Three Step Facial Care Systems Comparison: Proactiv versus Clinique

As I've mentioned before, my skin is nowhere near perfect, and because of that, I'm particularly attuned to skin care products, magazine articles, reviews, etc. I've tried nearly everything in the book -- from eye creams to facial moisturizers to acne products -- and thought it would be fun to share what I've learned in a skin care series. In each entry, I'll share some do's and dont's from my personal experiences, plus some ideas from magazine articles that I've recently pulled (with credit where it's due!). If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to ask in the comments section!

3-Step Facial Care Systems Comparison:
Proactiv versus Clinique

When I was in high school, I literally did nothing for my skin. I washed it with soap in the shower, never toned or moisturized, or purchased any fancy products. And truth be told, my skin was absolutely perfect throughout all of my teenage years save for a pimple here or there around that time of the month. It wasn't until I was well into my college years that my skin decided to "freak out" on me, and around then I started getting really bad dark undereye circles; discoloration around my nose and cheeks; and big, ugly zits on my chin. When my mom noticed that my skin was no longer as flawless as it had been, she ordered Proactiv for me -- it almost feels like a "rite of passage" to try Proactiv what with all of these celebrities endorsing it and the constant push from TV commercials.

According to the Proactiv site, you start with the Renewing Cleanser, which contains Benzoyl Peroxide and exfoliating beads. The Revitalizing Toner is supposed to exfoliate dead skin cells, while soothing and hydrating acne-prone skin. Finally, the Repairing Treatment, is supposed to kill bacteria -- it also contains Benzoyl Peroxide.

To be honest, I was REALLY excited to try Proactiv and had high hopes for the products. Instead, I found that my skin was MUCH too sensitive for it -- the cleanser's "little exfoliating beads" ripped my skin raw, causing the toner to burn and make my face turn bright red. The "Repairing Treament" aka moisturizer smelled bad and stained all of my sheets and clothing (mind you, this was due to the acne treating ingredient in the product, which bleaches fabrics, but there should have been some sort of warning regarding this!). I used the product for 60 days as recommended, despite not liking what it was doing to my skin, because I've heard that with acne treatments, the condition usually gets worse before it gets better. In the end; however, I saw only minimal differences in the severity or number of pimples on my face, and the products never became more comfortable to use, so I promptly discontinued use and canceled my "subscription." Now, I understand that they've since changed their formula a bit and have started a "sensitive skin" line (they even called me at home to ask if I'd be interested in ordering the new sensitive line!), so there's a chance that the product has since improved, but overall, I think you could get better products for the same money without the harsh side effects.

After getting disgusted with Proactiv, I went to the Clinique counter and figured it couldn't hurt to give their 3-Step System a try. I had used the products once when I was really young, but at the time, they were only selling the bar soap cleanser, and I hated how messy it was, so I had stopped without really giving the products a chance to do their job. This time I was much more committed, and the Clinique representatives assured me that this system would also be an effective, albeit much more gentle, way to treat my acne.

What I like about Clinique is that they are professional and more "scientific" from start to finish. If you've never used 3-Step, they take you through a quiz at the very beginning of the consultation that diagnoses your skin type. They ask pretty simple questions like your natural skin shade, natural hair color/eye color, how severe your acne is and whether or not you tan. Depending on your answers, you are categorized by number (1-4), each which corresponds to a skin type (dry, oily, combination-dry and comination-oily). I wound up being number 2, which is combination-dry, and means I'm supposed to use the Mild Cleanser, "purple" toner and lotion moisturizer.

I've been using these products for nearly four years now, and are they miracle workers? Not by any means. Do I love them nonetheless? Yes and here's why. The mild cleanser is perhaps the best on the market for sensitive skin. I believe that it's fragrance free (or if it is perfumed, it's so light I can't smell it at all) and the consistency builds up to a soft, foaming lather that rinses off clean without giving your face a "stripped" feeling. The toner gives my face a very subtle tingle without turning it an angry red, and I've definitely noticed a HUGE reduction in the amount of flakiness, especially around my nose. The moisturizer? Well, I honestly don't care for the lotion because I find it very greasy, so I use the gel, which is actually formulated for more oily skin. On occasion, I supplement with Clinique's Moisture Surge, which is super expensive if you buy it full price (about $35), but is much more affordable if you purchase the sample sizes on eBay (and they last a long time because you only need to use a little -- just make sure you are buying from a reputable seller!). At the end of the day, I think the moisturizer is where I'm most flexible because I've found that they all tend to do the same thing for my skin. The most important thing is to find something that works for your individual skin type, i.e. use a moisturizer that controls for oils if you have oily skin, use a more intense formula in the winter when skin is dryer, etc.

What I don't like about this system is that I don't find it to have any affect on the discoloration of my skin, or the acne (although keeping your face clean is always the first step, so I guess it helps in that sense). In the end, I pretty much have to buy acne treatment products on top of my 3-step, instead of having the convenience of it being all in one. I know that Clinique sells a 3-step specifically designed for acne-prone skin, but I once tried a sample of it and my face swelled up so badly that I had to go to the hospital! It struck me funny that I'd have an allergic reaction to a product from a brand that is supposedly hypoallergenic! Regardless, I've heard pretty poor things across the board about this line, so I'd personally stay away.

To recap:
- Proactiv did not work for my sensitive skin and had little affect on my acne.
- Clinique's 3 Step System is a wonderful cleansing system that can be custom-tailored to your skin type, but it's not formulated to treat acne, so you'll still need additional products.

Proactiv can be purchased at for $29.95.
Clinique's 3-Step can be purchased at for ~$39 (price depends on the size toner and moisturizer that you purchase)


  1. This is a nice comparison that you have here. At least, there are going to be nice options for people.

  2. I'm glad I read this post...

    However, Proactive did work for me. It got rid of my acne, and true, it gets worse before it gets better. But Proactive did the trick for me. However, it did leave me dry around the nose so I decided to stop by Clinique and find out another solution to clear up the acne/keep my face clear as well as toned and moisturized.

    I've been on Clinique 3-Step (combo-oily) for about a month, and the acne I got rid of with Proactiv has no returned. :( The 3-Step has made me break out so I'm going back to Proactiv.

    I will have to figure out how often I will use it once the acne has cleared, and I'm also thinking about using the 3-Step system in the morning just so I can have that soft-skin look.

    But you are right about one thing: 3-Step is not formulated to treat acne (even though the Clinique rep told me it would).

  3. i just started proative does it get worse before better?? i started it yesterday.

    With proavtive can you use clinigue dramatilcally diffent moisturizing lotion?

    also where can i find a test for my skin type? please answer any of these qustions if you know

    the answers by commenting or emailing me @

    thanks and great website btw :)

  4. Hi Kittykat!

    Unfortunately, Proactive didn't really work for me, so I'm not sure if it gets worse before it gets better for most people. I'd say that if your skin is worse for more than a week or so after starting using the product that it may mean it's just not right for you!

    I also think that you are meant to use ONLY Proactive products with it, so I probably wouldn't add the Clinique lotion into the mix.

    Good luck!

  5. I've experimented with dozens of different acne products - and the only ones that worked were the Citrus Clear Control Acne Kit. It's cheaper than Pro-active and less harsh on the skin. The Citrus Clear Moisturizer can sometimes flake a little.

    I would also recommend using Citrus Clear for at least two weeks in order to see results. I definitely noticed a difference if I forgot to use the cleanser before going to bed so make sure you use it twice a day!!
    I also love that you only need a tiny bit of each product to cover your whole face!



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