• Josep Orellana, science journalist

    Apps for the skin: consult your doctor

    10 Dec Apps for the skin: consult your doctor



    JAMA Dermatology

    The growing popularity of smartphones and tablets worldwide has led to the emergence of thousands of medical apps, a good number referring to care, problems and disorders of the skin. Some are professional tools that facilitate the work of doctors, but others are aimed at the general public. Are all of them risk-free? Can we safely use them for our skin?


    Some 40,000 medical apps are available; most likely you have already downloaded some to your mobile device. Undoubtedly, these new technological advances will bring great benefits to the world's population in the future. Creators of apps have not failed to notice the growing interest in skin care, which explains why hundreds of apps are available today offering tips to keep our skin healthy and beautiful and diagnosing all types of skin disorders. There are even apps that will tell you if a mole could be cancerous. Most skin care apps are free.


    What can dermatology apps do for our skin?

    Tips: Thanks to apps like SpotCheck you can have access to a dermatologist 24 hours a day. It works like this. You send a photo of a suspect mole and an expert responds within 24 hours; if the mole is confirmed to be suspect, details are provided of the nearest dermatologist (in the USA) so you can request an appointment.


    Beauty: Beauty apps provide advice on makeup, allow us to see us whether a different hairstyle would suit us and keep us up-to-date with new lipsticks and nail polishes. Most such apps are sponsored by companies.


    Warnings: Given our concern nowadays about exposure to the sun’s UV rays, apps that tell us the sunscreen we need are recommendable. These apps in the USA operate with official UV Index forecasts that take into account our mobile device’s GPS position.


    Skin conditions: Many apps on the market claim to be able to analyse and diagnose cancerous skin lesions from photographs taken by smartphones and tablets. Three examples are UMSkinCheck, developed by the University of Michigan, Mole Detect Pro and Doctor Mole. These function through automatic algorithms that track images of our freckles and moles.


    Can these apps diagnose cancer?

    Be careful with apps designed to detect skin cancers through photos. According to a JAMA Dermatology study, three of four apps studied incorrectly classified over 30% of the tested melanomas. Deciding if a mole is cancerous is too serious to be left to a smartphone app, given that early diagnosis is critical to patient survival.


    The Skin Scan app, reviewed by scientists at the University of North Carolina, made a correct diagnosis in only 10% of cases. This app, now called SkinVision, has improved its algorithms and includes a warning to users to always seek the advice of a dermatologist.


    Acne treatment fiasco

    There are also many other dermatology apps dedicated to specific disorders such as acne, psoriasis, dermatitis, etc. Note that, in 2011, the US Federal Trade Commission took legal action against two apps (AcneApp and Acne Pwner) for misleading advertising, as their claim that they could cure acne via coloured lights emitted from the mobile phone was proven to be false.


    Meanwhile, the US Food and Drug Administration recently announced that it would only regulate the handful of apps that claim to act as ultrasound or other kinds of medical devices, which means that the consumer’s own criteria should be applied to any other apps.


    And the future?

    Most apps are not at all fraudulent and can be very useful if used correctly. At the very least, they raise consumer awareness of the importance of prevention for certain disorders. Some can even facilitate information exchanges between doctor and patient and so reduce the number of face-to-face visits.


    The scientific community is concerned about the safety of the apps, the quality of their content and the confidentiality of the personal data of users. Currently, no dermatology app exists that can replace the expert, although you can obviously ask our doctor about any app you might want to use.