Social media influencers are continuing to promote the illegal tanning ingredient melanotan-2, which experts warn is dangerous and could lead to long-term health impacts.
A shocking BBC News investigation has identified dozens of social media influencers promoting dangerous tanning products that contain a banned ingredient to their millions of followers. Melanotan-2, an artificial hormone that can increase the production of melanin, the pigment that darkens skin, is used as an injection or tanning nasal spray, despite the fact it has never had rigorous safety testing.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which ensures drugs are safe to use, branded the drug “dangerous” and has spent 10 years targeting melanotan products.
Social media sites such as Instagram and TikTok have propelled the drug, previously sold in some gyms and beauty salons, into the mainstream, with the trend mainly driven by young, white women.
The unlicensed drug is dangerous, dermatologists and Cancer Research UK say, and users should stop use immediately as there is evidence the untested products may be linked to skin cancer.
The BBC spoke to 20 people who have experienced complications, including lesions, fungal infections and abscesses after using melanotan products.
27-year-old Liv, from Leeds, was diagnosed with stage one melanoma, a skin cancer that can be life-threatening after she discovered a strangely shaped mole on her thigh eight months after starting melanotan injections. For two months, she had been jabbing her stomach and going on a sunbed, which she had been told would “activate” the drug.
Liv had the mole removed but was diagnosed with stage one melanoma that required surgery and left her with a “scar the size of a letterbox” on her leg. Her dermatologist told her the injections were the likely cause.
“A cancer diagnosis is terrifying, never mind when you’re 27 years old,” she told BBC. “I’m not a ‘moley’ person, so I knew something wasn’t right.”
The recent introduction of melanotan-2 nasal sprays, which involve the user inhaling mist containing the ingredient, is considered to have made the drug even more appealing. The British Association of Dermatologists says it is now on the alert for patients with warning signs of “unusual orange tans” and “disordered moles”.
The charity is clear that melanotan injections and products are unsafe and should not be used. “Unlicensed melanotan injections may not have been tested for safety, quality or effectiveness, so we don’t know how serious any possible side effects could be,” it writes on its website.
“Because they are not regulated, unlicensed melanotan injections could contain other harmful chemicals that aren’t listed on their label.”
“If you have recently used unlicensed melanotan, then you should stop,” it advises. “See your GP if you start to notice anything unusual or if you may be at risk from using or sharing needles.”
Indeed, the BBC’s investigation found that while licensed medicines usually contain around 10 ingredients, some melanotan products contained over 100 unidentified substances.
“If you don’t know what you’re taking, you should probably avoid it,” Professor Tony Cass of Imperial College London said, likening the risk to Russian roulette.
Unlicensed melanotan injections and nasal sprays are illegal to sell in the UK; however, it is not illegal to use or promote these tanning products, despite the health risks. In its investigation, the BBC found dozens of influencers have posted about using melanotan-2, with some on TikTok even demonstrating how to inhale the drug.
Instagram and TikTok both told the BBC that selling the drug on their platforms is banned and promotional content will be taken down.
“We care deeply about the health and wellbeing of our community. We do not allow the promotion of controlled substances,” said a TikTok spokesperson. But despite this, the illegal tanning industry is thriving.
The Advertising Standards Agency says all influencers must act responsibly, including ensuring products and the companies they link to are not acting illegally.
Lauren, a TikToker, told the BBC that a company had offered her free nasal sprays if she would promote its products. However, after two months, she stopped taking them because they made her feel sick.
“As an influencer, I need to be more careful what I’m promoting,” Lauren admits now. “I have got to look out for my followers, a lot of them are young.”
Stylist reached out to a number of nasal tan brands promoting their products via Instagram for comment but is yet to receive a reply.
Instead of tanning, Cancer Research encourages people to embrace their natural skin tone and enjoy the sun safely. “But if you really want to tan, you’re better off using fake tan,” it adds.
For more information about tanning safely, you can visit canceresearch.co.uk.
Images: Molly Saunders