As fans prepare for the live-action "Barbie" movie, the spotlight is on the unrelated "Barbie drug"

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published July 20, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • People looking to get tan buy the “Barbie drug” online. The drug refers to melanotan types I and II, a synthetic hormone that stimulates melanin. 

  • Melanotan type I was approved by the FDA for use in adult patients with erythropoietic protoporphyria. Melanotan II is not endorsed or regulated by the FDA. 

  • These drugs go by several different names, and they can pose risks to human health.

This summer, your patients may ask about the so-called tanning “Barbie drug” or melanotan. On the heels of the new Barbie movie release and the many aesthetic trends it’s inspired, melanotan is coming up in conversation more and more, as it’s thought to give its user tan, glowing skin—a la Barbie.  

With so many Americans tanning outdoors intentionally (and millions going to tanning salons—increasing melanoma risk by 75% after just one session before age 35), it’s no surprise people are looking for an easy, quick-fix tanning drug. However, these drugs are dangerous and shouldn’t be used to tan the skin.[][]

What is melanotan?

There are two types of melanotan—melanotan I and melanotan II- synthetic peptide analogs of alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone. “Melanotan 2 is a shorter cyclic variant of melanotan 1 that was developed in the 1990s,” according to researchers writing in Dermatology Practical & Conceptual.[] 

The researchers explain the origin of the “Barbie drug” name for melanotan 2:, “Melanotan 2 was found to increase skin pigmentation at lower cumulative doses than melanotan 1. Because of these effects (skin tanning, weight reduction due to suppressed appetite and penile erections), melanotan 2 became known as the ‘Barbie drug.’”

The FDA approved melanotan I—marketed as Scenesse—in 2019 as a treatment for adult patients with a history of phototoxic reactions (damage to skin) from erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP). The drug works by increasing “pain-free light exposure,” says the FDA.[]

EPP is a type of porphyria. Porphyrias  are rare disorders affecting the skin or nervous system that lead to an accumulation of protoporphyrins in a patient’s red blood cells. Normally, protoporphyrins change into heme, but this fails to occur in patients with porphyria. This failure leads to photosensitivity and can lead to other conditions, like liver disease.[][]

Melanotan II is not approved for tanning nor regulated by the FDA. “Melanotan II is an illicit drug,” says Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, FACEP, FUHM, FACMT, medical toxicologist, co-medical director, and interim executive director at the National Capital Poison Center. “Melanotan II is often marketed online as a tanning agent, but it also carries side effects, including painful and prolonged erections.”[]

Today, people are buying the drug online—and searching for “melanotan I,” “melanotan II,” “afemelanotide,” “tanning peptides,” “tanning injections,” “Barbie drug,” and “tanning jab” in order to find it. 

News reports from last year reveal that TikTok users were buying tanning nasal sprays claiming to be made from melanotan I or melanotan II. The FDA has tried to crack down on illegal sales of these types of drugs, but the issue continues.[][]

For example, in Australia, people peddling the drugs—claiming they can offer a tan without the risk of melanoma—are finding loopholes around legislation banning advertising of melanotan II. 

However, the risk is real. According to Journal Of Case Reports: Clinical & Medical, “Numerous case reports of melanoma, eruptive nevi, and atypical nevi appearing after initiation of melanotropic peptides therapy have been reported.”[]  

“Melanotan II is associated with significant concerning side effects,” Dr. Johnson-Arbor says. “These include painful erections, drowsiness, and compulsive yawning. Melanotan I (afamelanotide) is not associated with sexual side effects, but people who use the medication may experience nausea, vomiting, headaches, and facial flushing in addition to increased skin pigmentation.” 

In the end, Dr. Johnson-Arbor urges healthcare providers to warn their patients about the Barbie drug.  “The safety and effectiveness of melanotan I as a skin tanning agent have not been extensively studied in healthy individuals, and it should not be used for cosmetic purposes,” she says. “And while melanotan I may be useful for people with certain medical conditions, it should only be used as prescribed. Melanotan II is an illicit drug that has no proven medical benefits in humans and is associated with significant risks.”

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