Cheaper Alternatives to Proactiv for Acne Treatment

You've heard good things about the acne treatment Proactiv and want to try it. Until you look at the price tag—uh oh. It's not cheap, especially when you take into account you'll need to buy a new kit every month. Does Proactiv really work, and are there any alternatives to Proactiv that aren't as expensive? 

When you're on a limited budget, higher-priced skincare products like Proactiv may not be within your means. But that doesn't mean that you're out of luck. Proactiv isn't the only skincare line that is made for acne-prone skin.

There are many other options, and less expensive alternatives can be just as effective. You don't need to spend a lot of money to get good results. It just takes a little know-how.

Products to Look For in an Acne Treatment Kit
Verywell / Cindy Chung

Active Ingredients

The active ingredient in the Proactiv skincare line is benzoyl peroxide, which is the most effective over-the-counter acne-fighting ingredient available. It reduces the amount of pimple-producing bacteria, Propionibacteria acnes, decreases inflammation, and helps keep pores clear.

Benzoyl peroxide isn't just found in Proactiv products, though. Scores of over-the-counter acne products contain this ingredient. Any OTC product that contains benzoyl peroxide is going to work in basically the same way.

Some products in the Proactiv line also contain glycolic acid. Glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid that works as an exfoliant, helping to loosen the bonds that hold dead skin cells together. This, in turn, reduces pore blockages.

To get products with the same ingredients as Proactiv, go to the skincare aisle of drug store or big box store (like Target or Walmart) and look for a product containing benzoyl peroxide. It should be very obviously posted on the back label.

Does Proactiv Really Work?

For some people, Proactiv does a good job of clearing up acne (or at least keeping it under control). But for others, Proactiv just isn't effective. The result you get is completely dependent on your skin and the severity of your acne. The more important question becomes whether Proactiv works for you.

If you have these characteristics, you are more likely to benefit from Proactiv.

  • Your acne is generally mild. Proactiv works best for those who have mild acne, minor pimples, and blackheads. It's less effective for moderate acne (and you'd get better results from prescription medications in this case anyway).
  • You haven't yet tried OTC acne treatment products containing benzoyl peroxide. If you've been relying on soap and water or salicylic acid, stepping up to a benzoyl peroxide product like Proactiv would be a good next step.

Proactiv is less effective for people with other characteristics.

  • You have moderate to severe acne. OTC products, even Proactiv, just aren't strong enough to clear this type of acne. Save yourself some frustration and heartache, and skip the Proactiv in this case. You'll be so much better off going straight to a prescription treatment instead.
  • You've tried numerous over-the-counter products already without success. It may have been developed by dermatologists and endorsed by a legion of followers but when it's all said and done, Proactiv is still just an OTC acne product. So, if you've already tried a slew of them, you'll probably get the same disappointing results from this product. Again, in this case, it's time for a prescription.

Bargain Hunting

What may have drawn you to the Proactiv line is that you get a complete skincare system—cleanser, toning solution, treatment lotion and, in some cases, a treatment mask.

This was a new idea when Proactiv first hit the market, but now other acne skincare lines also offer complete OTC acne treatment kits. Proactiv just does a better job of marketing their product.

You can find these kits sold at your local drug store. Some reasonably priced skincare lines that offer multi-step acne treatment systems include:

  • AcneFree Clear Skin Treatments (benzoyl peroxide)
  • Olay Fresh Effects Clear Skin Acne Solutions System (salicylic acid)
  • Neutrogena Complete Acne Therapy System (benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid)
  • La Roche-Posay Effaclar Acne System (benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid)
  • Clean and Clear Advantage Acne Control Kit (benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid)

Build Your Own Acne Kit

If you really want to save yourself some money, you can build your own OTC acne treatment regimen. Part of what we love about complete acne treatment kits is that everything is put together for you. But you're paying for that convenience.

You can pick up separately an acne-fighting cleanser, toner, and treatment lotion at the local drug store to make your own three-step acne treatment routine. You may even be able to utilize some of the products you already have a home. Just look at those active ingredients again.

DIY Acne Kit

Choose these products:

  • Cleanser with benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid
  • Toner with salicylic acid
  • Lotion with benzoyl peroxide

It doesn't matter which brands you pick, you can even mix and match brands if you like. Your DIY regimen can be just as effective as any pre-packaged acne treatment kit.

A Word From Verywell

Remember, you don't have to purchase the most expensive, name brand products to get great results. There are many OTC acne products that work effectively.

The most important point to remember, though, is not every case of acne can be treated with over-the-counter products. OTC products work just fine for mild acne, but they won't have any effect on severe acne.

If your breakouts are very inflamed, deep, or widespread, skip the OTC products in favor of prescription acne medications. This means a trip to the dermatologist, but the results of prescription treatments are well worth the hassle.

If you've used over-the-counter acne treatment kits for 10 to 12 weeks with no improvement, it may also be time for prescription medication. Don't simply try another brand; you'll get similar results with all OTC products.

Go to your dermatologist if you have acne scars, hard bumps, deep cysts or if your OTC products haven't worked for more than three months. Sometimes prescription medications (either topical or oral) are needed to really see good improvement of acne. It's a good idea to use daily broad spectrum sunscreen (SPF>30) to help reduce the pigment changes seen on the skin.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kawashima M, Nagare T, Doi M. Clinical efficacy and safety of benzoyl peroxide for acne vulgaris: comparison between Japanese and Western patients. J Dermatol. 2017;44(11):1212-1218. doi:10.1111/1346-8138.13996

  2. Kim SJ, Baek JH, Koh JS, Bae MI, Lee SJ, Shin MK. The effect of physically applied alpha hydroxyl acids on the skin pore and comedone. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2015;37(5):519-25. doi:10.1111/ics.12244

  3. Zaenglein AL, Pathy AL, Schlosser BJ, et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgarisJ Am Acad Dermatol. 2016;74(5):945-73.e33. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2015.12.037

  4. Keri J, Shiman M. An update on the management of acne vulgarisClin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2009;2:105–110. Published 2009 Jun 17. doi:10.2147/ccid.s3630

  5. Kaiser Permanente. Acne.

By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.