CBS Pittsburg recently ran a story promoting the idea that cell phones are capable of causing certain skin problems, like acne. This is actually a repeat of an article CBS Philadelphia ran back in May, but since it’s being reposted, it’s fair game. The report asks the question, “is your cell phone causing your breakouts?”
Given the title of this article, you can imagine how well they answered it.
The Case of Brian Tomlinson
The report opens with the case of Brian Tomlinson, a typical young person who uses his cellphone regularly.
“But staying in touch gave Brian Tomlinson a nasty case of acne,” viewers are told. As proof, a shot of Brian’s pockmarked face is displayed and his chin is zoomed in on to highlight the acne outbreak.
Yes, that’s correct. His chin.
Just in case Brian was some sort of phone-addicted contortionist, CBS helpfully includes a shot of Brian using his phone. It’s a standard smartphone and is held with the speaker away from his skin in order for him to actually speak into. The phone is not actually being held against the skin near his mouth. Now, since some people hold their phone against their face when not actively speaking, this isn’t automatically a flaw. However, based on the size of the phone, it wouldn’t reach past the corner of Brian’s mouth when held against his face. Unless Brian can listen through his cheek, the phone simply couldn’t reach anywhere near where his outbreak occurred.
This is a case of confusing correlation with causation. Just because two things seem to coincide (in this case, phone use and acne), that doesn’t mean they are actually connected.
The Bacterial Phone
Next, CBS speaks with a dermatologist about the various found on cell phones and the skin issues they can cause. Again, we see unwarranted assumptions being made.
Do cell phones have bacteria on them that they pick up from pockets and countertops? Sure. So will anything else you carry around with you and handle a lot—like your glasses or wallet. CBS mentions a study showing that cell phones have more bacteria on them than a toilet. Toilet seats are surprisingly clean compared to most objects or surfaces you encounter in life. A computer mouse, like the one you may be using right now, also has more bacteria on it than a toilet seat
The basic thesis is as follows: your cell phone is covered in bacteria like staph or strep, or some other bug associated with acne. When you use the phone, those bacteria are being pressed into your skin, allowing them to spread and potentially cause outbreaks.
This idea, while it sounds plausible, has some issues which CBS neglects to bring up. First, staph and strep bacteria, along with many others, are already on your skin. They are not only already on you, but they are present in higher levels. Bacteria from your phone could transfer onto your skin, but not in any amount that would constitute a significant swing in the population already present.
Another thing CBS neglects to bring up are P. acnes: these are the bacteria that live in hair follicles and feast on sebum, and also the bacteria most closely tied to acne outbreaks. Admittedly, P. acnes could be among the bacteria that cling on to your cellphone, but since CBS doesn’t provide any evidence—just anecdote and inference—their words are all that can be judged.
The dermatologist CBS speaks with also mentions something called folliculitis, which occurs when bacteria cause a hair follicle to become inflamed. Trying to tie cell phone use to folliculitis is just has fallible as trying to tie it to acne: no evidence is given other than the presence of bacteria (which the face is already covered in). No evidence is cited saying that acne or folliculitis is more common among frequent phone-users, either.
In short, the presence of bacteria on your cell phone does not automatically mean that it contributes to acne. Pointing out that something has bacteria like staph or strep on it does not have any inherent value since those bugs are (a) already on you, and (b) also everywhere else.
Did They Get Anything Right?
CBS also mentions something called cell phone rash, which is a type of nickel allergy that can cause a reaction due to the nickel content in cell phones. It’s a known phenomenon that has been brought up in a few studies, one of which can be found here. Providing evidence is just that easy!
Your cell phone can contain bits of grime, bacteria, sweat (especially if you’ve ever used it on a hot day), and other potential substances. In certain circumstances, the prolonged contact of a phone can cause irritation to the skin’s surface. It is even plausible that the bacteria or debris can spread from a cell phone to your skin and could cause inflammation or acne. The problem is that CBS offers no evidence and makes at least one glaring correlation-causation error. This severely diminishes the credence that can be given to their report and leaves it only as an example of how not to do science or health reporting.
“Are Cellphones To Blame For Certain Skin Issues?” CBS Pittsburgh web site, August 31, 2016; http://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2016/08/31/are-cellphones-to-blame-for-certain-skin-issues/, last accessed September 1, 2016.
Richardson, C., et al., “Mobile Phone Dermatitis in Children and Adults: A Review of the Literature,” Pediatric Allergy, Immunology, and Pulmonology, 2014; 10.1089/ped.2013.0308.
Bhatia, A., et al., “Propionibacterium Acnes and Chronic Diseases,” NCBI web site, 2004; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK83685/, last accessed September 1, 2016.