YESTERDAY, I was at the Kranji train station when I ran into a friend I had not seen for quite a while. The middle-aged man who was headed for the gym looked very definitely bulked up. He also had a deep rich tan. When I asked if he was using a sunbed, he guffawed, saying there were now easier and safer ways to get a tan. There were injections for this purpose, he confessed. You can even buy them over the Internet, he volunteered. Injected under the skin, the two popular ones on the market are called Melanotan I and Melanotan II. These are man-made versions of the “alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone” or alpha-MSH. Thus they are, in reality, hormonal injections, many of them made in China. In nature, this hormone stimulates those skin cells called melanocytes to produce melanin, the pigment that gives human skin its colour. Melanotan jabs mimic its actions, thus causing melanocytes to superproduce more melanin.
Be warned: melanocytes are the skin cells that become cancerous in the killer skin disease called malignant melanoma. But because sunbeds and sunbathing involve UV light, which causes DNA damage and is thus linked to skin cancer, these injections have been touted as safer alternatives since no UV is needed. Moreover, while Melanotan I gives you a tan, Melanotan II (which is a downsized Melanotan I molecule) has other “benefits”: it increases sexual desire, induces spontaneous erections in men and supposedly causes genital arousal in women. But Melanotan II may also lead to more side effects, including nausea, reduced appetite and sleepiness. Because it makes you tanned, thin and turned on, the Melanotan II jab has been nicknamed the “Barbie drug”.
A miracle shot for the middle-aged?
Note, however, that no alpha-MSH injections have been approved for cosmetic usage anywhere. Thus Melanotan I and II jabs hawked over the Internet have not been properly tested in clinical trials for safety, efficacy and product quality. Those who peddle them do an end run around the law by claiming to sell them “for research purposes only”, adding that they have not been tested fully for safety. In 2008, the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare-products Regulatory Agency warned people against using Melanotan. The US Food and Drug Administration had done so a year earlier.
To be fair, though, here is the present state of knowledge regarding the hormone’s carcinogenic potential: Studies of its effects on cell cultures in petri dishes and also in live animals have not established if it does cause cancer. Some studies do show alpha-MSH having a suppressive effect on immune defence mechanisms, which may predispose users to cancer. Conversely, because it also stimulates melanocytes to produce more skin pigment which is protective against UV light, it could have the capacity to protect against skin cancer.
In fact, there is a synthetic alpha-MSH the equivalent of Melanotan I that is undergoing clinical trials to see if it protects users from skin cancer in people who are most at risk of sunburns (photosensitive individuals) and those who are genetically predisposed to and have a family history of skin cancer. In addition, there is an equivalent of Melanotan II that is undergoing trials to see if it works in people with erectile deficiency who do not respond well to Viagra and other similar drugs used to treat impotence in men. The manufacturer involved is also testing it out in women who have low libidos.
To repeat, Melanotan I and Melanotan II injections sold over the Internet have not themselves been studied anywhere for safety, efficicacy or dosage in their use as tanning jabs. In practice, their usage also entails the risk of the transmission of infections. This is because these drugs are sold as a white powder in small glass vials. You introduce sterile water into these vials of powder to reconstitute the hormone into an injectable solution. If users reuse needles or share them, or contaminate their vials of sterile water, they may put themselves at risk of acquiring serious infections such as hepatitis and HIV.
The product is usually bundled with vials of “bacteriostatic water for injection” for you to use to reconstitute the solution. This is sterile water with benzyl alcohol added to stop any bacteria from growing in it. Whether “bacteriostatic water for injection” can cause foetal deformities if administered to a pregnant woman is not known since this has not even been studied in animal models. Thus sexually active women who use Melanotan jabs must make sure they are not also pregnant. One other reason not to use them for now is the fact that the increased pigmentation they cause can lead to a misdiagnosis of any skin condition you might develop. That would be hazardous if you have a family history of skin cancer. All in all, that tan can wait.