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Proactiv vs Proactiv MD (The Definitive Guide)

So, you've decided you want to try one of Proactiv's best-selling acne treatments, but you can't quite figure out what the differences are? We've all been there, don't worry!

Come with us as we compare Proactiv vs Proactiv MD side-by-side to help you decide which is right for you. Enjoy!

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Proactiv vs Proactiv MD

Proactiv Solution

Proactiv Solution is the original acne-fighting system from the renowned skincare brand. It was the first multi-step system of its kind, and while the rapidly evolving skincare industry has seen countless new products and innovations in the years since its launch, Proactiv’s Combination Therapy strategy is just as popular now as it was decades ago.

Using benzoyl peroxide as its key ingredient, the three-step routine comprises a Renewing Cleanser, Revitalising Toner, and a final Repairing Treatment, all designed to target acne at its root. The three separate products work in unison to treat existing blemishes and prevent future breakouts, with a focus on eliminating skin impurities.

The micro-crystal benzoyl peroxide technology, present in the first and third step, is an antibacterial used to penetrate the skin and kill the bacteria that causes acne, while also unclogging pores and clearing the build-up of dead skin cells conducive to breakouts.

Step 1: Renewing Cleanser

Intended for use twice a day, morning and night, a small amount should be massaged onto skin for at least a minute, to ensure thorough cleansing. It provides a strong initial step to a skincare routine, by removing impurities and providing a clean slate (literally) for further topical actives to have an effect.

Step 2: Revitalising Toner

The toner doesn’t contain benzoyl peroxide, instead glycolic acid and witch hazel are used to promote smooth, glowing skin. The former is an AHA (alpha-hydroxy acid) that exfoliates dead skin cells to keep it clear and bright, and witch hazel is a natural toner that tightens pores and balances oil levels.

Step 3: Repairing Treatment

The final step gives the benzoyl peroxide longer to treat your skin and is perfect for use on specific areas - targeting the breakout without drying out unaffected areas of the face.


Employing the same three-step system as the Solution treatment, ProactivMD uses Adapalene Gel instead of benzoyl peroxide as its active ingredient. It addresses breakouts on a cellular level, treating acne at the source, but is less harsh on the skin than Solution. The Ultra-Gentle Cleanser, Adapalene Gel, and Ultra-Hydrating moisturiser build on each other to combat the causes of acne while also ensuring it stays healthy and hydrated - which in turn reduces the chance of future breakouts.

Only recently available over the counter rather than on prescription, Adapalene is a chemical derivative of vitamin A known as a topical retinoid, with excellent acne-fighting capabilities. It gets under the skin and regulates cell turnover, preventing skin cells from clogging up and fostering an environment of built-up sebum and oils - all of which causes congested spots and pimples.

Step 1: Ultra-Gentle Cleanser

The success of Proactiv Solution demonstrated that a good, thorough cleanser is an essential part of any acne treatment. This one includes rigorous surfactants to properly rid the skin of debris, dirt, and oil, but is also infused with soothing green tea extract to calm any inflammation.

Step 2: Adapalene Gel

With a strength of 0.1% - the standard in Adapalene usage - this gel is for use only in the evening once a day or less frequently if irritation occurs. Just a small amount smoothed on skin after cleansing can work efficiently to clear pores and stop acne growth.

Step 3: Ultra-Hydrating Moisturizer

An essential for any skincare routine involving a retinoid, the Ultra Hydrating Moisturiser should be layered over Adapalene to provide protection to the sensitive and delicate skin barrier. It boasts up to 8 hours of hydration thanks to the role of the humectant hyaluronic acid, which works to soften the skin and mitigate any dryness that could be caused by the use of a retinoid.

Which is better?

So, now you understand what both acne treatments do specifically - how do you know which 3-step system is right for your skin?

The best way to choose between Proactiv Solution and ProactivMD is to consider the nature of your skin and acne: do you struggle more with dryness or oiliness? Both benzoyl peroxide and Adapalene can be aggressive on your face’s delicate skin, but the former should be avoided if you suffer from dryness and dehydration. While its potency certainly makes it an efficient treatment for acne, and could yield much quicker results than ProactivMD, the formula can cause significant irritation. Research shows that a damaged skin barrier can be both a cause and symptom of acne, so it’s important to adapt your skincare routine around this.

On the other hand, Proactiv Solution could indeed be the solution to your skin problems if oiliness is a key concern. The flagship formula has been tried and tested over many years, with thousands of happy reviewers thanking the 3-step process for transforming their skin.

It’s also a great place to start if you’ve not used specialised skin treatments before; whether you’re just starting to struggle with acne for the first time, or simply looking to overhaul your skincare cabinet, it’s an easy change to your bathroom routine.

So, now you understand what both acne treatments do specifically - how do you know which 3-step system is right for your skin?

Proactiv Solution

  • Best for oily and combination skin
  • A good introduction to topical skin treatments for first timers
  • Has been on the market for over two decades
  • Can cause dry, tight, and flaky skin


  • Better for sensitive skin
  • More powerful
  • The inclusion of a moisturiser places a necessary emphasis on hydration, but those with dry skin should take extra precautions
  • Adapalene addresses skin texture and redness as well as spots

Final Verdict

As with all skincare, it takes a few weeks of usage to see results. If you’re worried about how your skin will react to a new topical treatment, ProactivMD is the safest option. It has a great track record for clearing up skin without damaging the delicate surface, whereas Proactiv Solution is much more likely to cause dryness and irritation in the process.

This article was originally published on August 18th 2022, but it has been reviewed and updated with the latest available information on February 13th 2024 by Sara Mckay, MA.

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