This article at Salon exposing Proactiv as a sham made my morning, as I'm sure it will any of you who, for whatever reason, are exposed to a lot of cable television and therefore relentless ads for Proactiv. (In my case, it's mostly because Marc is a soccer fan, and every time some game is on, we have to endure the ads. If you were judging on ads alone, you'd think that most soccer fans are suffering epic amounts of acne.) I mostly hate the ads because they're relentless and the worst kind of celebrity endorsement, but I always suspected that they're selling overpriced crap that you can get for cheap at the drugstore. And sure enough:
Make a few clicks around Proactiv's website and you'll find out the active compound is benzoyl peroxide. That's the same stuff in Stridex, Clearasil and just about every nonprescription acne medication available in drugstore aisles across America. A tube of the same compound costs $5.25 at my local pharmacy.
Since writing about this stuff invariably brings out a true believer or two or a dozen in comments, I will add that the doctor who wrote this, Rahul Parikh, doesn't disagree that some times it works better than the cheap stuff, but not because it is better. It's because the expense and the "system" they create gets clients to be more consistent with use. Spend less money, but contribute the same diligence and Clearasil would work just as well. (I'm a fan of Neutrogena's stuff, just because it's less thick, but not because it's better in any chemical sense.) As a perennially cheap person, I figured out the trick to flip stuff over and check the ingredient list a long time ago, much to the dismay of anyone trying to sell any of the various products that cost four or five times as much for exactly the same stuff. Right now, a big scam is glycolic acid, which is the active ingredient in a lot of first rate exfoliating masks. I've seen places like Bath and Body Works try to sell tubes of the stuff for $60-$100, which you could get it from Oil of Olay for $20. (I've looked for it even cheaper than that, but sadly, there does seem to be a bottom in this department that's set awfully high.)
For some reason, exploiting people's anxieties about their skin to sell them overpriced products pisses me off more than most scam-y things like it. I think it's because having bad skin makes you especially vulnerable to hucksters, because it's so hard to conceal and it's the first thing people notice about you, since it's on your face and all. People with bad skin will take drastic measures to have nice skin, and therefore they're easy to convince that drastic measures---like spending tons of money---are necessary when they're not. To make it worse, unlike other appearance-based problems, like bad hair, bad skin doesn't even go away once it goes away! You can fix the zits, but you still have the scars. Proactiv ads are especially vicious in this department, with the exploitative lighting and the glowing skin of heavily-made-up celebrities. You'd have to be made out of stone not to look at that and feel a tug of envy and desire, especially if you struggle with bad skin. Just the hope that this could happen for you has got to weigh heavily. They must be making a ton of money, too. According to this article, the company that owns Proactiv spends $12-$15 million a year on celebrity endorsements alone.