What are sunless tanning injections and are they a safer option to get that bronzed look?

What are sunless tanning injections and are they a safer option to get that bronzed look?

Can achieving the perfect glow really be as easy as a few injections?

From sunbeds, tan cans, tanning lotions, spray tans, creams, gels, foams or even tanning tablets, quick and easy ways of getting that perfect bronzed beach look have been rather attainable for a number of years now. The majority of the population don’t have the time to sit in the sun for hours on end, and some of us tend to range between pale as snow and something resembling a ripe tomato with no in-between when attempting to do something about it.

No matter your situation, you have probably heard of some kind of ‘get-tanned-quick’ solution, and, if you are like a large number of men and women in this ‘tan-driven’ world, you may have heard about the latest trend in sunless tanning… tan injections (also known as tan jabs).  Sunless tanning refers to the use of chemicals applied to the skin or administered via oral tablets or injections in order to achieve a tan without UV exposure. Spray tans have been a popular topic for years now, instead, we want to focus on tanning injections.

With the risks of skin cancer ever increasing and prolonged sun exposure being a danger that elevates these risks, people are flocking to tanning injections as the next best solution, and if needles aren’t your cup of tan, then there are even skin patches (although they do have microneedles as a delivery point) and nasal sprays available that will help you to achieve the same results.

But just how safe are these tan-talising solutions and what health risks do you have in taking them? We set out to answer this question and inform you on all you need to know about these products.

Sunbed tanning

Why do people prefer tan injections over other fake tan products?

You may have heard of the term ‘Melanotan’ which is the name of a popular brand of tanning injections, however, a number of other companies are manufacturing similar products under a number of different names (including Nu-tan, Betatan etc), each with very similar ingredients, uses and side effects.

Melanotan, also known as ‘MT’, ‘Mel’ or even, and even, our personal favourite, ‘The Barbie Drug’, has received much media attention since warnings regarding the safety of the untested, unregulated and unlicensed product were issued in 2008.

Nevertheless, gyms, beauty salons and online stores are all jumping onto the ‘tan-wagon’ of tan injections for a number of reasons, the most prominent being that the injectable tan does not have an odour or wash off and is a more long-term solution to keeping that bronzed and radiant look. So, you don’t have to worry about topping up your spray tan, peeling or flaking as with this product your tan will last (as long as you keep getting the injections of course).

The added benefits (besides the darkening of your skin) to a number of people using injectable tanning products are advertising as being the following:

  • Suppressing appetite
  • Increasing lean body mass
  • Increasing fat loss
  • Increasing libido

Based on the promotional information, tan injections as a form of sunless tanning is understandably a very tempting proposition.  After all, getting that summer glow without roasting in the sun for hours or having to exfoliate and then play personal twister to apply a strange smelling goop that rubs off on the towels, sheets and even the toilet seat is more than just a little appealing.  Factor in the possibility that you’ll also be leaner and feel sexier and you’re probably already googling to find a distributor.

The issue, however, arises with the fact that there has been very little testing conducted on these products to evaluate their quality, safety or long-term effects on the body (and the severity of these).

Also, bear in mind, when you stop using tanning injections your tan will fade completely within four to eight weeks. The above-mentioned benefits will also soon start to disappear. As with the side effects of the drug, the benefits have not been clinically tested.

What exactly is Melanotan and how does the tanning solution work?

Melanotan, having two different types, Melanotan I and Melanotan II, and similar tanning injectables work through increasing the levels of a pigment in your skin known as melanin. Melanin forms a vital part of your body’s natural response to the harsh sun, and when the levels of this pigment are increased, this results in the skin darkening in colour, also known as tanning. The two different forms of Melanotan (and other tanning injections) are diluted with sterile water before they are injected.

Melanotan is basically a synthetic version of the hormone melanocortin. This hormone, which is secreted by the pituitary gland located at the base of your brain, aids in regulating your body’s growth and development and is a vital element in maintaining your energy levels1. Melanocortin aids in stimulating and accelerating your body’s production of the skin darkening pigment, melanin. This pigment absorbs the ultraviolet radiation from the sun and therefore darkens the skin. When Melanotan is administered by means of injections over a period of time (normally the course of a few weeks as suggested by Melanotan distributors), the product will semi-permanently darken your skin as though you were tanning in the sun.

Melanotan was initially developing during the 1980s by a team of researchers from the University of Arizona for the treatment of skin conditions such as erythropoietic protoporphyria and vitiligo, both of which are disorders that affect skin sensitivity (to sunlight in particular) and appearance.

Melanotan has also been used in the treatment of erectile dysfunction, hence one of the side effects being spontaneous erections, but we will get to that later on.

Through promoting higher levels of melanin in the skin, Melanotan is able to ease some of the symptoms associated with the above-mentioned conditions and allow for those who suffer from them to lead a more normal and healthy life.

Because of the product’s medicinal uses, media attention followed and the public quickly caught onto the possible benefits of the drug for aesthetic purposes. Melanotan as a natural form of photoprotection, meaning it aids in preventing the damage of the sun, was also touted as a way to get tanned without the risk of skin cancer. This thinking led to the product being marketed and used as a lifestyle drug.  However, most tan injection suppliers will recommend some degree of sun or UV exposure as part of the tanning process, as such a number of Melanotan users will also spend at least an hour a week in the sun or on sunbeds in order to speed up the processes and darken their tans even more. 

**My Med Memo -  Photoprotection refers to a biochemical process that aids in the recovery from sun damage in organisms, helping these organisms to cope with any molecular damage they have undergone from being exposed to sunlight

There is some logic behind this international trend in the idea of attaining the look and appeal of tanned skin (through the increase in melanin) with very little exposure (and often no exposure) to the sun. It is thought that when you have more melanin in your body, you have more protection from the sun and its UV radiation and in turn, a healthier complexion. It is argued that these products could, therefore, protect a number of individuals from sun damage and lower their risk of melanoma. Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that occurs when melanin-forming cells join together often evident in the change or growth to an existing mole.

Tanning injections

However, the medical community has voiced concern over the number of patients presenting with new melanoma lesions which seem to coincide with the use of Melanotan and tanning injections.  Whether there is a direct causal link is still unclear as the majority of these patients also spend time in direct sunlight or on tanning beds.  Further data and studies are needed to establish a direct causal link between the use of Melanotan and the development of melanoma.

Another concern voiced by dermatologists is that tanning injection’s ability to darken the skin and moles interferes with the detection of melanoma.

What is the difference between the different types of Melanotan?

Melanotan I is often viewed as the better alternative to Melanotan II as the side effects are far fewer and less severe than those associated with Melanotan II. Melanotan II is far more intense, however, this form of the drug often yields greater results in terms of tan density.

What are the different forms of administration of Melanotan and other tanning brands?

Melanotan and many of the competitor products that have followed are prominently available in injectable forms where the user will need to inject the solution into a layer of fat (usually adjacent to the naval) using a specific dosage for a certain period of time.

Melanotan also comes in the form of a nasal spray for those who don’t do needles. Some companies have also developed a microneedle patch that you put on your arm for a few hours. The two alternatives to the injectables are not always as effective and don’t guarantee the same results.

Is Melanotan safe for me to use?

There are currently ongoing clinical trials for the efficacy and safety of the use of Melanotan. When the product was first developed in 2008, the European Medicines Agency approved its use for the treatment of specific skin disorders on a prescription basis and it was only intended to be used by people suffering from these conditions.

With this in mind, the use of the drug among those who do have these skin disorders has not been investigated further and there are no published clinical trials conducted as yet. This means that the drug’s long-term safety and efficacy, when used by the general population, is not yet known.

The same goes for the use of Melanotan in the treatment of erectile dysfunction (ED) – it may possibly be safe when used under medical supervision, but once again, insufficient data exists.

A number of countries are questioning the legalities in the nonprescription distribution and personal use of Melanotan that is currently taking place across the globe. Several heated debates currently exist as to whether or not the use of this drug by the public should be classified as illegal (which it currently is in many countries) and be punishable by law.

At present, the drug is unregulated, therefore, a number of practitioners will warn you against the use of it and will not prescribe it for lifestyle and aesthetic purposes. To date, there have been no population-based studies conducted, however, the off-label use of the product is drastically increasing.

A large number of the users of Melanotan acquire the drug (often by simply ordering it online) to maintain a tan all year round in order to fit in with the current beauty ideals of western society. Users will pay a hefty fee for a few injections and concerns arise regarding the risks of unregulated needle use and its safety amongst untrained and inexperienced users.

In answer to the question regarding the safety of Melanotan, there simply is not enough information on the nonprescription use of the drug and therefore the full extent of the risks cannot be guessed but one only has to consider the side effects to realise a certain degree of risk is involved.

What are the side effects of Melanotan?

A number of pamphlets and sites selling Melanotan or similar competitor products will deem the product ‘safe’ to use and even note that the product has been approved by a ‘doctor’, but very few will name the doctor or reference an accredited source for the approval of the drug.

The common side effects that are listed by distributors include:

  • Facial flushing
  • Appetite loss
  • Darkened skin
  • Increased libido
  • Spontaneous penile erections
  • Sleepiness
  • Stomach cramps
  • Yawning
  • Nausea
  • Bloating

Some less common side effects include:

  • Moles, freckles, sunspots and lips may darken
  • Development of new moles

Rare side effects are noted as:

  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting
  • Itching
  • Visual issues
  • Anaphylactic shock (although most note this as uncommon)

The above-mentioned side effects are said to subside once the use of the product has stopped. Further information is also given on how to inject yourself and how much sun exposure is needed. Some forms of Melanotan and competitor products require no sun exposure for them to effectively show results.

Experts have noted a range of significant issue amongst users, some of which include liver, back and kidney pain.

The issues arise with product ingredients being somewhat sketchy as only a few of the ingredients are listed on the actual products and websites endorsing these ensure that they are ‘safe’ and ‘herbal’. Another issue arises with the use of non-sterile needles. Sharing needles spreads diseases such as hepatitis and HIV and unsupervised injections can lead to tissue and skin damage which may cause necrosis and even be life-threatening.

There have been a number of personal accounts of severe side effects popping up across the web with users noting that the tan injections and nasal sprays landed them up in hospital and left them with severe skin discolouration and other complications such as heart irregularities. Whether these occurrences are true or not is debatable and the presence of other underlying factors which could have caused these issues cannot be ignored, but caution should always be warranted when dealing with unaccredited sources, however, more than a few media sources have reported on complications arising from the use of these products.

There have been scientifically described cases of malignant melanoma (a dangerous form of skin cancer) in people who have used Melanotan II. Companies selling injectable tanning products also warn against their use of in women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Those who have cancer or any heart issues should also steer clear of these products as there is no data available on people with these conditions taking Melanotan.

What are the side effects of the nasal spray?

Some of the side effects that may occur when using the nasal spray include:

  • Allergic reactions
    • Itching
    • Hives
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Swelling of your mouth, lips, tongue or face
    • Tightness in your chest

Is Melanotan the only option for tanning injections?

There are a few other brands who claim to have reworked the ingredients of Melanotan, or rather who use similar ingredients to the initial drug created in the 1980s to help those with skin conditions. Their drugs, in essence, limit sun exposure adding some barrier of protection to the skin when exposed to UV light and increase the melanin levels in the skin. They also claim to have fewer side effects than Melanotan.

A company based in South Africa state on their website that they have conducted a number of clinical trials on over 5000 candidates as recently as 2009 with their participants in the studies having no long-term side effects. They also note that a number of medical practitioners endorse and sell their product to patients. They claim that their product has also been approved in Switzerland and Italy and has currently reached orphan drug status with the US based company the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Orphan drug status refers to drugs that fall under the Orphan Drug Act of 1983 which facilitates the development of drugs that can be used for rare diseases.

However, the information provided by this unaccredited site is not the guaranteed truth as there are no references to the studies and clinical trials they mention and also no information on the “private proprietor name” they claim that the drug is registered under (which they use to explain why their product name does not come up when searched on the FDA site), and one has to wonder whether these kinds of companies are simply attempting to differentiate themselves from their competitors with this information by promising a ‘healthy’ tan.

Caution should always be taken when dealing with new products such as these as there is evidence that clearly states the number of side effects that have been documented in users, these effects do not include the undocumented long-term side effects that may or may not arise. Either way, it is a bit of a gamble and playing with your health to achieve a specific ideal of beauty is not worth the risk.

What are some safer options of tanning?

Tanning on sunbeds or in the sun is not advised as these forms of UV light exposure accelerate skin ageing and can lead to the development of skin cancer.

Fake tan lotions and products are a safer alternative for those seeking that bronzed glow and are often more financially viable than Melanotan and other tanning injectables.

The verdict on Melanotan

Melanotan may seem like the perfect quick-tan solution as the side effects listed are somewhat bearable. Keep in mind though that these are side effects that have been seen in users and not always in a clinical setting, a number of possible side effects may yet be documented as they may not occur as commonly or may only become evident over the long term.

There is, however, some possibility that Melanotan could effectively help people in achieving a ‘healthy tan’ in future, but the drug will need to be further investigated on a far more in-depth level and specifically tailored for this purpose in order for it to be regulated and monitored.

Until then, it is advised that you hold off on these tan injections (sprays or patches) as you are putting your health at risk when using these products. Any product that risks your well-being should be used with caution and, as suggested by experts, not used at all.

So, if Barbie is your ideal then rather opt for some safer options in terms of spray tanning, your future self will thank you.


  1. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. 2003. The role of melanocortin peptides and receptors in regulation of energy balance. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12570796 [Accessed 23.08.2017]

Disclaimer - MyMed.com is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition or illness or act as a substitute for professional medical advice.