Tanning Sprays & Injections: A Fair Girl’s Dream or a Dermatology Nightmare?

Growing up as a Fitzpatrick Skin type 1 was difficult. My mom would lay out in the sun for hours, while I, having inherited my dad’s Irish skin, would instantaneously burn on family vacations if I didn’t put sunblock even on the tops of my feet. When prom season rolled around in high school, I was jealous of all my friends’ gorgeous, tanned skin as I stood there like an uncomfortable porcelain doll. If someone told me a decade ago that they had the answer to lasting bronzed skin in a simple inhalant, I would have given my left leg to avoid dealing with the constant exfoliation, staining, and lingering smell of self-tanners containing traditional DHA (dihydroxyacetone).

Melanotan II is a synthetic analog of the peptide hormone alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (a-MSH) that stimulates melanogenesis. Originally researched in the 1960s for sexual dysfunction, this drug soon showed changes in melanin in red haired mice. Scientists hoped to use these newfound peptides to combat melanoma by stimulating the body’s natural pigmentary mechanism to create a tan without first needing exposure to harmful levels of UV radiation. This, in turn, they hypothesized, could reduce the potential for environmental damage that can eventually lead to skin cancer. In 2006, Competitive Technologies, a technology transfer company operating on behalf of the University of Arizona, licensed the drug as a tanning agent. One short year later, the FDA issued a warning to an American online vendor illegally marketing Melanotan II on the internet as a drug that prevents skin cancer and assists in tanning. The FDA had not licensed Melanotan II and explained the following: ‘There is no evidence that the product is generally recognized as safe and effective for its labeled uses.” The FDA concurrently gave a blanket warning, advising consumers to “stop using Melanotan 11, an unapproved product.”

At the beginning of 2022, The BBC put out an article on the rise of inhalant and injectable tanners containing Melanotan-II seen promoted on social media stars’ lnstagram and Tik Tok accounts. Google searches for “tanning nasal spray side-effects” and “how to use tanning nasal spray” have soared lately due to the appeal of this quick fix for any pale person’s insecurity. This Barbie drug is commonly sold for less than $29 and is available in an injectable and slightly less evasive nasal inhalant form. When injected under the skin, some vendors of this black-market product suggest “activating” the hormone by using a deadly tanning bed. Other risks of jabbing include acne, hyperpigmentation, stomach pains, eye disorders, seizures, heart problems, and life­threatening stage 1 Melanoma. Sharing needles can lead to blood-borne diseases like hepatitis or HIV. If an untrained individual injects substances, skin and tissue damage can occur. The mucous membrane in the nose is thin and has a lot of blood vessels. This allows sprays to penetrate the body quickly, leading the nasal spray to be a more prominent option for beauty influencers. Side effects of taking Melanotan II nasally include nausea, dizziness, darkening of moles, serious allergic reaction such as anaphylaxis, facial flushing, changes in appetite, and sexual side effects like increased erections due to the hormone used.

Society still places high importance on the appearance and acquisition of a tan. To this date, the only safe way to get a tan is from a bottle. A woman from the UK had parts of her skin turn black and had abscesses across her stomach after using the Barbie drug. Chantell Tolson, an influencer, told The Sun she injected herself with the Barbie drug more than 100 times in four months stating, “I used to think I was ugly without a tan. I was so desperate I tried everything without thinking about any possible health risks. I did it all for vanity, but now I am covered in scars for the rest of my life.” Among the many concerns that doctors have brought up about the trend, a major one is that the nasal tanning sprays aren’t FDA approved, nor are they approved by any other country either. TikTok is doing its best at taking down most of these misleading and dangerous nasal spray tan videos. In a statement to Today, the platform said, “Our community guidelines make clear what content is allowed on TikTok. Our policy on illegal activities and regulated goods prohibits the promotion of nasal tanning sprays, and we have removed the videos that you have shared with us.” So next time you’re scrolling through social media, if you see something that seems too good to be true, it most likely is, let alone a dermatologist’s nightmare. I know I’d rather deal with the minor inconveniences of current self-tanners for my insecurities than the risk of skin cancer.