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Rubbing an iPhone on your face won't cure acne - FTC

Playing whack-a-mole with snake-oil apps

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The Federal Trade Commission has fined two developers who claimed their mobile apps could cure acne with flashing colour, but there's still plenty of snake-oil on sale.

Colour therapy for acne does have medical credentials, but the FTC's ruling is clear that the frequencies generated by a smartphone screen aren't even close to what's needed, making the claimed cures baseless and forcing the developers of AcnePwner (Android) and AcneApp (iPhone) cough up $1,700 and $14,294 respectively.

Around 3,300 Android users apparently shelled out 99 cents for AcnePwner, while 11,600 iPhone users had to pay twice that for AcneApp. Both applications asked users to hold the phone screen against the skin for a few hours every day, during which it would flash suitable colours: AcneApp even cited a report from the British Journal of Dermatology to back up its claims.

A little basic arithmetic shows that even after paying off the FTC, Andrew N Finkle (developer of AcnePwner) will be up more than $500, while Koby Brown and Gregory W Pearson (responsible for AcneApp) will be almost two grand in pocket – not as rich as they thought they were, but the fine wouldn't be much of a deterrent either.

"Smartphones make our lives easier in countless ways, but unfortunately when it comes to curing acne, there’s no app for that," says the canned quote from FTC Chairman, Jon Leibowitz, which is loverly except for the fact that there are still plenty of apps claiming to cure acne (and just about everything else) through secret diets, prayer and the power of subliminal messages.

Oddly enough, quack medicine seems less prevalent in the Android Marketplace, compared to iTunes, but while it would be great to attribute that to the gullibility of Apple users, it's more probably a result of the size of the iTunes app store – after all, we know that iPhone users are already physically perfect specimens of humanity.

Apple did kick the psychic wart-remover out of the iTunes store, last year, so it will take action against wildly fraudulent claims. The two apps targeted by the FTC seem to have incurred its ire by claiming to apply a genuine therapy (colour treatment), making them too credible to be allowed to last.

But curing acne by positive thinking engendered through subliminal messages, for example, falls between the obviously false and the medically unproven, so such apps remain available for those who are short on snake oil. ®

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