I Didn't Realize How Bad Proactiv Was For My Skin Until I Stopped Using It

July 6, 2016 by Justine Schwartz
shefinds | beauty

If you buy in to celebrity endorsements, you’d think that Proactiv was the best thing ever. (No more chin breakouts for Jessica Simpson! Katy Perry uses the overnight mask!). But, the story you’re about to hear is not that of a paid celebrity spokesperson (sorry, Beliebers, he was too busy hanging with Kris Jenner). This story reflects my own personal journey from acne sufferer to enthused Proactiv customer to eventual Proactiv quitter.

Let me introduce myself: I am the Senior Editor of this site, and suffered from all-over breakouts, redness, cystic, painful zits, for 7 years until I STOPPED using Proactiv and realized how truly awful it was for my skin. If you’ve been using Proactiv, for 7 years or 7 minutes, you should hear what I have to say. Like me, you might actually be doing more harm than good. I knowwwww – Proactiv feels so good and provides results. But hear me out.

Proactiv To The Rescue

My journey with Proactiv started in high school, when my dad paid for subscriptions for my brother and I. We were both suffering from breakouts on our cheeks and around the mouth–it was clearly a genetic problem that we had both inherited, but I was a little more sensitive about the whole thing being a girl. (My brother could just grow a beard when he was having a bad breakout. Meanwhile, I’m over here, piling on the foundation.) I had tried topicals and antibiotics at that point, as prescribed by an okay dermatologist I visited once (a good dermatologist offers solutions–she doesn’t tell you there “isn’t much you can do.” More on that later.)

I had been washing my face religiously with Nuetrogena Deep Clean, and I had learned what types of activities and foods triggered breakouts for me (the usual suspects: stress, chocolate, sunscreen that wasn’t non-comedogenic, etc.). I never even put my fingers to my face without washing them with Ivory soap first (still don’t). I would have short spurts where my skin would clear up and acne would almost be a non-issue, but it never really stayed that way and I would NEVER say my skin was “great.” I always felt like it could be better, and I felt ugly and had a lot of insecurity issues as a result. Enter Proactiv.

Justin Beiber Proactiv

Hey girl.

Like Crack–For Your Skin

I fell in love with Proactiv the first time I used it. No joke–it’s like heroin or crack to a person who has tried every lame, ineffective cleanser on the market. From the first use, you’re hooked. Part of Proactiv’s appeal is how gratifying/satisfying/borderline orgasmic it is for people who suffer from acne. First, you wash with the exfoliating cleanser, “Step 1”, which feels so good scrubbing off dead skin, that from this point on, any other cleanser will have you left wanting. Even the RIGHT cleanser for your skin won’t feel as good as washing with Proactiv (more on that later). I don’t care if it gels, foams, tingles, has microbeads, aloe, mint or tea tree oil—it’s not Proactiv Step 1. I’m getting a craving for it as I write this post.

After drying your newly-smooth face, you get a second layer of satisfying cleansing from the toner, Step 2. I would literally drench my cotton round with the stuff. It doesn’t contain alcohol, so it doesn’t burn or tingle like other astringents, but it does just feel so good wiping all over the skin. And you can visibly see dirt/grime/acne grossness on the cotton round after. I’d compare it to that feeling when you’d peel a Biore strip off your nose and all those dark stalks of blackheads would be sticking up. *Sigh* – it’s just so good.

The last step is a medicated lotion that you apply all over the face after the toner has dried (give it 3 minutes–or the time it took me to brush out my wet hair and wrap it in a towel). This is really the cherry on top–the “Repairing Lotion” feels cooling and medicated, like all of your problem areas are being smoothed over. It’s not a moisturizer so you don’t have to worry about clogging your pores (but if you do want to give Guthy Renker more money, they do have a green tea moisturizer sold separately). It dries well and doesn’t feel residue-y. It does a lot of things right that other acne products just don’t. It leaves you feeling like a perfect complexion is just around the corner. And I was still waiting for that perfect skin 7 years later.

Worse Before It Gets Better

For a lot of prescription acne medications, like Tetracycline, your doctor will tell you that your skin will get worse before it gets better. I am not exactly sure why this is, but it’s pretty common to hear that at different points in your acne treatment journey. Similarly, the myth with Proactiv is that your skin gets worse before it gets better. I’ve been told precisely that by salespeople at the mall kiosks–who, by the way, make a commission when they sell you a bottle. Herein lies the problem: you’ll always feel like you’re in the “worse” state and things are about to get better, but you don’t get that check-up with the doctor 6 weeks later like you would with a prescribed medication. And Proactiv doesn’t say exactly how long you’ll have to wait, so you’re basically stuck in skincare purgatory waiting and waiting and waiting for things to get better.

Or at least that was my experience. I went through periods where my skin would get better (probably due to a hormonal change), and I’d be convinced that the Proactiv was finally working. But then I’d have breakouts again. It went on like this for years.


On my wedding day. Pile on the foundation, girls!

Here Comes The Sun… Spots

About a year or so in to my using Proactiv I went on vacation to Aruba with my then-boyfriend (now husband) and did the usual lay-out-by-the-pool-for-5-hours-with-SPF-15 beach vacation routine. I wore Neutrogena SPF 30 on my face and a hat most of the time, but at the end of the vacation I had developed these dark, blotchy sun spots all over my forehead, the tops of my cheeks and–worst of all–on my upper lip, which from a distance looked like a full-on mustache. Sweet.

The Proactiv label says to avoid sun exposure, but I could have never in a million years guessed that even through SPF 15 and a baseball hat I could get such awful, irreversible sun damage. And that’s the wonderful thing about hyperpigmentation–it only takes 1 instance of sun exposure (in my case, 1 well-deserved week in the Caribbean) to form, but it takes years and years of treatments and creams and lasers to come off. I am still dealing with them to this day, and now when I go to the beach I wear SPF 50 or higher, reapplying constantly, and a huge wide-brimmed floppy hat. Thanks, Proactiv!

whoa sun spots

 Can you SPOT the problem?

So Many Ruined Towels

Here’s a fun one: your boyfriend’s parents invite you to their beach house, and after a week of being incredibly gracious to you and cooking you meals and letting you shack up with their son, you repay them by ruining all of the towels in their guest bathroom. Yeeeaaaaa.

Anyone who uses Proactiv knows that a WHITE face towel is the only way to go because that sh*t bleaches everything in its wake. I have ruined towels at friends’ houses, sets my mom bought me for college, fancy towels off my wedding registry–any towel within arms length of my step 1 is a target. It’s because of the benzoyl peroxide contained in the cleansing wash–it just bleaches the heck out of pillow cases, clothes, towels, bath mats, you name it.

In all those years of watching Proactiv basically destroy my linens closet, I can’t believe I never asked myself: if it does THAT to my face cloths, what the hell is it doing to my face?

Better Off Without Cha

After years of being hooked, what finally got me off Proactiv was becoming pregnant. Though the online message boards will give you different answers on this, you absolutely cannot use Proactiv while pregnant or nursing (the Benzoyl Peroxide, for one, may cause birth defects.) When my OB-GYN confirmed this, I was crushed. How will I wash my face, if not with Step 1? All other face washes suck. How will I ever feel truly clean without being able to wash and tone and treat my acne bumps with Step 3? I was more devastated to give up Proactiv than I was to give up sushi and martinis (ok, maybe it was a 3-way tie).

My Derm suggested Neutrogena Ultra Gentle (derms really like Nuetrogena, huh??) and I immediately hated it. It was like washing with soap. Blah. But I had no choice, and for 9 months I used only cleanser twice daily–no toner (the derm told me that toner is redundant and not necessary) and no creams (almost all the good acne treatments are banned during pregnancy-salicylic acid, rentinoids, etc). On the plus side, I did have a lot more time in the mornings and at night when I would otherwise be busy applying Steps.

Fast forward to present day and my skin is completely different than it was during my Proactiv years: the scars and sun damage remain, but I don’t have new batches of zits cropping up daily. I am breastfeeding so I couldn’t go back on Proactiv if I wanted to, but I genuinely don’t want to. I now see it for what it was: a product that felt good to use and gave me hope that my skin would improve, but that never delivered on that promise, and in the end became a huge waste of time and money.

I want to hear about your experience with acne and Proactiv: leave a comment below letting me know whether it worked for you. Was your experience different than mine?


Editorial Director

Justine Schwartz is a veteran women's lifestyle editor; she's written extensively about style & beauty tips, health advice and wedding planning for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in New York Magazine, Huffington Post and New York Weddings. Justine has been with SheFinds since 2010; you can reach her via email at [email protected]

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