For many, having a skin condition can be a burden and will often prompt you to ask yourself: why me? Skin complaints such as acne, psoriasis, rosacea and eczema to name a few can wreak havoc on self-esteem, but while they are incredibly common, receiving the right treatment can be difficult. Finding a GP who specialises in dermatology is no mean feat and the expense of visiting a private dermatologist may not be an option. But thanks to an influx of skincare apps, people now have access to information, advice and product recommendations in a few swipes.
These specialised skincare apps work by employing artificial intelligence to analyse selfies and offer a 'diagnosis' of your skin. The next step is usually a prescribed skincare routine to help alleviate said issues, whether they are cystic spots and whiteheads or dry skin and redness, for example. Some advanced apps even offer tracking systems, so that you can monitor any skin changes over time, while others provide common 'triggers' to avoid as well as medical information.
Reaching a speedy solution without having to leave your house or spend much money may sound innovative, but these wonder apps are not without their drawbacks. Recent research by the British Association of Dermatologists has warned against eczema apps especially. A study of 98 apps discovered as many as 34% contain information that is inconsistent with international guidelines. A mere 15% of apps surveyed offered information supported by the requirements of pharmacological therapies, casting doubt on their legitimacy and safety.
Some aspects of the eczema apps in particular are considerably concerning to experts, such as Dr Stefanie Williams, specialist dermatologist and founder and medical director of Eudelo, who is perturbed to see that a handful are not recommending the most obvious, expert-approved advice. "Using emollients (a layer or a barrier that sits on top of the skin to prevent dry, rough, flaky skin) is one of the most important measures of eczema management," she said, going on to call the lack of authorised advice "shocking". With the boom of skin apps and technology evolving, she expects more to crop up in the future, but warns users to be wary. "I have seen one too many apps and even YouTube videos essentially providing bad advice that could aggravate your skin condition or cause problems further down the line."
There is a potential for harm to come to patients, especially if the app hasn’t been tested or validated and recommendations are not in line with existing guidelines.
Interestingly, while the self-management eczema apps studied had shortcomings, certain apps did provide appropriate functions with accurate, educational information. While no specific apps were mentioned, the Eczema Tracker is an example which allows you to take an image of the affected area and monitor it over a period of time, and has received rave reviews online. Users report that it helps them understand their condition better and to pinpoint causes, such as humidity, stress or lack of sleep. TroveSkin works in a similar manner. You are required to snap a selfie and the app analyses your skin by scanning for oversized pores, pigmentation, wrinkles and spots. Users are given a personalised skincare regime based on their results. Then there's Imagine, a skin tracking app which has more of a medical approach and provides users with information about rosacea, psoriasis, acne and eczema, although it doesn’t suggest treatment.
Eczema isn't the only skin condition these apps claim to help with, though. Journalist Fani Mari, 26, who has had severe acne since her early teens, downloaded one acne-related app out of curiosity to see how accurate it would be. While she found the data to be relatively correct (highlighting blackheads, pores and pigmentation), she said the language used was negative. "The app was really easy to navigate and the information it gave me in regard to my image was fairly precise. It has been a really useful tool for recommending the right products for my skin, but I wouldn’t trust it completely, as it seems to show my skin issues in more of a negative light than I see them, and I think the terminology used could potentially cause psychological problems."
Seeking professional advice in person is especially important if your skin is starting to affect your mental health.
Fani adds that the app she tried presented her with a before and after image of what her skin would look like after following a very detailed regime. For those without the budget to completely overhaul their skincare, this advice could also potentially be restricting, and if apps are branded, this raises the question of reliability when products are recommended. It's important to note that skincare isn't a quick fix, either. Dermatologists argue that it could take up to 12 weeks to notice a positive change from any new routine, that is, if your skin concerns are properly diagnosed and the routine is right for you.
It is evident that these apps are a great initial starting point for those slowly introducing themselves to the world of skincare. They can help you understand your skin, the source of the issue and introduce you to potential treatments. Despite the success stories, dermatologists argue that they simply do not have the ability to properly diagnose or advise. "Access to dermatologists can be difficult in the UK and nearly everyone has a smartphone so you can see why this may be appealing," says Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and author of The Skincare Bible: Your No-Nonsense Guide To Great Skin. She continues: "But there is a potential for harm to come to patients, especially if the app hasn’t been tested or validated and recommendations are not in line with existing guidelines." Dr Holly Cole-Hawkins of the Waterhouse Young Clinic agrees. "Mobile technology boosting people’s engagement is good news, however apps shouldn’t be used in isolation to diagnose or treat medical conditions. We use the Visia Complexion Analysis in clinic, which is a skin scanning device. It is useful as it quantifies and tracks an individual’s skin in a reproducible way, but ultimately, the diagnosis and treatment approach still comes from the clinician."
Of course, these tools have their uses, but the general consensus is that you should always consider seeking professional advice in person. Experts would argue that this is especially important if you notice a change in moles, your skin is causing you discomfort or your skin is starting to affect your mental health. "Acne for example has been linked to a number of mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, social isolation and poor body image," adds Dr Mahto, who is also a spokesperson for the British Skin Foundation. She continues: "A good dermatologist can offer a large number of potential treatments that can be tailored to the individual. People do underestimate things like acne and the impact it has on those suffering with it, so it is important to seek help and advice early before scarring (be that mental or physical) develops."
If you can afford to see a dermatologist, always make sure that they are properly qualified by searching their name on the General Medical Council register. Otherwise, booking an appointment with your GP should be your first port of call. Dr Mahto also strongly suggests requesting referral to a dermatologist if treatments you have been prescribed by your GP aren't working.