As you might already know, getting a tan the old-fashioned way — via exposure to real or artificial UV rays — can lead to sun spots, wrinkles, and other signs of premature skin aging. It can also raise your risk of developing skin cancer.
Enter a vast array of sunless tanning products, from self-tanning lotions to serums to nasal spray. Wait — nasal spray?
If that made you do a double-take, you’re not alone. But tanning nasal spray does, in fact, exist.
Tanning nasal spray, which contains a hormone called melanotan II, has received plenty of airtime on TikTok recently. Influencers and online retailers who sell this product illegally promote it as a way to get a “safe and natural” tan.
But melanotan has the potential to cause several health concerns, including:
- prolonged and painful erections (priapism)
- gastrointestinal symptoms
- melanoma, a potentially life-threatening skin cancer
Some dermatologists have even taken to social media to urge people to avoid using tanning nasal spray.
Contrary to what some influencers on TikTok and Instagram might suggest, you don’t simply inhale a squirt of tanning spray before bed and —poof! — wake up with a perfect tan. Sprays also don’t give you a “perma-tan,” either.
The melanotan in tanning nasal spray replicates alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormones in your body. When you inhale melanotan through your nose, it enters your bloodstream by way of your mucus membranes. It then binds to your melanocortin receptors and stimulates the production of melanin, a pigment in your skin cells.
The more melanin your body produces, the darker your skin (temporarily) becomes. But again, this tan doesn’t last forever. When you stop using the spray, your body’s production of melanin will slow, and your tan will fade.
Melanotan I and II, found in tanning nasal sprays and tanning injections, aren’t approved or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). You can’t purchase melanotan legally in a number of countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
Since the FDA doesn’t regulate these products, you have no way to know for sure if the composition of the product you purchase actually matches the ingredients on the label — no matter what the retailer says.
So, even if you’re willing to take a chance on the potential health risks involved with using melanotan, you could end up with a product that contains impurities or unsafe additives.
Contaminants and mislabeling aside, very little research has explored the long-term effects of tanning nasal spray. Experts don’t know enough about melanotan’s potential side effects to determine whether people can use it safely.
In other words, any claims influencers or online retailers have made about the safety of tanning nasal spray are untrue. No scientific evidence supports the safety of these products.
When using an unregulated product, you run the risk of inhaling and absorbing too much of the drug and introducing contaminants and impurities into your body.
Plenty remains unknown about the long-term effects of melanotan. But experts have identified a number of short-term side effects associated with tanning nasal spray, including:
- nausea and vomiting
- loss of appetite
- facial flushing
- increased pigmentation of the skin and nails
- priapism in people with penises
- changes in libido
Melanotan may also contribute to more serious effects, including:
- melanoma, a potentially serious form of skin cancer
- rapid increase in the color, size, and development of new moles, including atypical moles
- rhabdomyolysis, a potentially life threatening destruction of muscle cells
- melanonychia, which is brown to black discoloration of nails
renal infarction, or the death of kidney tissue due to lack of blood flow
If you use a tanning nasal spray, anything more than mild side effects warrants a visit to a healthcare professional.
If you develop severe symptoms, visit an urgent care center or your nearest emergency room right away. Let your care team know you used tanning nasal spray so they can better identify and treat any adverse reactions to melanotan.
You can get a beachy bronzed glow without overexposing yourself to damaging UV rays or injecting (or inhaling) melatonin and other untested, unregulated products.
Safe options for tanning include:
Bronzers work like much makeup. You apply these products to your skin to get the look you want, then wash it off at the end of the day.
You can find bronzer in different forms, including cream, stick, powder, and spray.
Self-tanners come in the form of creams, lotions, and serums. They contain ingredients that darken the skin without exposure to UV light.
Dihydroxyacetone (DHA), an ingredient used in many sunless tanning products, darkens the skin by reacting with amino acids on the skin’s surface.
- mucus membranes, the moist tissues found throughout the body, including inside the nose and genitals.
You can find self-tanners with and without DHA. Some self-tanners also contain bronzers to give you an instant glow-up while you wait for the color additives to kick in and darken your skin.
Results typically last 7 to 10 days, though this timeframe can vary between products.
A spray tan is exactly what the name suggests: a tan you get from a spray, typically at a spa or salon.
A technician will spray a sunless tanning product containing DHA onto your skin, to the depth and tone of your choice. Depending on how dark you want your tan, your results can last anywhere from 7 to 10 days.
What about afamelanotide?
If you spend any time reading forum threads on tanning nasal sprays and injections, you might have come across a few mentions of afamelanotide (Sceneness), an implant prescription drug approved by the FDA.
Though afamelanotide is similar to melanotan, the FDA has not approved it for use as a self-tanner. The FDA
People with EPP experience severe pain and other skin reactions when exposing their skin to any type of light. Afamelanotide helps increase the amount of pain-free time a person with EPP can spend in artificial light or sunlight.
This drug should only be used in a clinical setting, and only healthcare professionals who have completed training in the subcutaneous implantation procedure can safely insert it under your skin.
In short, you can’t self-tan with afamelanotide. Doing so could lead to serious injury and infections.
Tanning nasal spray simply isn’t a good option for tanning.
Even setting aside the lack of research into melanotan’s long-term effects, these products remain unregulated. There’s no guarantee your spray actually contains the ingredients printed on the label. It could even contain contaminants as an unwelcome bonus.
Your safest bet is to stick with approved alternatives to tanning, like bronzer, self-tanner, and spray tan.
Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a Canada-based freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.