped using Proactive a couple of years ago because I couldn’t afford it. I found some leftovers in my cupboard but the cleanser expired last year, is it still alright to use?

  9. That’s how I started with my sis expired proactiv. It worked!!@Natasha

  10. Does proactive clear up blackheads.

  11. I just started using it about 1 week ago. My acne is diminishing. My face is clearing up but it is very irritating (especially around the eyes)

    I do not apply the cleanser/toner/repairer to the eye area though (you’re not supposed to), I use the eye serum that came with my Proactiv package.

    I think I will give it maybe 1 month (and stop using the eye serum). Hopefully the irritation ceases.

  12. i just got me sum proactiv becuz i been breakingout on the side of my face nd i heard that it was very gud for ur face nd i hope that it really works!! i heard that first it tkes out all ur acne nd then it wrks nd ur face is back to normal is that true??

  13. I used Proactive for 3 months. The first month was great. My face cleared up and it wasn’t over dry. By the third month, I had developed severe dry patches around my hairline. They burned. I thought I was getting psoriasis. I decided to stop using proactive just in case that caused it and it started clearing up as soon as I stopped. I am sure that it works for people who don’t have sensitive skin buty if you do have sensitive skin this may not be something you want to spend your money on. The green tea moisturizer is great.

  14. My son is using proactive & it’s working great. He’s been having acne for about a year now, we used proactive & it took about 1 week to clear it up. He uses it at nite now & his face looks great! I highly recommend the product. But be careful, your face can get sunburned easy when going out in the son because it’s exfoliating your skin. Great Product!

  15. acne is not a face issue…its caused by imbalance within your body. Proactiv is not a miracle worker, but it is very helpful. You have to watch what you eat as well. Using proactiv and drinking water will not clear up your skin by itself, you have to eat fatty food, oils sweets and other things in moderation.

  16. With acne you can’t stress out a lot, and don’t clean your face more than 3 times a day. Your skin can’t be over dried so use some lotion and wipe some of it away with a towel. If you can, get the neutrogena wave, but the one that doesn’t spin, instead of buying the pads just use a wash cloth over it, I have had great success with this method, it cleans deep, you can get neutrogena power cleaner at walmart in the cosmetics area. I used to wash my face manually but it’s just isn’t deep enough.

    I hope this may have helped.

  17. I am a guy whose been using Proactiv since it first came out. I’m 37 now and do not have any issues with Acne. Proactiv works for me. I started using it because medically prescribed products either burned my face or were ineffective (hated the tetracycline). People who say it does not work but who have never used it are ignorant and misinformed. I challenge these people to first try it and then to follow up that it either did or did not work FOR THEM. So, I stress here: this only worked for me but my acne was real bad and i’ve got the scars to prove it. My only complaint is that you can bleach your clothing when you sweat. If you have a goatee, it will be dyed a bit from the peroxide. This can be avoided if you can control your sweat. I am active, sweat a lot and need to make sure I avoid using it before working out or extraneous activity. I hope doctors encourage patients to give it a try. It’s not cheap but can be effective without the garbage medicines that require prescriptions.

  18. Thanks for sharing your experience, Eric. Many patients get good results from Proactiv.

  19. I have been using proactive for 5 days now and still waiting for a good result. So far, all am getting is my face turning forehead is clearing up though. I am 30 years old female and been suffering from acne for 15 years. I wanna give this product a try since no dermatologist can help me cure my acne for good. I tried taking doxycycline , tetracycline , erythromycin , laser, every 2 weeks facial at my derma, injection to my big acne, clean and clear products, Olay, cetaphil,neutrogena,the body shop tea tree products , etc. etc. etc. name it and I used it already before . I spent all my money just to get rid of this acne and nothing seems to work. I’m tired not able to be active since high school due to embarrassment, I became a loner, sometimes I don’t wanna go to school. Now that am 30, i can’t enjoy going to the beach with my husband, I am so embarrassed, people look at me like a monster, kids cry when they see my face… I am praying to God, I hope proactive works

  20. Rose, it takes 2-3 months for any acne therapy to work. I sincerely hope you’re better soon.

  21. i have used the new teen extract and its doing fine just takes a long time before your acne heals

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