Tanning Injections & Nasal Sprays: Everything You Should Know

If you're a TikTok beauty hack enthusiast, you may have noticed some users of the app using their platforms to promote sunless tanning in the form of an injectable or inhalable medication known as "the Barbie drug." While the idea of a quick shot or a mist of nasal spray resulting in the bronze tan of your dreams with no risk of sunburn or extra wrinkles sounds, well, dreamy, the reality is not so simple. Using these drugs can actually cause severe and irreversible side effects.


Both tanning injections and nasal sprays contain the active ingredient melanotan, which is a synthetic version of a naturally occurring melanocyte-stimulating hormone created by the human body (via Healthline). This is the substance responsible for triggering the production of melanin, which darkens the skin. However, what social media influencers promoting these medications don't mention is that they can produce some of the same side effects as exposure to UV rays, as well as additional issues.

Melanotan injections

According to Healthline, melanotan injections contain either melanotan I or melanotan II. Both types stimulate the release of melanin in the body, but they take slightly different paths to get there. Melanotan I binds with fewer receptors and stays in the body longer, while melanotan II binds with more receptors, but doesn't remain in the body for as long as melanotan I, requiring more frequent doses to sustain a tan. Melanotan I and melanotan II have not received FDA approval for tanning use and are currently being sold online as unregulated supplements. 


Research published in the International Journal of Dermatology has linked both types of melanotan to serious side effects, such as an increase in moles and skin cancer, including potentially deadly melanoma and, in the case of melanotan II, kidney damage (per CEN Case Reports). Healthline also reported that these drugs are associated with nausea and vomiting, facial flushing, loss of appetite, and spontaneous sexual stimulation. Since melanotan II requires more frequent doses to stay tan, it is more likely to cause unwanted side effects. Like all injectables, melanotan injections can also pose the risk of abscess, nerve damage, blood infection, and transmissible diseases such as HIV and hepatitis (via World Health Organization).


Melanotan nasal sprays

Most tanning nasal sprays contain melanotan II as their active ingredient (via Cleveland Clinic), which means they come with all the same potential side effects as tanning injections, minus the risks associated specifically with needles. Instead, as detailed in StatPearls, the drug is delivered directly into your bloodstream through the vascularized mucus membranes inside your nasal cavities. While this might feel less invasive and therefore safer, that is not the case. Unfortunately, people who would not reach for injectable tanning drugs may feel a false sense of security with nasal sprays.


Since melanotan nasal sprays are not approved for the treatment of any illness, they are sold in a completely unregulated manner. This results in products being purchased that may contain harmful fillers along with melanotan or that may not even contain the drug at all. When you choose to use one of these products, you are risking ingesting any number of unknown substances. As Cleveland Clinic dermatologist, Allison Vidimos, RPh, MD advised, "Melanotan sprays just aren't safe, period." 

Legal status of tanning injections and nasal sprays

According to Healthline, it's illegal to buy melanotan I or melanotan II in the United States. Since neither of these drugs has been approved for tanning purposes, distributing them can come with serious consequences.


The FDA has stated that the penalties for selling or marketing an unapproved drug such as melanotan can vary greatly. The administration could send sellers a simple warning letter, request a court order for compliance, or administer fines up to $250,000 for an individual or $500,000 for a corporation. There is also the possibility of criminal prosecution, which can result in either a misdemeanor (punishable by up to one year of incarceration) or a felony (punishable by up to three years of incarceration) conviction, depending on the details of the case. 

If you were considering selling tanning supplements on social media as a side hustle, it's officially time for a new plan. 

Melanotan versus tanning beds

Despite numerous health warnings from medical professionals, almost 30 million Americans choose to use tanning beds each year in an attempt to bronze their skin, as reported by USA Today. According to Kelsey-Seybold Clinic, using a tanning bed even once before the age of 35 increases your risk of developing melanoma by a staggering 75%. The dangers associated with UV rays from tanning beds and sunlight are one of the reasons promoters of tanning drugs encourage people to use them.


Since melanotan I has not been approved for the purpose of tanning and melanotan II is not approved for any purpose, there hasn't been enough research performed to identify precisely how these drugs compare to using a tanning bed. However, there have been documented cases of mole growth and the development of melanoma in users of tanning injections and nasal sprays (via Dermatology). This could suggest that triggering melanin production for tanning may increase the risk of melanoma regardless of the method used.

Safe tanning alternatives

According to the cancer research and treatment center City of Hope, there is no safe way to achieve tanning of the skin using sunlight, artificial light, or medications. If you feel like you just can't live without darkening your skin, the healthiest options are surface-level solutions such as spray tanning, self-tanning, and applying bronzer. While self-tanning products might require practice and skill to apply convincingly, the harm reduction of using them as opposed to increasing your risk of skin cancer makes the swap well worth the learning curve.


It may also be worth your time and effort to ask yourself why you crave a tan so badly. If you're willing to consider risking your long-term health for a temporary change in skin color, you may be struggling with low self-esteem or caving to society's unrealistic beauty standards. Whether you choose to use a safer method of tanning or embrace your natural skin tone, no aesthetic is worth risking your health or your life.