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What are ‘melanotan’ injections? Explaining the controversial tanning drug

The illegal injections and nasal sprays are being promoted by influencers as a tanning hack but experts warn they are dangerous

Beauty should not be pain and it certainly shouldn’t be dangerous. Whether it’s a “slim thick” hourglass figure or sun-kissed glowing skin, the pressure on us to fit beauty ideals is endless and pushing people to go to extreme, harmful lengths to achieve them. 

First there was Apetamin, the unlicensed supplement which promised perfect curves but instead caused everything from extreme fatigue to liver failure and even comas. Now it’s melanotan, a “quick fix” solution to tanning, that’s making the headlines.  

Often coming in the form of injections or nasal spray, melanotan is an unlicensed drug and illegal to sell in the UK. Despite this, it is widely available online, as well as from gyms and beauty salons who sell it under the counter. It’s also become a popular product on social media, where it has been propelled into the mainstream thanks to an increasing number of influencers promoting it to their followers as a way to fast track their tan.

The problem, however, is that people using these melanotan products are increasingly reporting negative side-effects ranging from lesions and throat infections to kidney damage and even skin cancer.   

But what actually is melanotan? How does it work and is it really dangerous? Dr Emma Wedgeworth, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson, helps explain.

What is Melanotan and how does it work?

Melanotan is an artificial form of a natural hormone in our bodies called “melanocyte-stimulating hormone” which stimulates production of pigment (melanin). When injected into the body, melanotan can stimulate the pigment cells to produce more melanin, which in turn can accelerate tanning.

There are two forms of melanotan which are known as melanotan I and melanotan II. Originally a brand name used to describe medical research into alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone analogues, the term “melanotan” was then adopted by black market sellers in an attempt to legitimise the illegal tanning injections they are selling. The term is no longer associated with any pharmaceutical product in development or approved for use by any regulatory body worldwide.

Melanotan II was originally being researched as a drug for erectile dysfunction and female sexual dysfunction but development ceased in 2003. As a tanning drug it can give quicker results than melanotan I, however it needs exposure to UV light to help “activate” the effects. Melanotan II is unregulated and illegal to sell, and various countries including Australia and the UK have issued warnings against the use of it.

“Because these products are being distributed illegally, they are not subject to the same regulations as normal medicines” – Dr Wedgeworth

What are the side effects of Melanotan?

According to Dr Wedgeworth the side effects of melanotan II can include: nausea, abdominal pain, anxiety, flushing, dizziness, headaches and stomach pain. “Serious side effects such as kidney damage have also been seen and there is concern that use could increase the risk of skin cancer,” she says. 

A recent BBC investigation reported on one 27-year-old woman who was diagnosed with stage-one melanoma, a skin cancer that can be life-threatening, after having injected herself with melanotan II for two months.

“Melanotan II stimulates pigment cells, known as melanocytes, to produce more pigment. Melanocytes are the cells that serious skin cancers melanomas develop from,” explains Dr Wedgeworth. “The concern is that if you overstimulate melanocytes, particularly in someone who has an underlying tendency to skin cancer, you could increase the risk of melanoma developing.”  

In addition, melanotan II often goes along with other risky sun-seeking behaviour such as sunbed usage, Dr Wedgeworth says. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, just one sunbed session can increase the risk of developing skin cancer by up to 67 per cent. 

What are the other dangers?

A number of other complications from using melanotan II have been reported, including lesions, fungal infections and abscesses which can be associated with dirty needles or sharing needles. One woman, aged 19, needed hospital treatment after being diagnosed with a serious throat and sinus infection. Doctors told her inhaling the tanning product was the cause, the BBC reports, and they had seen other patients develop similar symptoms after using it. 

“Because these products are being distributed illegally, they are not subject to the same regulations as normal medicines,” explains Dr Wedgeworth. “It’s difficult to know exactly what ingredients are in them.” In 2015, one small study found that melanotan II bought from two different vendors contained between 4.1 to 5.9 percent impurities.

The real problem is that we simply don’t know what effects melanotan II usage could have and because this is being distributed illegally, it is not regulated and monitored by the usual stringent medical regulations,” as Dr Wedgeworth says.

“Whilst you may be pleased with the temporary effect, you could be exposing yourself to long term health problems” – Dr Wedgeworth

Is there a safe way to tan?

With the pressures we are under to live up to beauty standards, it’s not surprising that people get tempted by quick fixes and miracle solutions. But, as Dr Wedgeworth says, it’s just not worth the risk. “Whilst you may be pleased with the temporary effect, you could be exposing yourself to long term health problems.”

We all know that sunbathing isn’t good for your health thanks to the UVA and UVB rays which wreak havoc on our skin cells and lead to an increased risk of skin cancer alongside aesthetic side-effects such as decreased collagen and elasticity, fine lines, age spots and pigmentation. So what is the best thing to do if you are looking for the bronzed, sun-kissed look? 

Dr Wedgeworth’s recommendation: fake it with self-tan products, the only truly safe way to tan.

Correction, April 05, 2022:

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Melanotan-I was also known as afamelanotide. This is not the case. “Melanotan” is no longer used to describe any pharmaceutical product in development or approved for use by any regulatory body worldwide.

Afamelanotide is a treatment for a rare condition called erythropoietic protoporphyria which causes severe pain on sun exposure. It was approved by the EU in 2014 and by the FDA in 2019 for this purpose.