Can You Treat Acne With an iPhone App?

AcneApp Promises to Clear Skin With Light Therapy; Dermatologists Express Doubts

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 12, 2010

Feb. 12, 2010 -- iPhone users love their apps, so it's no surprise that AcneApp, a light-based therapy, is drawing interest from the blemish-prone who like the concept of zapping zits while talking to friends.

It's supposed to work like this: Download the application and hold the phone to the skin so the light therapy can do its work. Multitask if you wish, remembering to switch sides so your entire face gets the treatment.

But more than four months after its release, there are still no clinical studies proving it works. Other dermatologists express doubt it could help, and users are giving it mixed reviews -- from terrific to skeptical.

AcneApp is listed as No. 1 in the medical category on iTunes for Jan. 27, yet the Apple store web site cautions that ''the app is for entertainment purposes only and is not intended for treatment of any disease or medical condition."

AcneApp was developed by Houston dermatologist Greg Pearson, MD, who wasn't available to talk to WebMD but concedes in a YouTube video that studies need to be done to verify the app's effectiveness.

While light therapy for acne is sometimes effective, according to other dermatologists, they're skeptical the iPhone app has enough power to blast away zits.

What's the Story Behind AcneApp?

At $1.99 per download, AcneApp costs less than most over-the-counter acne remedies.

Pearson couldn't elaborate, according to his office staff. He wasn't accessible by email, either. The office staff says they have no brochures on the app, nor do they provide information on it to patients.

But in the YouTube video, Pearson explains that the app is to be applied directly to the skin for about two minutes a day. While admitting that studies are needed, he says that the idea is ''really based on some science."

When the app is downloaded, users are asked to chose a light option, with the red and blue alternating light recommended.

The device gives off wavelengths of 420 nanometers of blue light and 660 nanometers of red, according to the product information. Blue light, according to the app, fights acne-causing bacteria, while red light helps heal skin.

Users are warned not to use the app if they are on medication that makes the skin light sensitive or if they have medical conditions that make the skin sensitive to light. They are cautioned to stop using AcneApp if problems develop.

What's the Evidence Behind Light Treatment of Acne?

The Apple store cites a study in the British Journal of Dermatology finding light treatment effective for acne and nearly twice as effective as benzoyl peroxide, a common ingredient in over-the-counter blemish products.

Researchers from the Imperial College, London, did publish a review in that journal in June 2009. The researchers identified and reviewed the results of 25 trials, some using light therapy and some using light therapy in combination with topical acne treatment. They did conclude that the studies show that red and blue light was more effective than topical benzoyl peroxide in the short term, but they caution that very few of the studies compared light therapy directly with conventional acne treatment, and many studies weren't long-term.

Apple officials haven't responded to a request to describe what proof Pearson was required to submit before approval of the AcneApp.

Other Dermatologists Weigh in on AcneApp

A. David Rahimi, a Los Angeles dermatologist and attending dermatologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, says light therapy has been around a while for acne. "There are several light and laser devices that help clear acne,'' he says. The results, however, are inconsistent, he says.

He tried the AcneApp himself. ''There was no heat generation from the flashing blue-red light and I did not feel any sensation on the skin," he says.

''The concept is right," Rahimi tells WebMD. "But I don't think the iPhone has enough energy to do anything productive for the acne."

Though the wavelength of light used in the AcneApp is similar to that used in office-based light treatments, the intensity of the light used by dermatologists ''is at least thousands of times greater," agrees David Pariser, MD, a Norfolk, Va., dermatologist and president of the American Academy of Dermatology. "I would be very surprised if there is enough intensity of the light [from AcneApp] to make any difference."

So aside from wasting $1.99 and still coping with zits, is there any potential harm?

Yes, Rahimi says. "I am worried about the patient with deep cystic acne and open, draining sores that uses this app.'' Bacteria on the phone could lead to a skin infection, he says.

Clinical studies of AcneApp at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston are coming, according to some news reports.

But a spokeswoman at the Baylor press office, who checked with the Baylor dermatology department, says no one there has information on a clinical trial of the app.

That's not cool, says Rahimi. ''If the doctor wants to sell this app, I think he owes the public some studies," Rahimi says.

Show Sources


Hamilton, F. British Journal of Dermatology, June 2009; vol 160: pp 1273-1285.

A. David Rahimi, MD, dermatologist, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles.

Apple web site.

David Pariser, MD, dermatologist, Norfolk, Va.; president, American Academy of Dermatology.


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