The Pros and Cons of Proactiv for Acne

Proactiv® is the most popular acne treatment in the US. If Proactiv is so popular (and used by all those now-acne-free celebrities), then it must be a great product, right? Well, maybe. Here are the pros and cons of Proactiv.

Pros

Proactiv works. It attacks the two main causes of acne: blocked pores and buildup of bacteria. Proactiv uses exfoliants to unclog pores and uses an antibiotic, benzoyl peroxide, to kill acne-causing bacteria.

The three part Proactiv system is mild, but because it is repeated twice a day, every day, it is effective. By sending you products every two months, the company encourages you to continue using it (after all, it’s already paid for) even when you don’t have a breakout. This helps prevent new acne, which is better than treating pimples you have.

Cons

Although it is designed to be mild, Proactiv can cause redness, stinging and peeling. Some people cannot tolerate the active ingredients in Proactiv and have to limit their use to once a day or less.

Like any acne treatment, Proactiv takes about 8 weeks to see results; you won’t see much improvement before then. Also the benzoyl peroxide in Proactiv can bleach clothes, towels, pillow cases, and even hair.

Proactiv can be expensive. The active ingredients in Proactiv can be purchased separately for less money than if you paid for the Proactiv brand.

Proactiv does not cure acne, but nothing does. The average teenager has acne for 7 years and adult women can have acne for 20 years! Even if your acne is well controlled, as soon as you stop treating it, it can come back.

The primary reason why Proactiv and other acne treatments fail is because people stop using them. Treating acne is time consuming and continuous. Just like exercise, treating acne only helps you if you keep it up.

If you have moderate to severe acne, painful acne cysts, or scarring from acne, then Proactiv is not potent enough to treat you. A dermatologist can prescribe medications that are stronger and more likely to improve your acne.

That is, if you use them.

Photo: Uh, Bob (flickr)

31 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of Proactiv for Acne

  1. Dear Doctor, I’ve been following your blog for about a year now, and would be interested in your opinions on Whiteheads aka sebum plugs. I don’t have that type of acne which plagues teens, but I am increasingly plagued by these. I have seen online people touting the benefits of an Oil Cleansing Method to remove and reduce these, as they are oil secretions after all, and may be the result of dry skin. I would say that at age 27 I have dryish skin overall, and it is also sensitive–almost everything (cetaphil included) gives me a buring sensation when I use it.

    Usually, the sebum plugs appear on the nose, but are slowly colonizing my cheeks, too! And, I was shocked to find just dozens on my chin last night, where previously only a few were present.

  2. I used ProActiv just like it’s suppose to be for months without fail and it DID NOT WORK. Of course, I have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, so even prescription things don’t seem to work well. But I still say PA is a big waste of money.

  3. i have tried using proactive for over 7 months and it just did not work for me. It actually gave me more pimples than i asked for. What actually helped me was a combination of natural remedies.

  4. I have heard great things about the product, though personally have never used it I would consider it if I ever did break out or started to experience any acne concerns.

  5. Benzoyl peroxide is immunosuppressing. It promotes oxygen free radicals, which means that with use, it can actually age your skin and deplete it of its antioxidants. Not only that, when you stop using the harsh ingredient, it causes rebound acne, because the inflammation from the benzoyl peroxide stimulates oil which thus feeds bacterial overgrowth.
    There are so many other options than using these products. I dont see anything good about it except providing some people with temporary relief.

    Tammy- Licensed Esthetician

  6. @Tammy Benzoyl peroxide is an good antibacterial treatment for acne. It does not age your skin. It does not cause bacterial overgrowth. It does work, which is why it is the most common ingredient in countless brands of acne treatments.

    Lower concentrations often give the best results with the least irritation. It is not the best treatment for everyone and many people cannot tolerate even low concentration products.

  7. Dear Dr.

    I started Proactiv a few months ago and found that my acne improved (but not completely). However, I stopped using it for a few days over Christmas and started again last night. This morning I woke up with my neck and face covered in hives. The Proactiv was the only thing that could have caused them (no new foods, detergents, etc.) — what else can I use? (especially looking for something that would be safe if I were to become pregnant)

  8. Hi there,

    I am a lowly medical student- NOT a dermatologist, but I read your post and wanted to share my experience. A product that has been really really nice for my skin has been the plantidote line at Origins (in Macy’s.) It is pretty pricey, but I am totally addicted. I have freckly, light, sensitive skin and adult acne on my chin (I never had acne as a teen.) He uses a lot of botanical, vit c etc. It could be overpriced but it certainly works for me. If you are interested in trying, you can ask for some samples. Then for 2 wks just use a little bit of each product on the inside of your forearm skin, to see if you develop a reaction/sensitivity.

    I really like the cleanser, you don’t even need to use water, you can tissue it off- which has probably contributed most to my skin looking good (I had been overwashing)

    Anyway- this reply is getting long. Go with whatever the dermatologist says of course- I just wanted to help :)

    @Tamara

  9. I recently read this article about over the counter acne medications. It made me feel a little bit better because I’ve never had any success with over the counter acne treatments but have always had to resort to prescription ones and I realized that it’s not uncommon to experience difficulty when trying to use store bought treatments.

  10. I have a strange breed of adult acne that looks slightly bumpy,with clusters of deep-set white “rods” in them (under the skin). It is not regular acne. Sometimes if a rod pokes out on its own I will try to use tweezers to pull it out. It stretches and the sometimes comes out or breaks-off. Does anyone know what I am talking about. Please help. I am a 40 year old woman and never expected this to happen at this age. My skin is becoming increasing scarred and has crushed my self-confidence.

    My hormone levels and thyroid tests came back normal. I eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. This acne seems to resist all treatment. The only thing I can think of is that I may have the gram-negative type of acne from over 20 years of being over-prescribed antibiotics for acne, or starting ADHD treatment stimulent drugs at age 39? The worst spots seem to be where I received Botox or Juvederm treatment, so maybe some type of infection from that??

    If anyone can help me understand what this is and how to treat it, I would be eternally grateful. My dermatologist wants me to do Accutane treatment again. After doing it several years ago with several severe side effects I promised myself I’d never do it again.

    • Yes i suffer from these also. Mt dermatologist called them comodones. they are white, and as you descibed. no medication ever got rid of them, i have suffered from them since i was about 18 years old and have never had the regular acne either. they have decreased a little as i have got older, i am noe 40 years old, and

  11. I use a system called Clear.now that is like Proactiv but way more gentle. Proactiv used daily felt like rubbing alcohol and my dry skin did not like that at all. Clear.now is gentle enough to use daily and has been effective. Only downside is that the sodium chlorite smells a little like the swimming pool.

  12. Hi Dr. Bernabio,

    I have a recurring case of mild/moderate back acne. I have tried using a salicylic acid cleanser and benyzoyl peroxide cream on a nightly basis and it has cleared up my back so far.

    Once the skin clears up almost completely, do I still need to apply both products on my back every day or can I use it less often? Will using just salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide effective enough by then?

    I worry about the harshness of these products if I continue to use them regularly for maintenance.

    • @Justine
      I cannot say for your case in particular. In general, once acne is improved the medications can be tapered to every other day, every third day, etc. If the acne does not worsen, then the treatments can be stopped.

  13. As a 57 year old female with oily skin, I have used Proactiv for 10 years and it works. If I skip a few days…. the acne always comes back. I use the Proactiv salicylic acid body scrub with the scrubbing beads as a cleanser on my face which stops the skin peeling, skip the toner, and use a light, but complete covering with the benzoyl peroxide solution.
    I’m sold on it for life. Luckily we now have a Proactiv kiosk in a nearby mall, so I don’t have to use the mail order anymore.

  14. @Lynn
    Did you ever get a response to your question? I have a similar issue – I’m nearly 44 and for the past 3 years have been dealing with adult acne that sounds like yours, including the “rods.” It comes and goes, usually about 6 months of breakouts, then a break where my skin looks beautiful except for the growing number of scars. Blemishes can take MONTHS to heal – very frustrating.

    Doctors have been useless – a strict diet of whole foods and stress reduction are the only things that have ever helped. But I’m curious as to WHAT this is …

  15. is it any better to use organic skin care products or ingredients? i’m trying to decipher the ingredients list on organic and non-organic skin care products. i’m lost…! it seems that for sure, i should avoid anything with parabens or sulfates?

    example, organic: http://www.pangeaorganics.com/product/scrub-featured-home_page-egyptian_geranium-adzuki_bean-cranberry/egyptian_geranium_with_adzuki_bean_and_cranberry

    example, non-organic: http://www.drugstore.com/products/prod.asp?pid=149922&catid=15487

  16. I use proactive and it’s a miracle I love it. I’ve used many different product one in particular was (murad) and it sucks. Murad made a mess of my face and proactive is cleaning up after murad so if you have acne I recommend proactive 100% I’ve been using proactive for almost 2weeks and my skin is looking awsome.

  17. I have been using Proactiv since May 2009 and I have not looked back. All of the acne around my neck region has disappeared even though I get one huge acne around my right neck when I stress out!!

    I thoroughly recommend Pro-Activ to any teenager or uni student who suffers acne.

    I would totally advise them to stay away from Roactane!!

    THE GOV

  18. i also try using proactiv for my 16 yr.old daughter
    and i satisfied with the result,before her skin is very oily thats why acne keeps coming back especially when her menstrual period are coming.. but when we start using Proactiv.. the acnes are gone plus she had a clear skin now…thumbs up for this acne treatment ((=

  19. hello. i need help with acne.
    i have small red acne bumps on my forehead and side of my faceline and sideburns…and large pores on cheeks. i need help?

  20. Dr. D,
    I was using Proactiv a few months back but never quite made it to two months of the treatment. I thought that it was working just okay, my family thought I was getting results, but I just didn’t think it was that great. I then discontinued using Proactiv and for over a month now have been using Benzoyl Peroxide 10% wash (this is what I had been using prior to Proactiv, it was perscribed to me along with a complimentary topical cream- I forget the name of that- but the dermatologist said that it would help with scarring and indents). When those perscriptions ran out, I couldn’t afford to order them again, and so my mom got me the Proactiv. After the Proactiv ran out, I found that I could get Benzoyl Peroxide 10 percent wash OTC. And so I did that, and as I said have been using it for over a month. I don’t remember the name of the topical cream though, so I didn’t look for it. Anyhow long story short, I am still breaking out and have big bumps now- something I didn’t experience using the first time I used this wash and cream, and when I used Proactiv. Do you have any advice on which one of these treatments I should be using? Should I just keep using the Benzoyl Peroxide until results show? Do you think the absence of the topical cream is the reason why I am still breaking out?

    Also, to treat the indents, have been using the neutrogena microdermabrasion kit, almost month now, and I don’t see any ‘real’ improvement as far skin marks going away and indents. It seems that it actually causing me to break out more…. Again, I don’t know if that’s just my skin getting used to it or not.

    My skin type is dark, oily, and sensitive

    I don’t know, please let me know what you think.

  21. I have been using Proactive for a couple months now and it’s been working great! Everyone’s noticed how clear my skin looks. But when I went to my sister’s house to use it, it did bleach her towel. She didn’t notice it until today when she decided to call me and she practically yelled at me to stop using it because she thinks I’ll get cancer from it. I heard that Benzoyl can cause cancer, but I doubt I’ll get it. I tried explaining to her that Proactive can bleach towels, clothes, etc but she’s too stubborn and freaked that I could die of skin cancer. Plus, I’ve been using this for months now. Wouldn’t I notice if I was getting cancer by now? I’m curious myself.
    Also, I’ve tried many things before Proactive, and nothing else seems to work.

    • Sara, there is no evidence at all that it would cause cancer. I recommend talking with your physician to allay your concerns. As for bleaching your sister’s towels, yes, many acne products can do so.

  22. I used pro active for about two weeks, and my skin actually turned white and very dry. It did clear my skin, but, developed another problem, looking like a mask. I stopped using it but months after, I had a blemish that would not go away. I put a little repairing treatment on my blemish and in three days it is gone. Can you develop just a stick or creme for spots and not have to use the entire program.

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