Melanoma Trust

In Memory of Sharon Rice O’Beirne


New tan needles its way in

An unlicensed tanning injection, not yet approved for human use, is being accessed here through the internet, writes Ciara O’Brien

The quest for the perfect tan has taken a new twist with an unlicensed tanning injection that is being openly sold through the internet and being used by customers in the Republic.

Available under the name Melanotan, the peptide is designed to stimulate tanning in the body by boosting the amount of melanin, which is the body’s natural protection from the sun, without exposure to UV rays.

It was originally developed as a potential weapon in the fight against skin cancer. It is still undergoing clinical trials, but unlicensed varieties have found their way onto the internet and it has been adopted as a tanning drug for those who don’t want the mess of fake tan or the stigma that comes with using sunbeds.

There are two variants of the drug, Melanotan I and Melanotan II. Sold online for as little as £28 (€33), the websites claim the drug will give users a tan without exposure to harmful UV rays.

The drug is sold in packages that include vials of the powder, which has to be mixed with bacteriostatic water and injected into the skin.

For some, the drug may seem like the perfect solution to the tanning problem. A third of cancers diagnosed worldwide are skin cancers, with most attributed to over-exposure to natural UV radiation.

According to the National Cancer Registry of Ireland, there were 6,794 cases of skin cancer in 2005, the most recent data available. More than 590 of these were melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer.

However, the side effects of the drugs are well publicised on the various sites, with nausea, headaches, fatigue and increased libido among them.

Isabella (not her real name) (29) suffered severe side effects after she bought the tanning drug from a friend who, she says, got it from a bodybuilder.

“I was really sick for the first day, it was awful,” she says. “I kept taking it though, and it went away after a few days. I do think it works; I haven’t worn false tan since April.”

However, the vial that Isabella received wasn’t labelled, so it is not clear if she was taking Melanotan II or its predecessor, Melanotan I. According to information available on the internet - the main source of information on Melanotan I and II that those who buy the drug have at their disposal - the side effects from the second variant are said to be more severe than with Melanotan I.

Twenty-two year-old Sarah (not her real name) has also used the drug. “I heard about it from a friend of mine, so I went online and bought it from a site in the UK,” she says.

She paid €180 for 50mg of Melanotan online; the site she purchased it from no longer shows up in Google’s listings.

Like others using the drug, Sarah suffered from severe nausea. However, she took a lower dosage than friends who took it around the same time.

“One girl actually stopped taking it after the first day because it was that bad. I didn’t want to be that sick,” she said. “I took it on a Friday though so I wouldn’t be in work if I was ill.

“What I was surprised about was that there were no instructions with it. I just got a lunchbox with a cold pack and the vials, no real instructions on how to use it,” she said. “I could have been anyone. I could have been a 13-year-old child getting this stuff. There could be air in the syringe, anything could happen.”

Unlike most people, however, she had sufficient experience with injections to know how to inject herself properly. “My mother is a nurse and I had to inject myself with blood-thinning drugs last year, so I’m used to giving myself injections. You don’t even feel the needle.”

Isabella was given a little more information on how to administer the drug. “I was told how to mix it and inject it,” she says. “The needles are the same as the ones diabetics use, and I’m not squeamish, so injecting it wasn’t a problem for me.”

Despite its reputation as a “sunless tanning” drug, exposure to UV was recommended to Isabella. “I was told to do sunbeds: one every three days for a week,” she says.

However, the side effects - the nausea in particular - were enough to put her off going for a second round of the injections.

Both girls did their research online before using the injection, and decided that it was worth the risk. Another of the possible side effects was darkening the appearance of moles on the skin, and the two girls have since had to have moles checked out by doctors.

Sarah has had some removed, but she is reluctant to blame the tanning injection. “I had kidney failure last year, so I’m on a drug called Cyclosporine. That increases the risk of skin cancer, so I can’t say that the Melanotan would have caused the moles I had removed,” she says.

Despite the testimonials of satisfied users that litter the internet, those who opt for the tanning injections may be taking a risk with their health. According to the Irish Medicines Board (IMB), it is not licensed on the Irish market.

The IMB said it had focused earlier this year on the possibility that the product “may have been available on the market through the internet”.

“We confirmed that it could be purchased and we co-operated with our counterparts abroad to ensure that there would be no further supply into Ireland. This product has not been identified as being imported since then,” it said.

“The supply of prescription- only medicinal products through the internet is a breach of medicinal product legislation pursuant to the Irish Medicines Board Act 1995-2006 and its regulations,” the board said in a statement.

“The IMB continually monitors and investigates instances of illegal supply of prescription- only medicinal products via the internet in the interest of protecting public health,” the statement continued.

“The IMB strongly advises consumers not to purchase medicinal products through unauthorised sources such as the internet as there can be no guarantees on the safety, efficacy and effectiveness of products purchased in this manner.”

Those who breach the legislation risk hefty fines and a spell in jail - up to €120,000 and 10 years in prison for a first offence, depending on the case.

A spokeswoman for the board said it was illegal to supply any medicinal product, whether it was over the counter or prescription only, which had not been licensed for use in Ireland. This means that while those selling the product are the ones to bear the legal consequences, customers could find their expensive tanning injections seized by the IMB.

The Irish Cancer Society said it would need to know more about the drug before commenting. “In principle, however, we would advise consumers not to buy products of this nature over the internet as the side effect profile is not well understood and they would need supervision in administering the product,” a spokeswoman for the ICS said today.

“We would also advise consumers not to buy or use any sunless tanning products and to be careful of over-exposure to natural sunlight because of the risk of skin cancer.”

In the UK, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has also warned against using the drug, saying the safety of the products was unknown and the side effects could be serious.

While some users are continuing with Melanotan, Sarah is one user who won’t be tempted by the drug again, and certainly won’t be contributing to its word-of-mouth reputation.

“I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. If they used it and something happened, it would be my fault,” she says.

Original Source : Ciara O’Brien | The Irish Times | 18th November 2008.

Filed under : What the Papers Say
By The Irish Times
On 18 November, 2008
At 10:00 am
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