Do AI Skin Apps Actually Work? I Tested Out 5 & Here's What I Found

Courtesy of Fani Mari

Artificial Intelligence is already a force to be reckoned with in business, security, the financial sector, and more. But now it's beginning to make its way into other industries, including beauty. Over the past few years, a number of AI apps and websites have popped up, all claiming to help you self-diagnose your skin when it comes to breakouts, acne, skin ageing, eczema, and more. I tested some of them out to see if they live up to the hype.

In the UK, the options for those with skin concerns are pretty limited, and that's predominantly down to two things: money and time. In London, for instance, a dermatologist appointment can cost up to £100 per hour, sometimes more. And if you go in to visit your GP, they will most likely refer you to a specialist; a process that can end up taking months to get sorted.

For the last few years, AI apps have been used in beauty to allow consumers to, for example, try on lipstick, or try out a new hair colour. Sephora have a Virtual Artist, Harrods has Magic Mirrors that allow you to virtually try on makeup. But these only deal with colour cosmetics. Now the technology is taking on skincare.

I first noticed AI skincare apps when La Roche Posay, one of the most well-respected brands for acne-prone and sensitive skin, came out with an online tool, SpotScan, earlier this year. I tried it out, as well as a few other websites and apps with a similar focus, wanting to see whether they could really help with a skin condition from the comfort of my sofa.

As a brief background, I am acne-prone and have had acne for more than 10 years. I was lucky enough to visit a dermatologist who prescribed medication as needed throughout the years, but I know not everyone is able to do so.

Read on for the app analysis and my thoughts as well as expert comment from skincare professionals.

1. La Roche Posay SpotScan

To get your results from SpotScan, you simply have to take three selfies, and they'll analyse what they have. They'll look out for pimples, blackheads, and pigmented marks, and will give you a “grade” out of 4 regarding the severity of your condition. It also gives you a "Before/After," predicting how your skin would look after following their advice. Despite the somewhat detailed regime, according to them, due to the "severity" of my acne, they think it's good that I’m seeing a dermatologist, and suggest I continue with that. SpotScan does mention that, if you are being looked after by a professional, you should respect their advice, and this app shouldn't be used in place of those recommendations.

The website is easy to use (though it only works through Safari, not Chrome), but getting the correct kind of pictures takes some time as they need good lighting, eye contact, and a clear background.

SpotScan doesn’t store your results in a database that you can revisit, so they suggest screenshot-ing what they've said. It also offers product suggestions. I got a cleanser and Effaclar Duo+, two products that I have already used in the past.

Though it’s a helpful tool overall, I felt SpotScan showed the situation in a more negative light than it actually is. I'm lucky that I know my skin really well, but if someone were to take the results to heart, it may leave them feeling a bit despondent. I also found that at times, the app wasn’t completely accurate, with some tiny bumps under my eyes were deemed as blackheads by the system, when they're actually milia.

2. Vichy SkinConsult AI

Vichy has just come out with SkinConsult AI, developed with dermatologists and ModiFace, an Augmented Reality and AI company recently acquired by L’Oréal.

The website (which is mobile accessible only) focuses mostly on "signs of ageing," as they look out for wrinkles, pores, lack of radiance, and dark spots. Their unique algorithm has been created to analyse the picture you upload, compare it to 10,000 others, then discuss which of the seven signs of ageing your face exhibits. Their unique data is collected from the input of 12 dermatologists, as well as a huge database that belongs to L’Oréal.

As with most such websites, you upload a selfie and then get your results. You also input your age and your skin type, but no other data required, which makes it very easy.

The results show you your "priorities." Mine were dark spots and lack of radiance. They also show your "strengths," mine being a lack of under-eye wrinkles. You get a bit more information on these, and you can then compare your results with other people.

After than, you receive product recommendations, which you can add to your basket directly. Mine included a cleansing gel, the 89 hyaluronic acid serum (which I already use), and the Idealia Life serum. The products sounded suitable, though I’d would have added acne-focused ingredients too.

Finally, you receive your personalised morning and night routine. My suggested routine was a bit longer than I was expecting, considering the results of my picture.

It’s worth mentioning the Vichy website also offers a "Virtual Skin Expert" who you can chat with on Facebook Messenger.

3. Olay Skin Advisor

For Olay Skin Advisor, you access the website and take a selfie. The website then analyses your "five skin ageing zones." You have to answer some questions on your skin type as well as your product preference (for example, fragrance or no fragrance and how many products you use in the morning and evening). Pretty straight forward, but a bit of a lengthy process.

You are given your "skin age," which essentially factors in all your "issues" and what age group they would fit into. I got lower than my actual age, so I guess that was good. It also shows your areas of concern, recommending specific products for each. According to Olay, the Skin Advisor uses a deep learning algorithm that analyses each picture in order to come up with these suggestions.

If you want to save the report, you can do so by creating an account, which is really helpful, especially if you want to go back every few weeks and see your skin’s performance.

4. TroveSkin

TroveSkin is free to download on iTunes. You start by taking a picture of yourself and, after that, you're asked about your main skin concern. You then have to sign in, and the app analyses the selfie, which takes about 5 minutes.

It gives you an overall skin score out of 100 and a skin age (I got 63/100 and 27 years). It analyses your spots, pores, texture, and wrinkles, and gives a good/very good/average/below average score on each. When I initially tried it in June, I had an "average" score, and now I had a "very good." (I personally couldn't see too many differences between the two images.) Then it gives you your two main concerns to focus on. I got "numerous big pores," which I'm not sure I agree with.

They also have some product routine recommendations, skin goals, and more. They don’t push specific products, but you can add photos of your routine to keep them in the app as a diary of sorts.

I like that TroveSkins takes into account all different concerns, but the results aren’t analytical enough, and don’t offer suggestions as to how to improve your concerns. It just shows you pictures of where the "spots," "wrinkles," and "pores" are, but that’s it. However, because it's an app you can go back to, it can be used as a personal skin diary if you’d like.

TroveApp also offers more of a community vibe, as it includes articles about skincare that you can read. However, the articles should be approached with caution. For example, one suggests that lemon juice is a good method to remove hyper-pigmentation at home, but a lot of beauty experts have disputed the lemon juice theory in recent years.

5. My SkinCoach

Again, you take a selfie, register with your email, and you get a colourful analysis of your face with blue (hydrated) to red (dehydrated) all over, you also get comments on redness/dryness/lines.

There’s a "fix my skin" button that gives you product recommendations by True North (the brand that sponsored this app), and then an option to see your "future face," which felt a little bit like a Snapchat filter.

You are also given your "top priority." In my opinion, the analysis wasn't particularly accurate. For me, it showed wrinkles where there are none, and misinterpreted redness on my face as something it's not.

As with the TroveSkin app, My SkinCoach is good to keep as a diary, but it seems to offer more general skin analysis than suggestions for specific areas of concern.

Other options

Besides the websites and apps mentioned above, there are a few more options out there, but these require extra tools to record your skin’s behaviour. For example, Neutrogena’s Skin 360 asks users to attach a special camera (with 30x magnification, LED lights, and sensors) to their phone. The camera is then able to analyse your skin and offer solutions in terms of moisture levels, pores, and fine lines.

It’s also worth mentioning Dermatica, an online platform (from £20 per month) where you upload pictures of your skin and discuss it with a team of dermatologists who then prescribe you the relevant product. Dermatica isn’t a tool I have tried yet, but beauty infuencer Iman Ogundeko tells me she’s been very pleased with it. “I’ve been using the 0.1% tretinoin [after the suggestion] from Dermatica for about 4 months. I’ve finished almost two bottles. I think nothing can replace face-to-face [consultation], but this is definitely a start, especially for those that need prescription-strength creams,” she says.

Another user of Dermatica, Danielle Haycock, says the service, which she's been using for six months, has transformed her skin. "Dermatica is a fantastic service as the NHS waiting times for a dermatologist are at least a year, [and] none of the GPs would refer me either," she explains. "I was prescribed tretinoin for acne and anti-ageing and I’d highly recommend the service to people. It’s affordable, easy and a dermatologist is always on hand to answer any questions."

And consultant dermatologist Dr. Anjali Mahto believes that Dermatica is more accurate than AI apps. "It seems to be making prescriptions-strength agents like tretinoin much more available," Dr. Mahto says. "I think there is benefit in that, provided people are getting the right instructions."

The verdict

I found there to be both upsides and downsides to using these apps. When it comes to ease and affordability, they're are a clear winner, but there's a long way to go before this technology can replace face-to-face consultation.

One downside to apps is that prescription-strength products such as tretinoin or azelaic acid, which are the ones most likely to help your skin, have to be prescribed by a doctor or GP. This means that apps will always have to be used in conjunction with face-to-face trips to a health professional, thus eliminating the ease of having everything done for you from the comfort of your sofa.

Secondly, I found on a few occasions that the apps are not completely accurate in their diagnoses. It appears the technology simply isn't advanced enough yet to ensure the results are 100% correct.

In addition, I found the language of most of the apps to be pretty alarming, especially for people struggling with their confidence in connection to their skin. Words and phrases like "imperfections," "fix my skin" and "below average" can be very upsetting for some people. For me, this was the the most problematic part of using them. Having acne is bad enough on its own I don’t need to be "attacked" by my phone too.

It’s also worth noting that a number of these apps have been developed by the companies who are also selling products that claim to improve whatever "imperfections" they point out to you. You should be aware of this conflict of interest before you follow any product-based advice.

The dermatologists I spoke to agree that the advice from AI apps should, more often than not, be taken with a pinch of salt.

“At the moment, I don’t think the technology is there to replace medical professionals,” says Dr. Mahto. She also questions whether the apps have "enough data of varying conditions," to give users a clear idea of where they fall on the spectrum.

Dr. Mervyn Patterson, a cosmetic doctor and the director at Woodford Medical, agrees. "It is very difficult to successfully replace a good consultation with an experienced skin doctor, like a detailed history taking process and examination," he explains.

Cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Nyla Raja says, "I personally believe human interaction is better. These apps are also subject to various technical problems and can create issues such as body dysmorphia and encourage users to buy products specifically from that brand."

Dr. Raja also factors in the psychological effect skin conditions can have. “Dermatological issues, especially acne, can be difficult to talk about due to negative effect it can have on confidence,” she says. “Often, clients need physical interaction with a professional to talk through problems with their skin and have assurance that it will be okay.” According to a study published by the British Skin Foundation, nine in ten dermatologists agree that not enough importance is placed on the psychological effects from skin conditions, and it seems that right now this is not a top priority for these apps either.

Whichever method you go for, it’s probably fair to say that, at this stage in their development, online tools cannot replace a dermatologist’s diagnosis, particularly if you have specific skin concerns such as acne or rosacea. The apps may be useful if users are just starting to get to know their skin, or need product recommendations, but other than that, face to face still seems to be the winner. As with most skincare-related ventures, it's important to do your research and, if in any doubt, consult with a professional.