Last Updated on September 18th, 2019
In 2011, the US Federal Trade Commission settled complaints1 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 AcneApp 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 AcneApp 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 AcneApp 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.
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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 cited2 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:
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, 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.
Dermatologists agree that light therapy has been around for a while, and though it does work in some cases, the results have been inconsistent3. A. David Rahimi, a dermatologist from Los Angeles who also works at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, has tried the AcneApp himself. In his own words, “There was no heat generation from the flashing blue-red light and I did not feel any sensation on the skin…The concept is right but I don’t think the iPhone has enough energy to do anything productive for the acne.”
According to Dr. David Pariser, MD, a dermatologist from Norfolk, Va. and president of the American Academy of Dermatology, the wavelength of the AcneApp light is similar to the ones used in office-based treatments, but its intensity is still too weak. The lights used by dermatologists are “at least a thousand times greater.” Pariser went on to say, “I would be very surprised if there is enough intensity of the light to make any difference,” about AcneApp. “You really have to have an extremely intense light that requires protection of your eyes. It’s not very likely you’re going to get enough light out of the screen of an iPhone to make a difference.”
Most dermatologists would agree that without proper studies that can show real results, the likelihood of an iPhone app treating acne effectively is questionable. However, the reviews from users who have tried the app are mixed, with some saying it works while others ask for a refund. A big warning sign for many is the plain fact that after so long, Pearson and his company have still failed to produce any studies on the app and its results, coupled with the fact that they don’t divulge additional information to users or patients.
The US Federal Trade Commission has banned the US $0.99 Acne Pwner 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 in 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.
With the app being so cheap, would it really hurt to try the app out and see if it works for you? The answer is, while it won’t hurt your wallet, there may be some risk involved, especially for those with “deep cystic acne and open, draining sores.” According to Dr. Rahimi, “Bacteria on the phone could lead to a skin infection.” So, maybe holding a dirty phone screen against your face4 for a little light therapy isn’t such a good idea after all.
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 blemishes5—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:
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