Is There an App to Cure Acne?


There is no cell phone app capable of curing acne.

On November 1, 2011, the US Federal Trade Commission settled complaints against two makers of smartphone apps that claimed to cure acne.

“Smartphones make our lives easier in countless ways, but unfortunately when it comes to curing acne, there’s no app for that,” said Jon Leibowitz, Federal Trade Commission Chairman.

The settlements with the US Federal Trade Commission affected downloads of the smartphone apps Acne App and Acne Pwner, which claimed to be able to cure acne by generating blue and red light. There had been approximately 3,000 downloads of Acne Pwner from Android Marketplace at US $0.99 each and approximately 11,600 downloads of Acne App from the iTunes store at $1.99 each.

The settlements bar marketers of these two applications from making acne treatment claims for their mobile apps. The FTC has also barred the marketers from making claims about the benefits, efficacy, safety, or performance of any other device without “competent and reliable” scientific evidence. The FTC specifically barred the marketers from misrepresenting medical research.

The marketers of the Acne App download, Gregory Pearson and Koby Brown, were ordered to pay US $14,294, and the marketer of the Acne Pwner download, Andrew N. Finkle, was ordered to pay US $1,700. Neither marketer was forced to admit wrongdoing.

Both marketers based their claims on a study in the British Journal of Dermatology.

What the British Journal of Dermatology Had to Say about Blue Light and Acne

The idea that blue and red light can help clear up acne is not exactly new and not exactly unique. There are 65 studies of visible light therapies for acne in the medical literature, most of them finding that blue and red light therapy is about as successful as treatment with 5% benzoyl peroxide (which typically gets rid of about 70% of pimples and 60% of blackheads after a month or so) without the side effects.

The research study specifically cited by the marketers of the acne apps published in 2000. Three dermatologists at the Imperial College of Science, Technology, and Medicine in London recruited 107 patients with mild to moderate acne to take one of four different acne treatments for 12 weeks:

  • Blue light (with the greatest energy at a frequency of 415 nanometers) for 15 minutes a day,
  • Mixed blue light (415 nanometers) and red light (660 nanometers) for 15 minutes a day,
  • Cool, white light for minutes a day, or
  • 5% benzoyl peroxide cream.

The volunteers in the study went in for skin exams every 4 weeks.

At the end of 12 weeks, the volunteers who had used blue and red light 15 minutes a day had the greatest improvement in acne, a 76% reduction in the number of blemishes. (Some had as little as a 66% reduction in the number of blemishes, and others as much as an 87% reduction in the number of blemishes.) This was a better result than was obtained by other kinds of treatment but the difference in the methods of treatment was not statistically significant, probably because the researchers had only 26 or 27 volunteers for each kind of treatment and that’s simply not enough people to get statistically significant results.

The researchers did find a statistically significant superiority of blue and red light therapy over blue therapy alone at the ends of weeks 4 and 8 but not at the end of the study.

Because the results were not “statistically significant,” the Federal Trade Commission ruled, the smartphone app marketers could not use them as the basis for making claims. Even if the British researchers had secured larger numbers of volunteers and achieved statistically significant results, however, the marketers would have had to demonstrate that a smartphone generates the same intensity and wavelengths of light as were used in the study. The British scientists didn’t conclusively determine that blue and red light does something that no other treatment method does to the standards expected by the Federal Trade Commission.

So, Are There Any Other Acne Apps?

The US Federal Trade Commission has banned the US $0.99 Acne Pwnr and the US $1.99 Acne App, but you can still download the US $2.99 iFace acne cure, promising “better results than most topical treatments” if the app is used just 3 minutes per day. If you aren’t in the market for the $2.99 iFace acne cure, the site will also offer to sell you “the original” for just $1.77.

As fast as the Federal Trade Commission shuts down one acne app another will probably take its place. But there just is no evidence that waving your smartphone at your face for 3 minutes once a day will clear up blemishes. You need a lot longer exposure, and you probably need a much more intense light.

Using Light to Cure Acne

Blue and red light treatments for acne get great reviews even if they don’t always prove out in small clinical trials. Users of acne lamps often find them to be a great way to get rid of many blemishes—they don’t get rid of 100% of acne—in a few weeks without side effects, and an acne lamp, unlike skin care products, is a one-time investment.

The secrets of success for blue and red light treatment for acne are:

  • Use your acne lamp at least 15 minutes a day but no more than 30 minutes a day. You can only kill acne bacteria once, and you only reduce skin oil production, you don’t dry up existing skin oil with the acne lamp.
  • Don’t dry out your skin. Your objective is to kill acne bacteria and to stop excess oil production, not to get moisture out of your skin. Drying out the skin lining the inner surfaces of pores actually causes new blemishes.
  • Don’t rely on light treatment to give you a new, clear complexion. Even the most successful blue and red light treatment for acne only gets rid of about 90% of blemishes. To get rid of that last 10% of acne you need a treatment system like Exposed Skin Care.

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