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FTC: No, your smartphone can't heal acne

The agency reaches a settlement agreement with makers of two smartphone apps that promised acne treatment

Smartphones can help you record video clips, compose music and find the nearest Ethiopian restaurant, but they can't cure acne, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission said.

The makers of two mobile applications claiming to treat acne have settled FTC complaints that the developers sold the apps without proof that they work as advertised. Under a proposed settlement, the sellers Acne Pwner and AcneApp -- including a dermatologist involved with AcneApp -- are prohibited from making acne treatment claims without scientific evidence, the FTC said Thursday.

"Smartphones make our lives easier in countless ways, but unfortunately when it comes to curing acne, there's no app for that," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said in a statement.

Both apps promised treatment for acne through colored lights emitted from mobile device screens. The app marketers instructed users to hold the screen next to the area of affected skin for a few minutes each day.

The cases are the first complaints the FTC has brought against makers of health-related apps in the mobile phone market.

About 3,300 people paid US$0.99 for Acne Pwner on Google's Android Marketplace and about 11,600 people paid $1.99 for AcneApp through Apple's iTunes store, according to the FTC.

"This app was developed by a dermatologist," the marketers of AcneApp said. "A study published by the British Journal of Dermatology showed blue and red light treatments eliminated p-acne bacteria (a major cause of acne) and reduces skin blemishes by 76%."

Houston dermatologist Dr. Gregory Pearson worked with developer Koby Brown on AcneApp, according to FTC documents. AcneApp generated significant media attention in late 2009 and early 2010, just after the app launched, including reports in the New York Times and on Fox News.

The acne treatment claims from both apps were unsubstantiated, the FTC said. Brown and Pearson misrepresented the British of Journal of Dermatology study on light therapy.

Light therapy can help treat acne, but not at the low levels of light iPhone devices emit, some dermatologists have said.

The proposed settlements require Brown and Pearson to pay $14,294, and Acne Pwner developer Andrew Finkle to pay $1,700 to resolve the FTC complaints.

Pearson's office did not return a phone call seeking comment on the proposed settlements.

Finkel called himself a "young, struggling software developer with plenty of school loans." He declined to comment in detail until checking with a lawyer.

"This ordeal has already been enough and has been blown way out of proportion," he said.

The FTC will solicit public comments on the proposed settlements through Oct. 10. The comment forms for AcneApp and for Acne Pwner are on the FTC's website.

If approved by the FTC, the settlements would prohibit the app makers from making safety and performance claims about any device without reliable scientific evidence.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is [email protected]


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