Are skincare apps good for your complexion? Experts weigh in

Some physicians say the apps could be useful tele-dermatology tools, but they’re not good enough yet
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

When Calgary beauty blogger Henna Singh stumbled on skincare apps claiming they could solve her combination skin woes, she was intrigued.

She downloaded two, tested them and gave up.

"I value the in-person experience more than some app telling me [what's wrong]," said Singh, 34, who runs the Canadian Beauty blog. "I would rather go to a dermatologist or …. an esthetician. I'd rather have them tell me what kinds of things I should be doing for my skin."

But with waits for dermatologist appointments often months long, and thousands of skincare apps claiming they can soothe or solve every skin condition from eczema to acne with the swipe of a screen, Canadians with skin ailments are testing out the apps, hoping for a quick fix.

And while some dermatologists welcome the skincare apps, regarding them as advances in tele-dermatology, others warn they could leave patients undiagnosed for serious health issues or misdiagnosed for the conditions they have.

"Here's the long and short of it: To properly assess the patient, they should be in front of you," said Dr. Lisa Kellett, a dermatologist with DLK on Avenue Dermatology and Laser Clinic in Toronto.

Kellett said when she sees a patient, she asks about their personal medical history, family medical history, medications they may be taking and what skincare products they currently use.

The risk with using an app is that these questions may go unasked – potentially putting patients' lives in danger, said Kellett.  

"[Say] they have periods that are irregular and they have problems with hair loss and an increase in hair growth on their face," she said. "They end up having an ovarian tumour which is causing their acne. Without actually seeing the patient, you would miss the ovarian tumour."

There may also be privacy concerns with apps that require users to upload photos or input personal information, said Ann Cavoukian, the executive director of Ryerson University's Privacy and Big Data Institute.

"I was horrified at the thought that (app users) might take a picture of themselves and upload it to a site," said Cavoukian. "You have zero control once you put this online -- how it's going to be used or sold."

Dermatologists say skincare apps are generally split into two groups: One that polls users, asking them which skincare products work best on their skin and then recommending the popular products to consumers, and the other that connects them with a remote dermatologist and may require users to take a photo of their skin.  

Cavoukian recommends that users never input their personal information such as their name or address when accessing the app. If they must take a photo, they should not include their whole face.

As for the possibility information will be sold, Leena Sukumar, senior vice president of marketing and sales with mySkin, a popular United States-based skincare advice app, said the company would never share personally identifiable information, such as name, age, address or email, with a third party. Metadata, however, might be shared, but mySkin has no plans to do so, she said.  

Sukumar also said the app – which uses crowd-sourced data to suggest skincare products to users based on their skin profile – is not a replacement for a dermatologist. If someone has a medical concern, they should seek help from a healthcare professional, she said.

But some dermatologists see the apps as a glimpse into healthcare's future.

"This is getting into the area of tele-medicine or tele-dermatology," said Dr. Sunil Kalia, an assistant professor of dermatology with the University of British Columbia and president of the Dermatology Society of BC. "Where this would be helpful is in rural or remote areas where one cannot access a skin specialist."

Indeed, in some regions where dermatologists are few or non-existent, including Prince Edward Island in recent years, family physicians receive training to work in tele-dermatology. Health P.E.I. stopped offering tele-dermatology in 2015, when the province regained a full-time skin specialist, the health body told CBC.

But Kalia stresses tele-dermatology is only solving part of Canada's skin specialist problem. Existing challenges include a shortage of dermatologists, long wait times for visits and too few general practitioners trained to treat basic skin conditions, since medical schools don't provide enough training in skin health, he said.

And while Kalia said apps on the market today offer some hope for future advances in remote treatment, the apps are still in infancy. None are yet reliable enough for him to recommend to patients, he said.

Kalia also cautioned that people using apps promising to connect them with a dermatologist should always research the physician's licensing and qualifications. If it's not disclosed, be wary, he said.

As for Singh, she found the apps she tested out, including mySkin, were too simplified and didn't take into consideration details such as the sometimes-dry climate she lives in.

"I didn't see the point of getting these recommendations on my phone," she said, referring to the skincare products mySkin recommended to her. "It's way easier to go to the (drug) store."

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