Consumers ignore warnings about tan jab dangers
UK scientists are concerned by the rising use of Melanotan 'tan jabs', which contain synthetic hormones and can give the skin a tanned appearance.
The injections have become widely available on the internet and in some tanning salons, but are unlicensed and unregulated and thus their sale is illegal in the UK.
The long-term effects of the products, Melanotan I and II, are yet to be determined by scientific studies and experts are therefore concerned that they may be causing unnecessary harm.
- Caroline Cerny, SunSmart campaign manager, Cancer Research UK
Writing in the British Medical Journal, experts at Liverpool John Moores University have expressed their unease at the increasing use of these drugs.
Despite previous warnings about the drugs' potential dangers, they reveal that over 30 needle and syringe programmes in England and Wales, along with several drug workers and commissioners, have sought their advice in relation to people using melanotan over the last 12 months.
The drugs are easily obtained on the internet and the experts mention one website with more than 5,000 members who use the site to discuss their experiences of melanotan and seek advice about where to buy it.
However, the safety of the preparations which are available online is in serious doubt.
The authors write: "In common with other illicitly supplied drugs such as anabolic steroids, serious concerns exist about the quality of the preparations that are currently available - not only the drug content and dose, but also contaminants and sterility.
"Some users - especially those who are injecting drugs for the first time - are reusing or sharing injecting equipment, which places them and others at risk of infections, including blood-borne viruses."
They note that the direct health risks associated with melanotan are also not clear. Although small clinical trials have suggested that these may be limited to facial flushing, nausea and vomiting, there is a possibility that the drugs may interact with "several physiological systems".
The authors claim that the use of tanning jabs is part of a "broader phenomenon of using a range of drugs for lifestyle reasons".
"Although action to reduce the illicit supply of such drugs should be an important part of any response, its effect will be limited unless the demand for these products is reduced," they note.
"This, however, will require substantial changes in society's attitudes, particularly towards drugs taken for lifestyle reasons - the demand for which seems to be insatiable."
Caroline Cerny, Cancer Research UK's SunSmart campaign manager, said: "It is illegal to sell Melanotan I and II because they have not been licensed or tested for safety. As a result we don't know nearly enough about how they affect people's bodies and the worry is that they could be harmful.
"Not only is it dangerous to inject yourself with an untested product, doctors have reported that using these type of injections can lead to changes in the appearance of moles. If people really want to be tanned, they should avoid these unlicensed products and stick to fake tan."
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has expressed its own concerns about the use of melanotan on several occasions.
Spokesman David Carter recently said in a statement: "We would say to consumers - do not 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."