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Proactiv®, Proactiv+®, and ProactivMD®: A Comprehensive Review of All Three Proactiv Systems

dr jaggi rao Reviewed by Dr. Jaggi Rao, MD, FRCPC, Double board-certified dermatologist

Proactiv is one of the most popular acne treatment systems in the world, but the question is: does it work? Well, that really depends on your individual skincare needs and which Proactiv system you’re asking about. Originally, Proactiv just had one 3-step system, but over the years, they have developed several different systems, each designed to meet slightly different skincare needs. Currently, they have three systems: Proactiv, Proactiv+, and ProactivMD.

Check out our Comparison Chart to see how Proactiv+ compares to our top two skincare system picks, Exposed Skin Care and Paula’s Choice Skincare. But for more information, you’ll want to read this review, which will help you explore all three options, and offer some important insights into Proactiv as a company overall.

The Original Proactiv® Solution: Best For Treating Pimples

The original Proactiv solution is probably the best choice for treating skin primarily affected by pimples.

The original Proactiv solution was developed by dermatologists Katie Rodan and Kathy Fields in the late 1980s, and its first infomercial went on the air in 1995. The original solution has gone through several different formulas throughout the years, but the current formula is an excellent solution for people whose acne is mostly comprised of pimples. This is because the main active ingredient in this Proactiv system is benzoyl peroxide.

Benzoyl peroxide is an acne-fighting ingredient that primarily functions by killing acne-causing bacteria. Acne is a multifactorial condition, meaning it’s caused by many factors coming together, such as inflammation, excess oil production, and a particular type of bacteria known as p. acnes. These bacteria are responsible for the white or yellow infection under the head of pimples, and one of the best ways to treat and prevent pimples is to kill those bacteria. Benzoyl peroxide does this by drawing extra oxygen below the surface of the skin. P. acnes bacteria are anaerobic, meaning they can’t survive in oxygen for long, which also means they also can’t survive for long after benzoyl peroxide is applied.

There are three steps in the original Proactiv solution: Renewing Cleanser, Revitalizing Toner, and Repairing Treatment. The Renewing Cleanser and Repairing Treatment both contain 2.5% benzoyl peroxide, a very safe concentration that should be gentle enough for most skin types. However, the Revitalizing Toner could be too strong for dry or sensitive skin types. It contains glycolic acid and witch hazel, which can both dry out the skin.

Finally, the price is quite reasonable, at US $19.95 for a 30-day supply of all three products.

Takeaway: If pimples are your biggest acne problem, the original Proactiv solution is the best choice for you.

Proactiv+®: Best for a Combination of Blackheads, Whiteheads, and Pimples

The Proactiv+ formula uses two different active ingredients to address two different kinds of acne.

If you’re like most of us with acne, you probably don’t have just pimples or just blackheads; you probably have a combination of everything. If that’s the case, the Proactiv+ system might be the best option for you. Instead of using solely benzoyl peroxide, this formula includes a product with salicylic acid as well.

Salicylic acid may sound harsh, but it’s actually a very gentle exfoliant that sinks deep into the pores to break up oil and dead skin cells. This helps treat and prevent blackheads and whiteheads, which form when excess oil and dead skin cells get clogged in a pore. When combined with benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid can significantly improve your acne.

The Proactiv+ system also comes with three steps: Skin Smoothing Exfoliator, Pore Targeting Treatment, and Complexion Perfecting Hydrator. Unlike the original Proactiv solution, Proactiv+ is a bit more expensive at US $29.95 for a 30-day supply. It also may be a bit too strong for those with dry or sensitive skin. The Skin Smoothing Exfoliator and the Pore Targeting Treatment both contain 2.5% benzoyl peroxide, and the Complexion Perfecting Hydrator contains 0.5% salicylic acid. Even though those numbers are all very safe, using all three twice per day could cause problems if you have dry or sensitive skin. If you’re worried, you should start by using each product once per day and gradually work your way up to twice per day, and you may want to add a moisturizer to your skincare routine.

Takeaway: If you have all kinds of acne and relatively resistant skin, the Proactiv+ system will likely get you the best results.

ProactivMD®: Best for Dry Skin with Hyperpigmentation

Dry skin can be acne-prone too, and it requires slightly different treatment.

Although people with dry skin are more than welcome to use the other Proactiv systems, we have to say that the ProactivMD system is probably the safest and most effective for dry skin. ProactivMD is also an excellent option for anyone who deals with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Those are the dark marks that are sometimes left behind after acne heals. This is because the final step in the system contains adapalene, an over-the-counter retinoid ingredient that helps encourage a health skin cell turnover rate to get rid of old, hyperpigmented cells and replace them with new, healthy cells.

Retinoids are typically only available through a prescription, but one synthetic retinoid called adapalene is available at a 0.1% concentration in a few key over-the-counter products, including Differin and ProactivMD. Retinoids function like pace cars for the skin cells, encouraging them to produce and die at healthy rates to avoid clogged pores and treat hyperpigmentation. 

The ProactivMD system comes in three key steps: Deep Cleansing Face Wash, Daily Oil Control Moisturizer SPF 30, and Adapalene Gel 0.1%. None of these steps include benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, making this system a great alternative for those who are sensitive to those ingredients. Instead, the Deep Cleansing Face Wash contains aloe vera extract, green tea extract, and glycerin, all of which soothe and hydrate the skin. The Daily Oil Control Moisturizer is a great option for acne-prone skin because it doesn’t contain any pore-clogging ingredients like coconut oil or laureth-4. Once you add in the adapalene gel, you have an ideal treatment system for dry, hyperpigmented skin at a relatively reasonable price: just US $19.95 for a 30-day supply.

Takeaway: If your skin is dry and your biggest skin problem is hyperpigmentation, ProactivMD is the skincare system for you.

Here’s What You Should Know Before You Order

Before you order, it’s important to know what exactly what you’re getting into with Proactiv.

Okay, now you have a better understanding of how Proactiv’s three systems differ from each other and which one is best suited for your skin, but there are still a few things you should know about Proactiv before ordering. 

First, today’s Proactiv products are much more safe and effective than they used to be. In the past, some Proactiv products have contained up to 7% benzoyl peroxide, which is far too high. This concentration is likely to cause itching, burning, redness, and could lead to more acne instead of less. We mention this because even if you had a bad experience with Proactiv in the past, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have a bad experience with their current products.

Second, if you decide to try Proactiv, you may want to order your products from Amazon rather than from the Proactiv website. This is because Proactiv has a bad reputation for customer service. When you buy their products, you are automatically enrolled in membership (though that is not always obvious at the time of purchase) and Proactiv will continue to bill you and send you more products each month until you cancel. Even then, Proactiv has been known to continue billing its customers until they cancel their credit card completely. According to TruthinAdvertising.org, customers have reported unauthorized billing, difficulty cancelling orders, unhelpful customer service, and refund denials, despite their supposed money-back guarantee.

Finally, bear in mind that your skin may not look like the skin of those people in the infomercials. Infomercials are still advertisements, designed to sell a product, and there is likely plenty of makeup and photoshop going on behind the scenes. After all, Proactiv is partially owned by Guthy-Renker, an infomercial company.

Proactiv systems can be very effective, but it’s important to understand what you’re signing up for when you buy them, and to understand which system will work best for you and your skin.

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