This is a basic, lightweight, water-based skin-lightening serum whose active ingredient is hydroquinone. Widely considered the gold standard for lightening brown spots (and with much research supporting its safety and efficacy), it’s not the hydroquinone that earns this products its rating. Rather, it’s the potentially irritating and drying amount of denatured alcohol. See More Info to learn who alcohol can hurt skin.
It’s good that ProActiv+ included some non-fragrant plant oils to offset the potential irritation from the alcohol, but there are other skin lighteners medicated with hydroquinone to consider before this—and many of our top picks cost less, too!
Remember, success with any skin-lightening product depends on consistent (daily) use of the treatment product and a sunscreen capable of providing broad spectrum protection. Sun protection and not tanning or being in the sun for prolonged periods are important steps to ensure your dark spots or uneven skin tone improves.
There is a significant amount of research showing alcohol causes free-radical damage in skin even at low levels. Small amounts of alcohol on skin cells in lab settings (about 3%, but keep in mind skin-care products contain amounts ranging from 5% to 60% or greater) over the course of two days increased cell death by 26%. It also destroyed the substances in cells that reduce inflammation and defend against free radicals—this process actually causes more free-radical damage. If this weren't bad enough, exposure to alcohol causes skin cells to self-destruct.
The research also showed that these destructive, aging effects on skin cells increased the longer their exposure to alcohol; for example, two days of exposure was dramatically more harmful than one day, and that's at only a 3% concentration. (Sources: Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, May 2012, pages 1,410–1,419; Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, January 2011, pages 83–90; Journal of Investigative Dermatology, August 2009, pages 20–24; "Skin Care—From the Inside Out and Outside In," Tufts Daily, April 1, 2002; Alcohol, Volume 26, Issue 3, April 2002, pages 179–190; eMedicine Journal, May 8, 2002, volume 3, number 5, www.emedicine.com; Critical Reviews in Clinical Laboratory Sciences, April 2001, pages 109–166; Cutis, February 2001, pages 25–27; Contact Dermatitis, January 1996, pages 12–16; and http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-4/277-284.htm).
For more on alcohol's (as in, ethanol, denatured alcohol, and ethyl alcohol) effects on skin, see our article on the topic, Alcohol in Skin Care: The Facts.
After your blemishes are gone, erase the evidence with our Advanced Dark Spot Correcting Serum. This next-generation serum is formulated with maximum-strength hydroquinone, the most effective lightening agent you can buy without a prescription. Whether you’re battling post-acne marks, sun damage, age spots or any other kind of hyperpigmentation, this highly effective serum will help them to gradually fade away—leaving behind a brighter, more even-toned complexion.
Active Ingredient: Hydroquinone 2%; Inactive Ingredients: Water, Alcohol Denat., PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Polysorbate 20, Hippophae Rhamnoides Oil, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Sodium Metabisulfite, Sodium Sulfite, Disodium EDTA, Citric Acid, 1,2 Hexanediol, Caprylyl Glycol.
Proactiv Solution At-A-Glance
Strengths: Effective, elegant-textured AHA, BHA, and skin-lightening options; all sunscreens provide sufficient UVA protection; good options for controlling excess oil breakthrough, including a colorless pressed powder.
Weaknesses: Several products contain irritating ingredients that do not help acne-prone skin; some gimmicky products that no dermatologist-created line should be selling (they should know better); mostly substandard to poor makeup options, including a sulfur-based concealer.
Created by dermatologists Dr. Katie Rodan and Dr. Kathy Fields, Proactiv launched in 1995 as a three-step system sold via infomercial. With the doctors' endorsements and winning personalities along with a heap of testimonials from people who use the routine (including a rotating list of celebrities, which always garners attention), Proactiv remains a very successful brand that is still going strong. The effusiveness, medical background, accurate information about how acne forms, and sincerity of its creators definitely makes for compelling television (we admit to catching the infomercial on more than one sleepless night), but what about the products themselves? Are they the answer the ads promise?
The core system consists of a cleanser with benzoyl peroxide and scrub particles, a toner with glycolic acid, and a lotion that contains a low (but still effective) amount of benzoyl peroxide. No questions here, this is a straightforward routine and hardly unique to Proactiv! Some percentage of people will benefit from daily use of this system (it contains the basics that are necessary for over-the-counter treatment of acne), but it's definitely not for everyone, and every dermatologist knows that (just check out the American Academy of Dermatology Web site at www.aad.org, for example, on their recommendations for battling blemishes).
It also goes without saying that other lines offer many less expensive versions of all the Proactiv products. However, for those who choose this system, the key is compliance, at least as long as you're seeing good results. Anyone battling acne needs to know that, barring a successful experience with the prescription drug Accutane, it cannot be cured—only controlled. We don't doubt that many people have seen their acne respond positively to a daily routine of the core Proactiv products, and for some it has been a life-changing experience—but it's not the answer for acne for everyone.
Although they still appear in ads and literature for the brand, Drs. Rodan and Fields have branched out to create their own namesake line, reviewed elsewhere on this site. While the Rodan + Fields line is not acne-centric like Proactiv, they did include products for blemishes, a few of which are similar to but more expensive than their Proactiv counterparts. And of course, this dual branding begs the question: if Rodan and Fields believe that Proactiv is the best option for those struggling with acne, why did they create alternative products in their namesake line? Why not just mention to Rodan + Fields customers dealing with acne that the Proactiv line has exactly what they need?
Along with Proactiv and the namesame Rodan and Fields line, these dermatologists also created Proactiv+, which is supposed to be smarter and faster than original Proactiv. For the most part, these products are quite similar, they just have a stronger emphasis on anti-aging issues such as uneven skin tone and enlarged pores from sun damage. We wish these products were more compelling, but many of them are truly problematic and not something two reputable dermatologists should feel comfortable putting their names on.
The Beautypedia and Paula’s Choice Research teams have one mission: To help you find the best products for your skin, whether they’re from Paula’s Choice or another brand. By combining efforts, we’re able to share scientific research and remain committed to the highest standards based on our decades of experience objectively reviewing thousands upon thousands of skincare and makeup formularies in all price ranges.
Beautypedia cuts through the hype to bring you product insights and recommendations you won’t find anywhere else!