Mayo dermatologist develops SkinSafe app for vetting skin products

James Yiannias, M.D. (DERM ’92), visited his parents in Houston, Texas, one summer and snooped through the medicine cabinet, beginning a 15-year journey to develop SkinSafe, an online skin care database and mobile app.

Dr. Yiannias explains he was looking at his father’s skin-care products that day.

“Patch testing he’d had at Mayo Clinic in Arizona to check for allergies and sensitivities related to eczema showed he is allergic to lanolin,” says Dr. Yiannias, Department of Dermatology at Mayo Clinic in Arizona. “One of the lotions I found in his medicine cabinet contained lanolin. I stormed out and scolded him for using that product — ‘No wonder you’re still itching!’”

Dr. Yiannias says his father suggested, “Rather than scolding me, can’t you just build a computer program to tell me what I can use?”

A Microsoft Access database class later, Dr. Yiannias began a 15-year quest to meet his father’s challenge. The result of his efforts, SkinSafe became a reality in 2016.

Robust database with 15,000+ products, 20,000+ users

Today there are more than 15,000 products in the database, with 100 to 200 added each week. They include skin care, makeup, baby, bath and body, hair, household and personal care products.

The more than 20,000 users ohyf the app rely on it for different reasons:

  • Users who have been patch tested and whose physicians subscribe to SkinSafe can get a user ID (personal allergy code or PAC) that is programmed with their specific allergen information per their physicians’ records. (Physicians pay an annual fee to subscribe to SkinSafe; a 30-day free trial is available.)
  • Consumers who have eczema or are prone to skin irritations can indicate their known sensitivities and search for products that are free from those ingredients.
  • Consumers can select ingredients they simply want to avoid for ethical or other reasons.

Dr. Yiannias points out that anyone can benefit from the app — saving time and money — even if they’re not a Mayo patient. “Many people want to purchase products for themselves or their families that are ‘hypoallergenic’ to be on the safe side. The problem is that terms such as hypoallergenic, natural and fragrance-free are subjective — not science-based — because personal care product labeling and package declarations aren’t well regulated. These products often aren’t what they appear to be.”

To simplify things for consumers, Mayo Clinic has identified the top chemicals and preservatives that its patients are allergic to. “We’d like to see the term hypoallergenic replaced by our terminology, ‘top free,’ because this definition is based on research and decades of scientific knowledge.”

He says about 40 percent of the 1 million people who have eczema each year could keep their condition under control if they simply avoided these chemicals, preservatives and other ingredients identified as problematic:

  1. Bacitracin
  2. Benzalkonium chloride
  3. Cobalt
  4. Formaldehyde
  5. Fragrance
  6. Iodopropynyl butylcarbamate
  7. Methyldibromo glutaronitrile
  8. Methylisothiazolinone
  9. Neomycin
  10. Nickel
  11. Potassium dichromate

 How SkinSafe works

  • Use an iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad or web browser. The app is free to consumers and is HIPAA-compliant.
  • Complete a profile indicating known allergens, and generate a customized list. Or simply check SkinSafe’s list of top 11 allergens to avoid.
  • If you have seen a subscribing physician for patch testing, he or she can give you a patient allergy code (PAC) to enter into the app and automatically download your customized safe products list.
  • When you’re in a store and want to know if a product contains ingredients you want to avoid, scan the package with the mobile app. If the product is not in the database, use the Is My Product Safe? form on the user dashboard to submit it to SkinSafe for review.

The database is updated daily, largely by submissions from app users. If a product isn’t found in the database, consumers can submit the UPC or URL to SkinSafe, which then vets the ingredients, contacts the consumer with the results and adds it to the permanent database.

“If the product is not in our database, we ask users to take photos of the front and back of the package so our team can check it against our skin-allergy data,” says Dr. Yiannias. “This crowdsourcing has helped our database become robust. We’ve only been live for a year, and we want to continue to build the number of products and users.”

Mayo Clinic Ventures has licensed the technology for SkinSafe to EmpowerHER, a social health community dedicated to women’s health. The team that monitors and updates the database is employed by EmpowerHER. Dr. Yiannias is SkinSafe’s medical director.


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