How effective are skin cancer apps for early detection?
Early detection makes skin cancer more treatable and, for some people, completely reversible. Identifying and managing skin cancer before it spreads is the best way to achieve a good outcome.
Doctors recommend carrying out regular skin checks at home, usually once per month. Some people use a skin cancer app to increase their chance of identifying skin cancer as early as possible.
In this article, we list some common skin cancer apps and assess their effectiveness.
Popular skin cancer apps
A skin cancer app can help identify symptoms at home.
Over the past few years, developers have created smartphone apps that can help users monitor moles and lesions for any signs of progression to skin cancer.
Popular apps include the following:
The University of Michigan launched a free app that guides users through a full home skin check exam.
This app also offers the opportunity to create a mole library. This will enable people to compare and track any skin changes over time.
The Oregon Health & Science University developed this app.
It allows users to take photos and gather measurements of any moles on their body. Similar to UMSkinCheck, the app allows users to take regular photos of their moles to facilitate change tracking over time.
This app also allows users to take pictures to track their moles over time.
Users can also pay for a version that lets them track large areas of skin. This may help them identify new marks and moles they might not otherwise have seen.
This is a high resolution camera compatible with many different smartphones. This camera uses high magnification and special lighting to take more detailed and better quality photos than other skin cancer apps.
It also contains many features that other apps do, such as skin mapping, image management, and regular reminders.
This app helps users identify high risk moles that require further testing. The app classes each photo as either high or low risk. SkinVision also provides advice on the next steps to take.
Are skin cancer apps accurate?
Although the developers of some of these apps claim that they identify problematic moles and lesions accurately, research has shown that this might not be the case.
A 2019 article in the BMJ found several downsides to the available skin cancer apps, including:
- a lack of testing to verify their effectiveness
- a shortage of expert input when developing the technology
- issues with the technology itself
Skin specialists, or dermatologists, cite concerns that the apps are not accurate and could lead to a misdiagnosis or a delay in diagnosing skin cancer.
This is of special concern in apps that provide an assessment of a mole or classify it as low or high risk.
A 2018 Cochrane review looked at two studies with 332 skin lesions, 86 of which were melanomas, after analysis by different apps. The study found that the apps missed up to 55 of melanomas. Apps that sent images to a dermatologist also missed some of the skin lesions or were unable to analyze them.
There are some issues with this review, however. Firstly, it only examined two studies with a small sample number. The studies also used photos that physicians, not app users, took. This can affect both picture quality and accuracy, which ultimately alters the results.
More scientific research will help doctors more clearly determine the accuracy of these apps.
There are, however, some significant benefits to the regular reminders and ability to photographically track moles or skin changes. For example, many people do not regularly check their skin. It can also be challenging to remember what a mole looked like last month or 6 months ago.
Apps can provide valuable information to support advice from a doctor.
What is skin cancer?
A person should talk to a doctor if they suspect that they have skin cancer.
Skin cancer is the abnormal growth of cancer cells in the skin. There are a few different types of skin cancer:
- Squamous cell carcinoma: This type of cancer grows in the squamous cells. These cells are in the very top layer of skin, which sheds as new skin cells form.
- Basal cell carcinoma: This type of cancer develops in the layer of basal cells, which is in the lower layer of the epidermis. These cells also constantly divide, as basal cells always move upward to replace the squamous cells that shed.
- Melanoma: This is a cancer of the cells that make brown or tan pigment, which give the skin its color.
The bottom line
The technology behind skin cancer apps is promising. However, more research and development will be necessary before an app can replace a doctor's experience and training.
Dr. Frank Perna, program director for the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences at the National Cancer Institute, suggests that study results indicate that people should not rely on skin cancer for cancer detection.
He says, "It appears more work needs to be done to improve these applications, but it is ongoing.
"Ultimately, the degree to which an app intervention approach yields poor results and possibly iatrogenic effects is an empirical research question. When enough technical improvements and linkages with behavior change strategies have been incorporated, I believe the data would be informative."
For now, however, doctors and professional organizations still recommend that people with a suspicious mark or mole should seek consultation with a doctor or dermatologist for evaluation.