Review of acne treatments

Does the pricier Proactiv outperform AcneFree and Oxy Maximum?

Published: November 2011

Effective but more expensive
With Proactiv, you use three products—a wash, a toner, and a lotion—to treat acne.

Scores of skincare products carry the claim that they can clear up acne, the scourge of countless adolescents and adults. But do any of these blemish-busting remedies, some backed by celebrities, actually work?

Topical treatments with benzoyl peroxide are among the best over-the-counter options for acne, which is caused by bacteria trapped in clogged pores. We recently tested Proactiv (hawked by Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, it costs about $20 for a one-month supply), AcneFree (about $20 for two months), and Oxy Maximum ($5 for two to three months). Proactiv and AcneFree offer a three-step method: a wash, a repair lotion, and a toner. Oxy Maximum is a wash that you rinse off. In our tests, 83 male and female volunteers ages 14 to 40 used one of the products every morning and night for eight weeks.

We also tested two devices purported to use light and/or heat to treat acne. The makers of the Zeno Hot Spot ($40 for 80 uses) and the rechargeable No!No!Skin ($180) claim these devices will reduce or completely eliminate inflamed acne blemishes; neither is designed for whiteheads or blackheads. In our tests, 26 volunteers used each device on one side of their face for two days.

How the products performed

Oxy Maximum costs $5 for two to three months of treatment.
Wash away your blemishes
Oxy Maximum has the highest level of benzoyl peroxide among tested treatments.

None of the topical treatments we tested completely eliminated acne, but most of the volunteers had fewer blemishes at the end of the eight weeks no matter which product they used. Up to two-thirds of them saw 40 percent fewer pimples, on average.

While the difference in acne reduction among brands wasn't statistically significant, the difference in price was. AcneFree costs about half what you'd pay for Proactiv, and Oxy Maximum was the least expensive of all.

AcneFree and Oxy Maximum are available at drugstores and discount retailers. Proactiv is available from a number of different sources, and we found a range of prices. A kiosk at a shopping mall was selling a two-month supply for $51. offered the same amount for $44. We received conflicting information from Proactiv representatives when trying to buy the product over the phone, but we were eventually quoted $20 for a one-month kit, $40 for a two-month kit, and $60 for a three-month kit. The best deal could be from the company directly. Note that the company automatically renews your order unless you cancel.

Bottom line
To treat acne on your own, start with a benzoyl peroxide-based treatment, and buy by price. Nearly all of our test participants were satisfied enough with the topical product they tried to say they would buy it.

Remember, acne outbreaks are cyclical in nature, so yours might get worse before it gets better. Also keep in mind that benzoyl peroxide can irritate skin. If that happens, you might want to see a dermatologist.

Acne-treatment comparison

(from least to most expensive)
What it is Claims
Oxy Maximum
($5 for 6 ounces; lasts about 2 to 3 months)
An acne wash containing 10% benzoyl peroxide. Releases oxygen to eliminate acne-causing bacteria. Helps prevent future outbreaks.
($20 per kit; lasts about 2 months)
A three-step acne system with a wash containing 2.5% benzoyl peroxide, a toner, and a repair lotion containing 3.7% benzoyl peroxide.
Visible results in 1 to 3 days. Treats acne 24 hours a day. 
($20 per kit; lasts about 1 month)
A three-step acne system with a wash and a repair lotion, each containing 2.5% benzoyl peroxide, and a toner. Clears existing blemishes, soothes inflammation and redness, and helps prevent new breakouts. 

With all products, after two weeks, about 75 percent of the volunteers saw a 35 percent reduction in lesions, on average. After eight weeks, about 50 to 66 percent of them saw a 40 percent reduction in lesions, on average.

Yes? Yes?

Zap away the zits

A "zapper," which uses light and/or heat to treat pimples, might come in handy if you need a quick acne treatment, say before a job interview or a special occasion.

The Zeno Hot Spot and the No!No!Skin devices were somewhat effective at reducing the size of red, inflamed acne lesions after two days of use but eliminated only about 13 percent of all the targeted blemishes.

These devices aren't cheap. The Zeno, available at drugstores, discount retailers, and online, costs $40 for 80 uses. The $180 No!No!Skin is rechargeable and is available at Neiman Marcus and online retailers such as and

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