The Golden Comedo

Why acne medication, from Clearasil to Oxy Pads to Proactiv, is pure marketing gold, and has been for generations of blemished faces. Just ask Dick Clark.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: If there’s one genre of YouTube video I promise to never understand and will be unlikely to ever partake in, it’s the pimple-popping video. They’re universally disgusting, hard to watch, and are effectively like a visual version of “The Aristocrats”: You know the ending, if not exactly the disturbing way that ending is going to play out. But I do think there’s something interesting about this concept in general—the marketing around products intended to remedy the difficult-to-hide embarrassments. Acne medication, particularly that marketed at teenagers, has been a constant of teen-focused advertising for nearly 70 years. Today’s Tedium ponders why acne, over-the-counter medicine, and marketing work so well together. — Ernie @ Tedium

Today’s GIF comes from a Clearasil commercial from the late ’80s. No, your eyes aren’t fooling you: That’s actually a really young Mark Ruffalo, about 25 years before he first became The Incredible Hulk.

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An early ad for Clearasil. (via Life Magazine)

The inventor that figured out that acne medication was the perfect thing to market to teenagers

The pimple—a type of comedo, or clogged skin pore—is perhaps the world’s greatest tiny annoyance, often caused by dead skin cells that with sebum, the waxy oil your skin naturally produces from its tiny sebaceous glands. This mixture can interact with the air and create blackheads, or get blocked off by your skin, smoldering under the surface as a whitehead. And when bacteria get involved (particularly propionibacterium acnes, which lives on your skin), it can cause infections—and those infections can turn into the full-blown pimples we love and hate.

Skin blemishes are common—everyone has gotten some at some point. They hurt. They look bad. And they’re difficult to get rid of. But what makes acne marketing gold is that it’s a disease seemingly designed for marketers. While it’s annoying, it’s generally not life-threatening. Pimples most commonly appear on one’s face, making them difficult to hide when you get a bunch of them.

More sebum, more pimples. More pimples, more opportunities to sell over-the-counter cures.

It’s naturally perfect for commercials: The ads naturally can play on insecurities; the problem is only mildly complicated to explain, as medical things go; and by its very nature, the medication encourages the use of fresh-faced, attractive people.

But most marketing-friendly of all? Puberty, that hormonal shift that teenagers go through during their most sensitive period of growth, often leads skin cells to produce tons of extra sebum. Acne medication may be the perfect cure to market to the most attractive age group for advertisers.

And the makers of acne medications have known this since at least the 1950s.

Now, I won’t lie and say that pimples didn’t exist before the 1950s, but 1950 gives us a clean starting point for this story. That was the year that an inventor named Ivan Combe, who started up a firm that intended to target common pharmaceutical needs with consumer products, came up with an effective solution for fighting acne. That solution’s name? Clearasil.

Clearasil was one of the first products that Combe’s company, originally called Eastco Chemical, sold. The company started in 1949, after Combe acquired a laxative brand that his employer at the time, Pharmacraft, decided not to acquire. The laxative sold well, according to an entry in the International Directory of Company Histories, but it wasn’t enough on its own to sustain a company, so Combe went combing for a followup, eventually hitting on the idea of talking to teenagers about what medical issues were driving them crazy.

Naturally, the answer to that question was acne. Combe then hit on what would prove to be a massively successful idea, working with chemist Kedzie Teller to create a cream that would both dry out the pimples (thanks to its mixture of sulfur and resorcinol) and cover them up (thanks to its flesh coloring).

The medication did the job—and pretty effectively, as well. There was a problem, though: Because many of the acne medications that predated Clearasil didn’t work so well, it created a problem in selling the concept to stores, which were afraid of getting burned again. Fortunately, Combe was a strong marketer, and came up with an offer retailers couldn’t refuse: Here, have it for free, and sell it to your customers; if they like it, buy more from us.

The strategy worked, and incredibly well. Ivan Combe had just figured out one of the most important marketing lessons of the 20th century: Pimples are annoying, and teens will pay lots of money to be rid of them.


Dick Clark, as shown in a 1959 ad for Clearasil published in Life Magazine.

After Combe’s company (which later took his name) got the word of mouth going, he got the help of an ageless teenager: Dick Clark. Clearasil was just American Bandstand’s second sponsor, and it was a match made in heaven. Clark’s hard-to-forget face even appeared in the company’s print advertising.

(Clark became so associated with the acne-fighting brand that a 1973 Rolling Stone interview with the Bandstand host was titled “Dick Clark: 20 Years of Clearasil Rock.”)

A 1966 Clearasil ad.

By 1960, Combe had sold off the brand to cold medicine makers Richardson-Vicks, a firm that was still years off from its biggest hit, NyQuil, and stayed on as a consultant with Vicks for a time. The knowledge he gained from learning the ropes at a bigger company led his namesake firm to even bigger success in the over-the-counter healthcare market. His company’s other big hits, all of which came after Clearasil, include Odor-Eaters, Sea-Bond, Vagasil, and Just For Men.

“He was an idea guy—he just came up with these product categories and made the products a household word,” E. Edward Kavanaugh, then the president of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, said in Combe’s 2000 New York Times obit.

But while Combe moved on from the acne-fighting market he created relatively quickly, there was plenty of room for other competitors.


The year that Stridex medicated pads first entered the market. The brand’s pitch differed from that of Clearasil—the medicated pads, while also relying on strong chemicals (particularly salicylic acid, a standby of many over-the-counter pimple medications) to dry out your oily skin, also relied on coarse cotton to pull the gunk out from your pores, giving the pads a visible sign that they’re working. The pads are so notable as a consumer item that a container for them, dating to the late 1980s, is included as a part of the National Museum of American History’s permanent collection. (Fun fact: There was once a conflict over Stridex’s domain name.)


An early ad for Oxy Pads, which were a bit of a thing in the ’80s and ’90s. (via the excellent Retroist)

How aggressive brand marketing changed the way we think about fighting acne

By the late ’80s, American Bandstand was on its last legs, with Clark retiring from the show in 1988 and a long-forgotten USA Network edition with a different host (a guy named David Hirsh) airing for just half a year before it was cancelled.

MTV had, famously, overtaken it as the center of television-based teen culture. And much in that same way, Clearasil was the target of aggressive competition on the acne-fighting front. It was not the 1950s anymore, and Clearasil did not have the market to itself. There were a lot of faces out there, and they needed protection!

And during the glory days of the facial cleansing craze—generally starting in the late ’80s, throughout the ’90s, and into the early 21st century—medication that specifically pledged to fight and prevent acne had a bit of a moment, at least from a marketing standpoint.

Among the companies aiming for a shot at stopping acne on your average teen’s face:

The “cold cream” facial cleanser Noxzema, which actually predates Clearasil by more than 30 years but wasn’t originally sold as a facial cleanser, made itself known to the MTV audience with ads that famously featured actress Rebecca Gayhart. Despite her appearance in Jawbreaker, a 2013 BuzzFeed article proclaimed the ad series “Rebecca Gayheart’s biggest contribution to the ’90s.”

Fellow facial cleanser Neutrogena, not to be mistaken for Noxzema, was similar in appeal if not in nature to its similarly named competition. While its corporate parent dates back to 1930, the basic concept behind the skin-clearing soap it’s known for today came about in 1954, just as Bandstand was getting off the ground. Over the years, the company has used dozens of famous actresses to sell its product, but perhaps its best-remembered pitchwoman during the MTV era was Martha Quinn, herself an original MTV VJ.

Oxy, which produced both facial scrubbing pads and creams, was certainly not the first mover when it comes to facial cleansers targeting teenagers and young adults; they only came about in the 1980s. But for what it lost in being late to the market that Clearasil and Stridex originated, it made up for through sheer will of marketing. Oxy pads, which were well advertised during this time, stood out from Stridex by being thicker—a lot thicker. Oxy, originally created by the company known today as GlaxoSmithKline, tended to market its products more actively to teenage boys than the competition, though there were lots of ads for teen girls, too.

Biore, a product of the Japanese cosmetics giant Kao, found great success in the U.S. market with its Pore Perfect strips, which literally rip out all the potentially pore-clogging skin cells hanging out on your face. During its first half-year on the market, it was a pure juggernaut, selling $55 million in products, according to The Wall Street Journal. While the marketing, featuring “forests” of pore-clogging dirt, was effective, dermatologists were skeptical, suggesting that the benefit of using the strips was only temporary at best.

And finally, Proactiv Solution, a dermatologist-produced multi-step system for removing acne, took a different approach to marketing than most of its competition, by relying on infomercials and mail-order sales, rather than simply ads and traditional retail. While generally reliant on the same kinds of chemicals as most other skin-clearing medications, the infomercial approach helped it to stand out, as did the product’s bonafides (it was developed by a duo of Stanford-educated dermatologists, Katie Rodan and Kathy Fields) and its aggressive use of celebrity spokespeople. While Rebecca Gayhart was certainly effective for Noxzema, ProActiv has often been able to consistently get stars at the height of their success, such as Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, Adam Levine, and Katy Perry—each a bit more demographic-friendly than the original spokesperson, Who’s the Boss? star Judith Light. (Most recently, the brand has brought Kendall Jenner on board, though the announcement could have probably gone a bit better.)

The ironic part about the strong focus on acne medication for teens and young adults is that it completely overshadowed the fact that, well, lots of adults get pimples, too, and their cases can often be more dramatic than those that teens get, if somewhat less common.

A 1988 Washington Post article discussing a story about Accutane, a drug that was found to cause birth defects in young children whose mother used the drug, was angled in a way to highlight that adults got acne too.

Sure, acne is less common for older people, but has the hunt for marketing gold actually harmed the skincare market by making it less inclusive of other acne-related needs? There’s probably a case to be made on that front.

“There is currently no mention of the possibility of these very severe allergic reactions on the product labels,” says Mona Khurana, M.D., a medical officer at FDA. “It’s important that consumers know about them, and that they know what to do if they occur.”

Mona Khurana, M.D., a medical officer with the Food and Drug Administration, speaking in 2014 about the allergy risks that come with using over-the-counter acne medication, particularly those that contain benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, two of the most common active ingredients used in acne medications. The FDA says that there have been at least 131 reports of adverse reactions to the medications over a more than 40-year period between 1969 and 2013.

As probably seems clear by the fact that acne medications are basically everywhere—a $3 billion business that likely isn’t going to slow down anytime soon, even if we’re past full-on fad stage—we aren’t particularly close to solving the problem of acne.

No amount of cold cream or three-step plan will ever stop the root cause of acne, the hormones of oil production that mix uncomfortably with the dead skin and bacteria already on your face. In fact, the side effects—most famously, the drying skin—are often more annoying than the problem itself.

But there are more fundamental efforts out there that could help solve the scourge of any teen’s first date. As The Atlantic noted last year, there’s a vaccine in the works that specifically targets the propionibacterium acnes bacteria that is often the difference between a mere clogged pore and a bout of what some non-sensitive people call “pizza face.”

While there’s potential that a vaccine could change outcomes for teens and others afflicted by acne, it’s also full of potential risks—for one thing, some strains of propionibacterium acnes are actually good for the face, and removing those would possibly cause other problems for our skin.

On the other hand, though, it’s nice that we have something—anything—other than the stuff that’s been marketed to us for decades.

“We haven’t had a novel treatment for acne in a long time,” Carlos Charles, the founder of the dermatology practice Derma di Colore, told The Atlantic. “As dermatologists and patients alike, we’re all a little bit tired of what we have.”

As good as it is that Oxy and Clearasil and Proactiv have been there for the teenaged public and corporate balance sheets over the years, it’s worth wondering where the marketing ended and where the medicine actually began. The active ingredients—sulfur and resorcinol, benzoyl peroxide, and salicylic acid—have stayed the same for decades in most cases. (And it’s easy to use the wrong one, too.)

Maybe it’s time to see if there’s a solution to the deeper cause.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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