Health and wellness apps that dermatologists do and don’t recommend
Question: I found an app that says it can diagnose skin conditions and diseases. Should I trust it?
Answer: You’ll find several apps like this. None of these apps has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so you don’t know how accurate or safe they are. Protect your health by seeing a board-certified dermatologist, as they know how to properly diagnose and treat thousands of skin conditions.
If you’re looking for an app to help you care for your skin, manage a skin condition, or even diagnose what’s going on with your skin, you’ll find plenty of choices. Before you trust your health to any of these apps, here’s what dermatologists want you to know.
Reminder apps can be useful
You’ll find all kinds of apps to help you care for your skin. Go to Apple’s App Store or Google Play, and you’ll find apps that remind you to take medication as prescribed, reapply sunscreen, or check your skin for signs of skin cancer.
If you want to break a habit like picking at your skin, well, there’s an app for that too. It works by making you aware of when you pick.
Apps from insurance providers can help you access, understand, and manage your prescription medications and out-of-pocket costs.
These apps get two thumbs up from dermatologists. Anything that reminds you to practice healthy habits or manage your care can help keep your skin healthy.
If you use any of these apps, be sure to protect your health information by following the tips in How to protect your online health information.
Apps that diagnose skin conditions can give you the wrong diagnosis
To get the right treatment, you need the right diagnosis. An inaccurate diagnosis can delay necessary medical care and worsen pain and suffering.
Apps that diagnose or create a treatment plan can provide inaccurate information
You’ll find several apps that will give you a diagnosis or treatment plan. These app include:
Symptom checkers. Some of these apps let you enter your symptoms and a few details about yourself. Others ask questions about your symptoms. After you provide the requested information, the app gives you a list of possible conditions you may have and suggests where to get medical treatment.
Apps designed to diagnose skin cancer and other skin conditions. Many of these apps let you take pictures of your skin. The apps then use this information to tell you what skin condition you may have, including skin cancer.
Some of these apps give you several possible conditions that you may have. The list of conditions may include both skin growths that are cancerous and non-cancerous. It can be difficult to know what to do when you see several possible conditions that you may have.
What these apps are doing when they give you several possible conditions is using artificial intelligence to guide you through a range of possible diagnoses. That’s the way these apps are designed.
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) believes that giving people this technology and letting them decide which, if any, of the diagnoses is accurate can do more harm than good.
You shouldn’t have to decide which if any of the diagnoses is accurate. To prevent this, the AAD recommends that these apps be released only after they have undergone stringent, scientific testing that proves they accurately diagnose skin conditions in people of all skin tones.
When creating these apps, developers also need to make sure they follow patient privacy laws.
Apps that give you a personalized treatment plan. You’ll find apps that can give you a treatment plan for acne and other conditions, after you share a bit of your medical information.
Apps that recommend skin care products or devices to help you care for your skin. These apps often ask you questions about your skin and your skin care routine. They use this information to recommend skin care products or devices that you can buy to improve your skin.
To find out how accurate these apps are, dermatologists and other medical doctors have been putting them to the test in studies. Here’s what they found:
Apps designed to diagnose melanoma, the most serious skin cancer, missed 41% of melanomas.
Online symptom checkers misdiagnosed skin rashes 69% of the time.
Accuracy for symptom checkers that diagnosed a variety of medical conditions was low across studies, ranging from 19% to 38% accuracy.
The accuracy rate for an app can be even lower if you have a rare skin cancer or the app developer didn’t include images that represent your skin tone when they built the app.
An inaccurate diagnosis can be harmful
The wrong diagnosis can delay necessary medical care. It can also worsen a person’s pain and suffering.
If you miss skin cancer, the most common cancer in the United States, you can put your health at risk. Missing skin cancer because of inaccurate information from an app can allow the cancer to spread and become more difficult to treat. Some skin cancers, especially melanoma, can be deadly if treatment is delayed.
When found early, skin cancer is highly treatable.
Why are apps that diagnose skin diseases wrong so often?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all devices that intend to diagnose or treat a condition to have FDA approval. App developers can avoid this requirement by classifying their app as “for medical information” or “for entertainment purposes.” With this classification, the app developer doesn’t need to prove that the app is accurate or safe.
This lack of regulation likely explains the low accuracy rates for these apps. Additionally, many of these apps haven’t been studied by doctors to see if they’re safe or if they do what they promise.
Using a health app that isn’t regulated by the FDA can put your health at risk.
Apps intended to diagnose skin conditions, including skin cancer, may have a low accuracy rate
To protect your skin’s health, see a board-certified dermatologist for a diagnosis.
Before you use an app to manage a skin condition, talk with your dermatologist
If you have a long-term condition like psoriasis, acne, or eczema, you may have seen apps that can help you manage it. Some are more helpful than others. To make the most of this technology, ask your dermatologist to recommend one.
Apps that give you a diagnosis or treatment plan offer convenience, but this convenience can jeopardize your health. To protect your health, see a board-certified dermatologist for a diagnosis and treatment.
If you want to use an app to develop healthy habits or manage a condition, that’s fine. Ask your dermatologist to recommend one — and always check the privacy protections so that you can protect your medical information.
American Academy of Dermatology. “Dermatologists warn people about the reliability of online symptom checkers.” News release issued 10/12/2022. Last accessed 4/27/2023.
Berry NA, Harvey JA, et. al. “Online symptom checkers lack diagnostic accuracy for skin rashes.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2023 Feb;88(2):487-8.
Freeman K, Dinnes J, et al. “Algorithm based smartphone apps to assess risk of skin cancer in adults: Systematic review of diagnostic accuracy studies.” BMJ. 2020 Feb 25;368:m645.
Wallace W, Chan C, et al. “The diagnostic and triage accuracy of digital and online symptom checker tools: A systematic review.” NPJ Digit Med. 2022 Aug 17;5(1):118.
Wine H. “Checking the symptom checkers.” National Institutes of Health. Published 7/27/15. Last accessed 4/21/2023.
Paula Ludmann, MS
Hassan I. Galadari, MD, FAAD
Mona Gohara, MD, FAAD
Roopal Kundu, MD, FAAD
Ivy Lee, MD, FAAD
Jennifer G. Powers, MD, FAAD
Sanna Ronkainen, MD, FAAD
Last updated: 7/17/23