Paying too high a price for a tan?
An injection of Melanotan might seem like the answer to having a long-lasting, sunless tan. But it is available only on the internet and concerns have been expressed by doctors, writes CIARA O'BRIEN.
A YEAR AGO, Danielle was relying on fake tan to keep her holiday colour topped up all year round. But a chance conversation with a friend led her to the tanning injection, something that is becoming increasingly popular among young Irish people.
Warned of the dangers of exposure to the sun, and of sunbeds, men and women are turning to a drug called Melanotan to get what they believe is a “safer” tan.
Danielle (29) did some research online before taking the drug. “There are so many Australian sites saying it’s a wonderful drug, with testimonials. They could be made up, but the site I went on to first had a link to YouTube explaining what it did and detailing the research they had done,” she says. “When I looked into it first, the majority of them said it’s a defence against skin cancer.”
Dealings in Melanotan are done behind the scenes, with customers buying from websites or through “a friend of a friend”. Danielle told the Irish Times that she has never met the person who supplies her Melanotan injection. She buys the drug through a friend, who in turn buys it from a bodybuilder (it is popular in competitive bodybuilding).
Melanotan is sold in powder form and mixed with bacteriostatic water before being injected under the skin with insulin needles. There are few instructions available on how to mix the drug, what dosage should be taken, or advice on injecting it.
Originally developed as a potential preventative for skin cancer, the drug has not yet been approved for use anywhere in Europe, despite gaining a popular following online. It is not known how many Irish men and women may be exposing themselves to health risks by using the unlicensed drug, but anecdotal evidence suggests there is a definite market for it.
One of its appeals appears to be its convenience. “I hate false tan,” says Danielle. “I’ve been putting it on since I was 15 – it’s not a nice colour, you’d know it’s not a tan. It has a definite orange pigment. The injection meant every day when I got up and every night when I went out I was pretty much ready to go.”
The drug is also said to help with weight loss and Danielle believes that the drug changed her body shape. “After I took it I felt great. I was tanned, I looked toned. I wasn’t doing any more exercise than normal.”
Prices have fallen considerably since the drug first made its way into the Irish market. Last year, Danielle paid €100 for her first batch and €180 for a second, which was supposed to be a higher strength than previous batches. “At the time, it wasn’t as common in the market. The same guy I got it from now sells it to me for €50, which is a big mark-down. Obviously the market was flushed with it.”
However, it seems supplies of the drug could be drying up with many of the websites shut down and the usual suppliers in Ireland harder to contact. Regulatory bodies have been working to close sites selling the drug. Last year, the Irish Medicines Board (IMB) said it had been in contact with a number of suppliers of the drug and had been given undertakings that they would not import it into Ireland.
IMB Chief executive Pat O’Mahony had a stark warning for those tempted to try Melanotan. “People are taking a serious risk to their health. You know the old adage – your health is your wealth. You’re really playing a dangerous game. With an unlicensed product, you don’t know what you’re getting. This is a very risky practice.”
THE IMB ADMITS it is fighting a constant battle against online shoppers determined to bring in prescription drugs they have bought online. “We all live in the internet age and people are buying all sorts of stuff on the internet, paying for their travel – we all do that,” says Pat O’Mahony, chief executive of the IMB. “It’s extraordinarily difficult to get a fix on it (Melanotan). Our intelligence would indicate to us that there isn’t a huge amount of it, there isn’t massive importations and quantities coming through. We only ever see the tip of the iceberg in any work we do with regard to the internet because it’s going on behind the scenes. We have no way of quantifying it, that’s the reality of it.”
The Irish Timeswas able to buy the drug, complete with syringes, online. We found the site through an online search, and paid by credit card through Google’s Checkout system. The package was posted from England via registered mail, and signed for at the post office within days of paying online. A follow up purchase was also successful.
However, those who use the injections may be getting more than they bargain for. While the medicines sold on the shelves of pharmacies have to adhere to strict regulations, drugs bought over the internet might not have been manufactured under the same strict conditions.
The IMB sampled Melanotan sold by one of the websites, and the results revealed contaminants that the IMB says could lead to a serious infection, or even abscesses at the injection site. Last week, the IMB issued an alert on the drug’s dangers and urged anyone who had used it to contact their doctor.
Even if the drug is free from bacteria, the side-effects are well documented. Some users have reported nausea, headaches, fatigue, increased libido, an increase in moles and freckles. There have been warnings of pigmentation patches and others blame the drug for changes to their skin’s texture.
Pat O’Mahony says internet sales of prescription medication is illegal as it’s not controlled and at least 50 per cent of it is counterfeit. “If this (Melanotan) was produced in a licensed plant to a particular quality, you would know what you were getting. If you injected yourself with a particular dose rate you would get the same result each time.”
It seems Irish tan fans are willing to run the risk. Since her first dose of Melanotan, Danielle has had several moles checked by her doctor, although she is not blaming the drug on this, and has already ordered her next batch. “My moles changed shape and colour after I did the injections. Then again, I went on three holidays last year, so it could have been the fact that I was exposed to more sun than normal,” she says.
The concerns that the drug may not be authentic don’t worry Danielle, who says her own experience proved it worked. “I tried it and it worked, so I did it again. Everyone tries things they haven’t done before, otherwise it would be a very sad world we live in if we never tried anything new,” she says. “There’s a risk in everything you do in your life. I feel you can’t wrap yourself up in cotton wool. I don’t think the injection will kill me. Maybe if there were more horror stories I’d think twice.”
Melanotan: From cancer prevention to tanning agent
Melanotan is a research peptide that was originally developed to prevent skin cancer. The peptide, which has not yet been approved for use outside of clinical trials, was first synthesised by researchers at the University of Arizona.
The peptide is a synthetic version of a naturally occurring hormone that produces melanin, the skin’s tanning pigment. During tests, the naturally occuring hormone was found to have a half life of only seconds, alhough it appeared to work.
The synthetic version of the hormone has a longer half life, and is designed to increase the level of pigment in the skin without exposure to UV rays.
Melanotan I, or afamelanotide , is currently being developed by Australian-based Clinuvel Pharmaceuticals, which has warned consumers against buying unlicensed, counterfeit drugs that are being sold under the name Melanotan.
A further version of the peptide, Melanotan II, has been shown to have aphrodisiac properties in clinical trials.