The ‘Barbie drug’ for tanning, weight loss and cancer

If you’ve spent more than a few minutes on social media, you’ve probably seen an influencer touting the benefits of melanotan II.

Also known as the “Barbie drug,” melanotan II is best known for its ability to accelerate the tanning process, giving you a deep golden tan without the need to spend hours in the sun or tanning bed.

As appealing as that might sound, melanotan II is considered an illegal drug. It’s not approved for human use in many countries, including the U.S., U.K. and Australia. And there’s good reason for that…

The dangers of using melanotan II

Melanotan is a lab-made chemical originally made as a drug to help treat certain skin conditions. It’s similar to the melanocyte-stimulating hormone produced naturally by our bodies. Melanocyte-stimulating hormone increases the production of skin-darkening pigments.

When injected or used as a nasal spray, melatonin II can darken the skin, giving the appearance of a tan in a matter of days. The drug can also suppress appetite and lead to weight loss, another desirable effect.

What the social media influencers don’t tell you is taking the “Barbie” drug is illegal. Melanotan II was never approved for use in humans, for good reason — its use has been linked with neurological effects, kidney infarction and melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

“You’re stimulating pigment cells with melanotan II,” says Dr. John Frew, a dermatologist at Liverpool Hospital and Conjoint Senior Lecturer at UNSW Medicine & Health in Australia. “If you do that enough, you can cause abnormal proliferation of the cells. And this can jumpstart the progression to the possible development of melanoma.”

Previous case reports show some melanotan II users have developed skin-based complications, including melanoma, but evidence on the causal link is still limited.

One 27-year-old user in the U.K. told BBC News she gave herself melanotan II injections and used a tanning bed to help “activate” the drug. The drug gave her headaches, but she kept using it.

Eight months later, she was diagnosed with stage 1 melanoma. The doctor told her melanotan II likely played a role in her developing the dangerous skin cancer.

As well as affecting pigment cells in the skin, melanotan II can bind to receptors in the brain, influencing processes like appetite and sexual function. Unfortunately, experts say this can also lead to side effects like nausea, vomiting, face flushing, priapism (prolonged erections) and yawning.

Getting the Barbie drug off social media

Before the rise of social media, it was very difficult to get your hands on melanotan II. Now, it’s all over the internet.

Social media companies like TikTok and Meta, which runs Instagram, tell BBC News and UNSW that they’ve been taking down the videos promoting melanotan II and banning hashtags like #melanotan2 and #tanningnasalspray. However, for every video they take down, many more appear, often using generic hashtags that make them more difficult for site moderators to find.

Tony Cass, a professor of chemical biology at Imperial College London in the U.K., was recently involved in an analysis of 10 licensed over-the-counter tanning kits. Despite their licensed status, his team found melanotan II alongside more than 100 unidentified ingredients.

“With unregulated/illegal products, the label has no information, and as our analysis showed there were many other constituents, [and] there is no way for the consumer to find out what these are,” Cass told Medical News Today. “Regulation is very difficult in this case, especially as internet influencer-based promotion is in any case difficult to control.”

Frew says that questions remain about how to protect social media users from the advertising of illegal and harmful products, and the responsibilities of social platforms to quash such advertising.

“The reach of the TGA [the Australian regulatory agency] is obviously quite limited in terms of what happens on TikTok and Instagram,” he says. “That’s a big problem with no clear solution.”

“Social media and other popular news and media outlets need to do more to stamp out false or misleading content [while] allowing experts to disseminate scientifically accurate information,” Dr. Faraz Mahmood Ali of Cardiff University told Medical News Today.

As for what you should do when considering tanning options, you should go to your dermatologist first. They will be able to recommend safe sunless tanning products, including spray-on bronzers and stainers, that have been approved by regulators.

Of course, if you use sunless tanning products, be aware that they offer no sun protection. You still need to use sunscreen or the physical protection of clothing and hats to protect your skin from the sun’s damaging rays.

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1. What is Melanotan-II – the drug that the TGA urges consumers to avoid? — USNW Sydney

2. Is melanotan II safe to use for tanning? — Medical News Today

3. ‘Dangerous’ tanning products promoted by influencers — BBC News

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.