‘Are you prepared to conduct chemical warfare on your bodies?’
That’s the question posed by a doctor at one of the UK’s leading dermatology research centres to those posting and watching social media videos recommending injecting melanotan II – also known as the ‘Barbie’ drug – to help bronze their skin this summer.
Dr Sobia Kauser, an assistant professor at the University of Bradford, has also warned of the side effects of the unregulated and unauthorised drug, which include sexual dysfunction and an increased risk of skin cancer.
‘Melanotan II is illegal to purchase in the UK [and the US],’ said Dr Kauser. ‘It can cause side effects such as appetite loss, sexual dysfunction, fatigue, gastrointestinal issues and a potential increased risk of developing skin cancers such as melanoma after long term use. More studies are needed to establish long term harms and side effects.’
In one recorded case, published in the journal Sexual Medicine, a patient who injected the drug presented with ischemic priapism – a prolonged erection that lasted for more than 30 hours.
However, in addition to the known short-term side effects, Dr Kauser warns that, due to the fact it is unregulated, the long-term side effects remain ‘largely unknown’.
‘Melanotan II is a synthetic melanotropic – a pigment inducing peptide,’ added Dr Kauser.
‘It was developed as a sun-less tanning agent but then subsequently investigated as a potential treatment for sexual dysfunction.
‘The tanning response involves the increased production of a pigment called eumelanin after exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Increased pigmentation production is beneficial as it protects against the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation.
‘Melanotan I, its derivative also known as afamelanotide, was developed and is used medically to prevent phototoxicity in individuals with erythropoietic protoporphyria, a rare genetic skin disorder.’
However, while melanotan I is used in a clinical setting under medical care, melanotan II frequently does the rounds on social media apps including TikTok and Instagram, with unqualified users promoting the drug as a tanning agent.
Cancer Research UK also highlights the dangers of the drug – and tanning in general.
‘Instead of tanning, we encourage people to embrace their natural skin tone, and enjoy the sun safely, said the organisation.
‘But if you really want to tan, you’re better off using fake tan.’
In addition to the known issues surrounding melanotan II, because the drug is sold and procured illegally, it may include other substances not listed on the label.
‘You are essentially injecting a chemical into your body with unknown impurities,’ said Dr Kauser. ‘Is this the price you are willing to pay to look more attractive?’
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