An injectable tanning drug is being used by some B.C. residents, despite its not being approved by Health Canada or authorites in the U.S., according to a spokesman for the tanning salon industry.
Melanotan II, also known as the "Barbie drug," is marketed online primarily as a sunless tanning agent but was originally developed by the University of Arizona as a preventative therapy for skin cancer.
"Melanotan II is a hormone that mimics the melanin that's in your skin," said Steven Gilroy, the executive director of the Joint Canadian Tanning Association, and who also owns a tanning salon in Kelowna, B.C.
"When UV light hits your melanocytes it produces a product called melanin that actually surrounds your cells and that is oxidized and browned by the UVA light, and that's how you get a tan."
Tanning drug popular in Australia, U.K.
The drug is common in the U.K. and Australia, but has just recently caught on in Canada.
LiquidSun Europe, which bills itself as Europe's top supplier of Melanotan II, suggests users injecting the drug into the abdomen every second day, along with one to two sunbed sessions a week, until the desired skin colour is reached and then once a week after that.
It says users will begin to see a difference in one to three weeks.
"We heard about it out of Australia about four years ago, and it was in a pill form. And then about a year ago it seemed to show up in the U.K. almost like a party drug," said Gilroy, referencing a discovery by the University of Arizona researchers that Melanotan II can be an aphrodisiac.
The drug is being used by people in Vancouver and Kelowna, but Gilroy says results have been mixed.
"I checked with one of my staff and she had met someone out of Vancouver who said it didn't work that well."
Cancer Society warns against tanning drugs
It's not clear if Melanotan II could cause cancerous melanomas, but the Canadian Cancer Society warns against using the injectable hormone and other tanning drugs.
"Oral tanning products (also known as tanning pills) and injectable tanning products are considered to be drugs. Health Canada has not approved the use of any of these products for tanning purposes. Until they have been reviewed and experts believe they are safe, these products should be avoided."
University of Arizona researchers did a small, FDA-approved clinical trial of Melanotan II, but it has not been thoroughly tested and the risks are unclear.
"There's no background research to show if it was safe or not and this is why the FDA shut down a website that was set up in the U.S. about three years ago," said Gilroy. "This is why the U.K. and the FDA looked at this and didn't have sufficient research so they couldn't take it and approve it until such time as there was research to back it."
Gilroy said he is urging Health Canada to take a closer look at the drug and its side effects.