For some, a suntan is so socially desirable that they’ll do anything to get one. Many expose themselves to heavy doses of sunlight, to the point of burning, and some use sunbeds as well. Both can increase the risk of skin cancer.
The latest fads in the tanning craze are two products called Melanotan I and Melanotan II. Both are injected into the skin and are available over the internet, in some tanning salons and in body-building gyms. Retailers claim that these products are safe and effective ways of getting a tan, and some even suggest that they could protect against skin cancer.
But the truth is that these are counterfeit products that have not yet been properly tested. We don’t know whether they are safe or dangerous, effective or useless. A new report suggests that they could even lead to changes in a person’s moles.
For now, only one thing for sure – selling them is illegal.
How do they work?
Both Melanotan products work by increasing the levels of melanin, a natural dark pigment that provides some protection from the sun.
They are both manmade versions of a natural protein called “alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone”, or alpha-MSH. This protein encourages cells in the skin to produce melanin, so by mimicking it, Melanotan products also lead to more melanin in the skin.
It’s important to remember that tans only provide a small measure of protection against UV radiation. You can’t rely on them to protect your skin against heavy doses of UV or to reduce the risk of skin cancer. Even if you have a tan, you can still burn and still increase your risk.
Do they work?
Melanotan I and Melanotan II have both been tested in small clinical trials. These have generally found that they can increase levels of melanin, as they are meant to do. One study even found that it could provide some protection against sunburn and the DNA damage that accompanies it.
So the researchers working to develop Melanotan may be on the right track, but we stress that these studies are in their early stages. They need to be confirmed in larger trials. So far, no regulatory body in any country has approved either of these products.
Untested, illegal and potentially dangerous
In the UK, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is a Government agency responsible for making sure that the benefits of any medicines outweigh their risks. The MHRA have warned people against using Melanotan.
According to them, the product is being “advertised and sold illegally”.
Melanotan has not been tested for safety, quality or effectiveness. Therefore it is not known what the possible side effects are or how serious they could be. People should be aware of this should they be offered the product… The MHRA has currently contacted 18 different companies explaining that any supplying or advertising of Melanotan is illegal and any websites etc should be taken down.
David Carter, from the MHRA said:
“We are warning people not to use this product. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Melanotan offers a shortcut to a safer and more even tan. The safety of these products is unknown and they are unlicensed in the UK. The side effects could be extremely serious. If you have used either of these products do not use them again and if you have any concerns you should seek advice from your doctor.”
Other countries have issued similar warnings. For example, the US Food and Drug Administration also warned people against using Melanotan and said that selling the product “violates federal law”.
What are the risks?
Aside from their effects on moles, Melanotan products could have other potential risks.
For a start, because these products are being sold illegally, there is no way of knowing if they are what they say they are, and not contaminated by dangerous chemicals. Nor do we know how they might interact with any licensed drugs a person is taking.
Melanotan is injected with needles and if that is not done hygienically, it could transfer dangerous infections such as HIV and hepatitis from person to person.
If you have used Melanotan and have experienced unwanted side effects, talk to your GP. They can give you advice and help you to fill out a yellow card, which allows the MHRA to keep track of the side effects of commercially available medicines.
Effects on moles
A new report from the British Medical Journal, published today suggests that this so-called “tan jab” can also change the appearance of moles. The report describes the case of two women who went to a skin clinic with intense tans (despite having fair skin) and moles that had changed rapidly.
Both used sunbeds and shortly before their moles changed, both had injected Melanotan I and II, bought over the internet.
Moles that change quickly can be signs of skin cancer. The big worry is that by affecting the shape, size or colour of moles, Melanotan could lead to incorrect diagnoses, false alarms or unnecessary operations.
It’s a high price to pay for something that could just as easily (and more safely) be achieved through using a fake tan.