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Love That Fitbit 'Force' Tracker, Don't Love The Wretched Wrist Rash

There has been a flurry — dare we say a rash? — of reports in recent weeks from new owners of the Fitbit "Force" activity tracker who developed nasty skin irritations under the device that lasted for weeks even after they stopped wearing it.

The Today Show has covered the phenomenon — "Get serious about fitness, get rewarded with a weird skin rash," they write — as has The Consumerist: "Fitbit Force Is An Amazing Device, Except For My Contact Dermatitis."

The complaints crescendoed to the point that Fitbit issued an apology "on behalf of the entire company" and posted a Web help page and FAQ for rash-afflicted customers. Here, a Boston health care executive and CommonHealth regular reader describes her own "roller coaster ride" with the Fitbit Force — including the "second life" interactions around Force rash issues she has observed online. 

By Alexandra Lucas
Guest contributor

I pre-ordered the Fitbit Force, an activity tracker you wear on your wrist, the minute I heard about it last fall.

I’ve worn half a dozen activity trackers over the years, and they were fine but the Force promised to have it all: a display with a watch, a step counter, a running total of how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed, and gratifying vibrations and flashing lights when I met my step goal. I could set silent reminder alarms. It would sync with my iPhone wirelessly and the app had a decent dashboard so I could track my progress over time. It looked sleek. And because it was a wristband, it would make it easy to see how I was doing in real time. So I was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning when it arrived, and I put it on immediately.

(Bekathwia/Flickr Creative Commons)
(Bekathwia/Flickr Creative Commons)

Why do all these features matter to me? I’m an average, middle-aged, overweight executive who’s training for her first half-marathon (walking), trying to offset the poisonous temptations of sitting in front of a computer screen all day, and working on building better habits like going to bed when I’m tired. The Force fit my personality beautifully. I’m motivated by data and instant rewards. I don’t have the patience to check a phone app all the time to see how I’m doing. I don’t want to worry about losing a clip-on tracker or sending it through the wash (though I did once, and it registered a couple of thousand steps and came out fine).

The Force met my expectations and more. It really motivated me to get up from my desk and move, take the stairs at work, and go to the gym to get those steps in.

So what happened? After wearing it for five or six weeks, I noticed a rash on my wrist, right under where the Force’s metal battery is. I took the Force off but the rash continued to get worse. On a whim, I googled “Force rash” and found out that others had the same problem. Then I went on to the Fitbit user forum and found a thread of comments – up to 1386 at last count, and growing 80 a day – from people who have the exact same rash in the exact same place that I do.

Reading the comments was both illuminating and horrifying. Everyone had the same symptoms, most occurring a few weeks after they started wearing it. The rashes have lasted for weeks and in some cases spread and got infected.

Most people are trying to help each other by sharing diagnoses, treatments, and theories about the cause — ranging from a nickel allergy to a chemical burn to a fungal infection. One person suggested it’s all in our minds. Most of the people had to get medical care and use prescription drugs to treat the rash. Nobody has a definitive answer about the cause, which creates anxiety about its duration and potential recurrence (according to the self-appointed experts on the forum, once you pick up a nickel allergy, it never goes away).

Over the course of a few weeks, the discussion forum has created a “second life,” with some inhabitants enjoying the bonding experience, many people offering advice and support to others, a vocal minority starting to advocate for legal action or complaints to regulatory agencies, and even a few flame wars. Today, someone posted a link to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. I can’t wait to see what happens in the next chapter.

As the discussion forum picks up momentum, the corporate response seems flat at best. The Fitbit Force help Website says, "If you are experiencing any discomfort wearing the Fitbit Force, we suggest you discontinue using it. Fitbit will provide a full and immediate refund or replacement with a different Fitbit product." But while the forum moderator is helpful and calm, the customer service teams are issuing inconsistent responses about refunds and replacements, further annoying the people who are trying to get straight answers. The company position seems to be that they will issue a refund, or a partial refund and a replacement tracker, but they won’t pay for medical bills. Or maybe they will, some posters say.

This seems to me like the barest minimum, not the kind of service that makes you feel like the company is bending over backward to make things right, not the kind of service you tell all your friends about because it’s so unusual and makes you feel so good.

On the Fitbit Force help website, CEO James Park recently released a statement saying in part:

I’d like to apologize on behalf of the entire company for the skin irritation that some of our customers have experienced. While this has affected only a very limited number of customers, Fitbit’s mission is to create products that make our customers healthier, so we’re taking every case seriously and are dedicated to making it right.

For the people who are paying for medical care, dealing with itchy scaly rashes that take weeks to heal, worrying that they have now developed a nickel allergy for life, at risk of infection, or concerned that they’ll walk down the aisle with a hideous scar at their upcoming weddings, this is more than an “irritation.”

And for those of us who really liked the product and trusted Fitbit, their head-in-the-sand attitude in an era when social media exposes so much information – and when other companies have set a great example by stepping up to own the problems they created (remember the Tylenol recall?) — is just baffling. Will social media wake the company up, or bring them down?

I miss my Force terribly, and I want Fitbit to do the right thing: announce that they are taking the product off the market until they figure out why it’s causing the rash, issue full refunds and sincere apologies to people who have been harmed, and find a way to compensate them for what they’ve experienced. And most important, fix the product and send us new ones. I’m willing to give them another chance. The sad part about all of this is that many people, including me, really loved their Forces.

Readers, have you or has anyone you know encountered the Force Rash? Any theories on what causes it?

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