FTC: Treating acne? No, there is no app for that

When I was a teenager, if you had pimples you bought a tube of Clearasil. Now there are apps for that. “AcneApp” and “Acne Pwner” claimed to use the light given off from a smart phone to treat acne.

Today, the companies marketing these two apps settled charges brought by the Federal Trade Commission that they were making “baseless” health claims.

“The commission alleges that these two companies were making claims about treating acne and they did not have the proper substantiation or science to support those claims,” says FTC attorney Stacey Ferguson.

Neither company admits doing anything illegal, but they did agree in court documents to stop making health claims that are not based on “competent and reliable scientific evidence.” That effectively stops them from selling these products. Both companies also agreed to forfeit the money they made.

According to the FTC complaint, there were approximately 11,600 downloads of AcneApp from the iTunes store at $1.99 each. Acne Pwner sold about 3,300 downloads for $ .99 each in the Android Marketplace.

Both of these apps do basically the same thing: they make the screen on the mobile device turn blue and red, alternating colors every few seconds. The blue light supposedly fights bacteria. The red light supposedly helps heal the skin.

Users are instructed to activate the app and hold the screen next to the area of skin to be treated for a few minutes each day. You could even do it while talking on the phone, the ultimate in convenience.

The ads for Acne Pwner proclaimed: “Kill ACNE with this simple, yet powerful tool! Light exposure has long been used as a short term treatment for acne. Recently visible light has been successfully employed to treat mild to moderate acne.”

AcneApp was created by Dr. Greg Pearson, a dermatologist in Houston. The web site for his application promised: “Acne therapy without risky medication.” And it featured glowing reviews, such as:

  • “This is the best money I have ever spent it works amazing for me already seeing the difference in 2 days.”
  • “I will have to say that I was skeptical at first but am amazed by the results of really dedicating time to this.”
  • “Maybe the best app I’ve bought!”

The advertising for AcneApp cited a study published in the British Journal of Dermatology that it says showed “blue and red light treatments eliminated p-acne bacteria (a major cause of acne) and reduces skin blemishes by 76 percent.”

FTC attorney James Prunty says that British study “does not prove that blue and red light therapy, such as that delivered by AcneApp, is effective at treating acne.” That’s why the FTC complaint charges DermApps (the Houston company selling the product) with false advertising.

Some dermatologists do use red and blue light therapy to treat acne. But in a doctor’s office the light is thousands of times stronger than what could ever be given off by a smart phone.

This is the first time the Federal trade Commission has targeted health claims in the mobile application marketplace. You can expect more cases in the future. I’m told the commission is already investigating other companies selling apps that claim to treat acne.

“The commission wants anyone out there who is making health claims with apps to know that the same rules apply to that marketplace as any other,” Prunty says. “You can’t make a claim unless you have a reasonable basis to make that claim.”

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