The XX Factor

Don’t Bother With Proactiv

Recently, Jezebel ran two articles exposing what many of us suspected about TV-hawked, celebrity-endorsed “acne system” Proactiv, which is that it’s left scores of disgruntled customers in its wake. Here’s one:

For over a month I have tried to contact the company via telephone (using several posted telephone numbers) but each time I am met with a recorded out going message stating they are “experiencing technical difficulties”. I wish to cancel/close my account and am unable to do so. I have also sent the company a letter via US Mail to notify them of my desire to “quit them” and still have received no response.

Jezebel focused mainly on customers’ struggles to terminate their subscriptions, though there was some dissing of the product itself, which is marketed as if it’s a miracle drug for your zits. So I decided to reach out to cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski, who writes for The Beauty Brains, a blog dedicated to helping consumers sort out the truth behind claims made by cosmetics companies, to get his thoughts on the Jezebel pieces and Proactiv’s magic pimple-zapping powers.

Amanda Marcotte: I sent you this article about Proactiv and complaints about how the company runs its business. What are some of your initial thoughts about it?

Perry Romanowski: Sounds about right. They follow a business model that takes advantage of their customers’ tendencies to not pay attention to what’s being charged on their credit cards—a subscription model that keeps charging even when you might not want the product any more.

Marcotte: I suspect a lot of people are wary of buying skin care products sold on TV, but they sign up for Proactiv because the ads do a good job of implying that it is better than anything else on the market for clearing up acne. Is it?

Romanowski: No. They use standard (effective) technology, but their products are not better than the stuff you could buy at Target or Wal-Mart. Anti-acne products are over-the-counter drugs regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Manufacturers are limited in the technologies and claims they can use.

Marcotte: That’s why they just imply that they’re a super-secret better product and don’t come right out and say it. How does Proactiv work?

Romanowski: They use benzoyl peroxide 2.5 percent. This is an approved anti-acne drug in the United States.

Marcotte: So if someone wanted to use something similar, they just look for products with that ingredient in it?

Romanowski: Here are the FDA rules on it (if you’re looking for a little “light reading”). But, yes, if someone finds a product with 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide, it will work the same as Proactiv.

Marcotte: The comments section at Jezebel had a lot of advocates for “home remedies” such as cleaning your face with olive oil or honey. Is this a realistic alternative, or were they blowing a lot of smoke?

Romanowski: Those things are not scientifically proven to work. They may have some minor benefits, but if acne is a problem someone wants to do something about, home remedies are most likely not going to work. If they did, anti-acne products wouldn’t exist.

Marcotte: It seems that the cosmetics industry is plagued with companies that have shady business practices. Not only Proactiv, but also companies like Mary Kay that have been highly criticized for ripping off their customers.

Romanowski: The No. 1 thing to remember is that the products do work. Proactiv products are effective. So it’s not like people are getting ripped off. But they are getting overcharged.

However, here are some reasons for the proliferation of “shady” tactics:

1. Everyone has access to the same technology. Pretty much any company can make a product like Proactiv, so it is very difficult for a company to set themselves apart by the quality of its product. Everyone’s product works as well as everyone else’s. There are certainly aesthetic differences, but La Mer skin cream at $300 is not functionally better than Olay skin cream at $25.

2. Anyone can get into the cosmetic industry. It is rather inexpensive to create a cosmetic line. So less-than-scrupulous marketers are attracted to the industry. If you can make a skin cream for $2 a bottle and sell it for $80, that’s quite a profit.

Marcotte: There are a lot of people like you out there educating consumers about these issues, and yet people still find themselves compelled to drop a lot of money they don’t need to spend on skin care. Why do you think it’s so hard to quit overspending on these products?

Romanowski: People want to believe. The power of marketing is strong. Proactiv effectively uses celebrities. When someone sees a celebrity and how good he or she looks, it doesn’t matter what someone like me tells them. They can’t help but make the logical connection between the way the celebrity looks and whether the product works.

Also, people identify with brands. They don’t want to think of themselves as a person who spends money on a low-cost brand. They want to think of themselves of someone who spends money on a high-cost brand. In fact, there are consumers who will buy an expensive shampoo once, then refill the bottle with Suave just so they can display the expensive bottles in their bathroom. But in the cosmetic industry, more expensive does not equal better.