I have suffered from hormonal cystic acne for a long time. Name any acne treatment system that has been advertised in the past seven years and I've probably tried it.
When I look back at the reviews that led me to buy these systems, I was surprised to find that most authors lack first-hand experience on the products they review.
I was also surprised at the lack of innovation in the acne category. Benzyol peroxide (BP) and salicylic acid didn't work when your parents used them last millennium but they are still being repackaged today.
Virtually all major brands use BP or salicylic acid as their primary active ingredient.
If you've used either ingredient in the past with poor results, you will likely get disappointing results with the big brands who continue to repackage BP and salicylic acid.
Here's what to look out for when comparing brands and products:
Does the system clear clogs* making future breakouts harder to form?
*There are many indirect factors that contribute to the formation of a pimple. However, at the ROOT of all breakouts is a clogged pore. Learn more.
Do the products fade the red/brown marks that pimples leave behind?
Breakouts subside within two weeks but the post-acne red marks can linger a few months. It is important to fade red scars quickly before they turn into a stubborn brown scar which can last up to two years.
Do the products cause irritation?
Products should not be overdrying, causing your skin to overproduce oil and agitating breakouts.
Do I get my money back if it doesn't work? Do I have to go through the hassle of shipping in order to request a return?
In order to make a moneyback claim, most brands require you to pay ~$8 in shipping and to go through the hassle of shipping the products back. I am looking for brands that make it easier to process a refund without requiring products to be shipped back.
What are the user reviews across different platforms?
I look at reviews on the brand's own site as well as on Amazon. I dig deeper to identify reviews of users who have documented their skincare journey with the product.
Here is the overview:
Clearly Basics Power Duo
Proactiv Proactiv+ 3-Step System
Rodan + Fields Spotless Regimen
Murad Get Over Zit Kit
Paula's Choice Clear Regular Strength`Kit
lasts 3 months
lasts 3 months
lasts 2-3 months
lasts 1 month
lasts 2-3 months
Clearly Basics Power Duo
What It Is: Clearly Basics' Power Duo consists of two formulations: the Clear Out which is a 2% retinol lotion and the Lighten Up which is a spot treatment designed to reduce the appearance of post-acne marks.
I have been using this set for over a year and it is the only thing that has kept my skin CONSISTENTLY clear.
Overall Score: The Clear Out is good at clearing clogs and the Lighten Up is the only product I've found that fades the appearance of post-acne red marks.
Finally, products that are effective and DO NOT use BP or salicylic acid!
Clears Clogs: The Clear Out will get rid of the dead skin trapped inside your pores, making it hard for future clogs to form. It also flushes out existing clogs (commonly called a purge). This is necessary if you want to get results that last.
Red/Brown Marks: Clearly Basics has products specifically designed to fade the appearance of red and brown acne marks. The Lighten Up is a spot treatment for red marks and shows noticeable results within 6 weeks of use. The Dark Mark Defense a spot treatment for brown marks and shows noticeable results within two months of use.
Gentle on Skin: The Clear Out contains retinol which can be itchy for some with sensitive skin. However, they use natural botanicals to balance the pH. It was nothing as harsh as other retinoids I have tried in the past (I have sensitive skin).
Price: The Power Duo is priced at $69.90 per set and lasts 3 months ($23.30 per month). They provide free shipping for this set which brings the cost down and makes it one of the most affordable sets in the review. They are also very responsive when I ask questions over chat.
Money-Back Guarantee: Clearly Basics has a 90-day money-back guarantee and its one of the easiest in the market: Send in your before/after photos over chat and if you don't see noticeable results after the entire bottle, chat in to get your money back. You don't have to go through the hassle or cost to mail back products.
User Reviews: The Power Duo scored 4.8 stars based on 128 reviews on their site. Clearly Basics has 4.8 star ratings on both Google reviews and Facebook reviews.
I like how they encourage their users to be transparent and document their skin journey on Instagram.
Individual results may vary
“Out of everything I’ve tried over the 7 years I’ve battle acne on and off it’s by far stood out as being one of the most effective with no side effects (after the initial “purge”). I’ve used nothing but Clearly Basics for 12 months now and it stillexceeds my expectations!”- Mim P.
Individual results may vary
“Never in my life did I imagine my skin would be this clear! Clearly Basics has completely transformed my skin!”- Toni L.
Proactiv+ 3-Step System
What It Is: Proactiv+ 3-step system consists of a 2.5% benzoyl-peroxide (BP) + glycolic acid exfoliator, a 2.5% BP leave in lotion and a hydrator. This product best suited for people with mild acne and some may find BP irritating.
Overall Score: I like Proactiv's money back policy as I am able to reduce my risk in case it doesn't work for my skin. I dislike Proactiv's physical exfoliator which can easily cause irritation and redness rather than helping to stop breakouts. If BP hasn't worked for you in the past, this set is not for you.
Proactiv's other system (ProactivMD) substitutes BP with a retinoid, but it was too strong for my sensitive skin, burning a layer of my skin and causing more breakouts.
Clears Clogs: Proactiv's physical exfoliator contains glycolic acid which can break down sebum. However, it is only left on the skin for a short period of time before it is washed off.
Unless you have mild acne, you'll want glycolic acid to stay on your skin for hours so it has time to break down sebum and clogs trapped inside your pores. To maximize the benefits of glycolic acid, opt for a leave-in gel or lotion.
Red/Brown Marks: A pimple may last two weeks, but the red marks left behind can last up to six months. Proactiv's formulations did not help to reduce post-acne red marks and as these red marks get exposed to UV, they can turn into stubborn brown marks which last up to two years.
Gentle on Skin: The main ingredient for this line is BP which is a known irritant. I don't know why they put a physical exfoliator in this set as it can easily cause more irritation/harm than good.
Price: Proactiv+ 3-Step set costs $107.3 for a three month supply ($35.70 per month). You will get a discount if you lock into a subscription plan.
Money-Back Guarantee: Proactiv has a 60-day money-back guarantee which isn’t sufficient to see through a cycle for acne (you need 90-days) and they require you to mail the products back. So you need to go through the hassle of waiting in line at the post office and pay $8 in additional shipping just to request your money back. They accept empty bottles.
User Reviews: On Proactiv's own site, the 3-Step System has a lackluster rating of 3.8 stars based on 2,905 reviews but a decent 4.2 stars based on 5,272 ratings on Amazon.
Rodan+Fields Spotless Regimen
What It Is: The Rodan+Fields Spotless Regimen consists of two products: a 5% benzoyl-peroxide (BP) wash and a 2.5% BP lotion.
Overall Score: Spotless Regimen uses BP in both items in their set. If you have used Oxy or Clearasil in the past and it worked for you, consider the Spotless regimen. However, if BP hasn't worked for you in the past, consider other options that use other ingredients aside from BP.
Clears Clogs: BP helps to kill the P. Acnes bacteria. However, it does nothing to get rid of the dead skin trapped inside your pores. In my opinion, any solution worth considering must get rid of the dead skin trapped inside the pore as the buildup of dead skin inside the pore is a major factor in the formation of clogs.
Red/Brown Scars: Rodan+Fields' Spotless Regime does not address the post-acne red or brown marks.
Gentle on Skin: The wash included in this set contains 5% BP which can be quite irritating. In my opinion, washes should only serve a basic function and should not contain harsh ingredients. If you wanted the enjoy the full benefits of BP, use it as a leave-in lotion so that it has more time to do its job.
Price: Spotless Regimen is priced at $89.00 and lasted 60 days ($44.50 per month). It is the most expensive system in this review.
Money-Back Guarantee: Rodan+Fields has a 60-day money-back guarantee which isn’t sufficient to see through a cycle for acne (you need 90-days). They accept empty bottles. You will need to go through the hassle of waiting in line at the post office and pay $8 in additional shipping just to request your money back.
User Reviews: I can't seem to find any reviews on their site. However, RF's Facebook review score is 4.8 but there are only a few acne-related reviews interspersed between reviews on the other skincare lines that the offer.
Murad Get Over Zit Kit
What It Is: The Get Over Zit Kit consists of three products: a 1.5% salicylic acid cleanser, a 1% salicylic acid + glycolic acid acne gel and a chemical sunblock with SPF45.
Overall Score: I like the fact that Murad's acne gel contains both an AHA and a BHA. However, I wish they had higher concentrations of each so that the product was more effective. Shipping was very expensive for this set.
Clears Clogs: The salicylic acid + glycolic acid in Murad's acne gel serves to break down sebum and clogs. My only request would be higher concentrations of each ingredient. However, I recognize that this will cause more irritation to the skin.
Red/Brown Scars: Salicylic acid has a mild effect in reducing the redness of post-acne marks and the ingredient is left on the skin giving it enough time to work out the red scar.
Murad also has a product that targets post-acne brown marks but it is $70 for a single bottle. For brown acne marks, consider the Dark Mark Defense which is a more effective/more affordable option.
Gentle on Skin: This is a relatively gentle set and I experienced no issues with irritation on my sensitive cheek areas. Their products contain numerous botanicals which help to soothe the skin. Murad's cleanser should not contain salicylic acid. If you wanted the benefits of salicylic acid, use it in a leave-in lotion or toner so that it has enough time to work on your skin.
Price: The Get Over Zit set is priced at $29.00 and lasts one month. Don't be fooled by the low initial price: If you factor in the duration of use as well as $8.95 for shipping, Murad's set is one of the most expensive sets in this review.
Money-Back Guarantee: Murad has a 60-day money-back guarantee and require you to mail the products back. So you will need to go through the hassle of waiting in line at the post office and pay ~$8 in additional shipping just to request your money back.
User Reviews: The Get Over Zit kit has a strong 4.8 stars on their site and decent 4.4 stars on Amazon.
Paula's Choice Clear Regular Strength
What It Is: The Clear Regular Strength Kit consists of three products: a gentle cleanser, a 2% salicylic acid chemical exfoliator and an acne gel that contains 2.5% BP.
Overall Score: Paula's Clear Regular Strength is a great set for those with mild acne. It is the most affordable set that we reviewed. I wish Paula's products contained more botanicals to make their formulations more gentle.
Clears Clogs: 2% salicylic acid in the exfoliator is better at breaking down sebum as compared to Murad's acne gel. However, it is NOT as effective as Clearly Basics' Clear Out which contains 2% retinol + 8% AZA.
Red/Brown Marks: salicylic acid has a mild effect in reducing inflammation. However, nothing in Paula's line is specifically designed to address the post-acne red or brown marks. My marks lingered for AGES when using Paula's set.
Gentle on Skin: I am glad that Paula resisted the temptation to put acid in her cleanser. I agree that cleansers only serve a basic function and should not contain harsh ingredients that over-strip oils on your skin. I wish Paula included more botanicals in her set so that it is more gentle on the skin. This is especially true with the acne gel that contains 2.5% BP; since BP is a known irritant.
Price: The CLEAR Regular Strength set is priced at $48.40 and lasts 2 to 3 months (~ $24.20 per month). Shipping costs an additional $5.50. This is the most affordable set in the review.
Money-Back Guarantee: Paula's Choice has a 60-day money-back guarantee which isn’t sufficient to see through a cycle for acne (you need 90-days) and they require you to mail the products back. You will need to go through the hassle of waiting in line at the post office and pay ~$8 in additional shipping just to request your money back. They do not accept empty bottles which is a yellow flag.
User Reviews: The Clear Regular Strength set scored a decent 4.26 stars on their own website and 4.1 stars on Amazon.
Mim is a primary school teacher from Southampton, England. Her Instagram page @acneisntugly is dedicated to help those with acne. She has been documented her acne journey through this page.
This article is intended to provide insights on how to identify effective acne products and is a personal opinion. Nothing on this article should be interpreted as personal medical advice. For medical related matters, please consult with your dermatologist.