The Sunday Times Magazine: Tanning and Whitening

I want to be lighter. She wants to be darker

Skin-lightening creams, deep-tan injections — more and more people are prepared to endanger their health for that ‘golden cappuccino’ glow

To tan or not to tan: Hansa Dabee (left) and Emma MacDougall (Tom Pilston)

Emma MacDougall is the colour of cinnamon sticks. A rich café au lait brown, wrapped in waves of dark hair that gives her the dusky looks of a beautiful Indian squaw, like Pocahontas has been relocated to Colchester. “That’s what they call me,” she grins as we sit in a Starbucks, drinking coffee. “Pocahontas Barbie is my nickname.” I am white and wan, but she emits a warm mahogany glow even though it’s November in Essex. “Normally,” she laughs, “I’m whiter than white.” She points at my cappuccino. “I’m the white on top of the coffee.”

Emma’s skin tone is a Dulux colour chart away from the peaches-and-cream complexion with which she was born. But her tan is not the result of an Indian summer. It’s not from a week in the Med, a bottle of fake tan, or even the product of sunbeds. Instead Emma, 25, is this glorious gold, because — in common with thousands of others — she has been injecting an illegal drug that she buys online.

Emma’s addiction to tanning started with sunbeds — two a day, £100 a week — but there is a problem with sunbeds. “They’re time-consuming, and they dry your skin. My skin was flaking off and I was having to moisturise three or four times a day.” Then Emma heard about Melanotan 2, a synthetic hormone that, when it is injected directly into the body, makes skin cells more sensitive to UV light. As a result they start overproducing the brownish-pink pigment melanin — the body’s natural protection from the sun. Not that Emma knew the science bit — all she cared about is that Melanotan 2 gives you a tan.

Melanotan 2 is unlicensed in Britain, so it is illegal to sell in this country; but it is not illegal to buy it from a supplier abroad, and there are plenty online. Emma found a website, paid £20 for a kit, which arrived with syringes, sterile wipes, instructions and a little 10mg vial of viscous liquid. Emma is not good with injections, so she lay down on her bed, drew the clear liquid into a syringe and slipped the needle into her stomach. Then she passed out. When she came round 10 minutes later she was nauseous, faint and shaken, but she didn’t let the side effects put her off. For the next 40 days she carried on injecting (and fainting), watching with glee as her skin turned from molten honey to burnt caramel to boot polish. “People thought I was black. I looked like I was foreign… I loved it!”

“Melanotan 2 is a potent drug acting on the immune system, the inflammatory system and sexual function. We do not yet know the effects of long-term use.” This is Dr Michael Evans-Brown, a senior researcher from the Centre for Public Health — a research faculty at Liverpool John Moores University. They have become so concerned about Melanotan 2 that they have launched an investigation into its use, commissioned by the Department of Health. So far their observations indicate a worrying trend: Brown shows me one website,, where membership has leapt from 5,000 in 2009 to 8,700 in 2011. He tells me of a surge in reports from needle exchanges worrying about people requesting needles to inject the drug. I later confirm this with a Wigan needle exchange, who tell me they get “about four or five people coming in a day. They’re quite honest about what they need it for”.

Nobody has ever declared that it is safe. Anyone injecting fake tan is playing Russian roulette with their life

Meanwhile, since December 2008, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has issued warnings to 30 sellers online. Side effects of Melanotan 2 include vomiting, nausea, anxiety, skin discolouration, heart arrhythmia, high blood pressure, lowered immunity, a swollen face and hypersensitivity. Dermatologists report a possible link to melanoma. “We just do not know what the long-term health effects will be,” says Glen Berry, assistant director of health development at NHS Ashton, Leigh and Wigan. “Nobody has ever declared that it is safe — a trial in America was abandoned because the people taking part were seeing alarming problems. Anyone injecting fake tan is playing Russian roulette with their life.”

Emma had heard stories. One about a girl whose hair dropped out, another about someone who died taking Melanotan 2. “But they’re just stories,” she thinks. Sure, she passed out three times, she got headaches, hot flushes, a little light-headedness — but oh, how could she resist that deep golden glow? Customers would come into the beauticians where she worked and ask her boss if she was the new girl. “My boss was having to say, ‘No, it’s the same one, she’s just really brown.’ ” She felt “sexier”, “thinner”, “more attractive”, “confident”. She became infatuated with her toffee complexion — so she ordered herself another lot of the drug.

“Everyone wants a nice colour,” reasons Emma. She is right. Sunbeds, stand tanning booths, spray tan, cheap holidays, speed-tanning pills, fake bake, St Tropez bottles — Britain has become a nation of tanorexics. “Among young people, tanning is gaining popularity,” confirms Dr Lorna Dodd, the head of psychology at Newman University, Birmingham. Her study of the indoor tanning behaviour of young British adults found that while young people know more than any other generation about the risks of tanning and the links between UV rays and cancer, they still prioritise tanning over “any adverse future appearance or health consequence”. A study by Cancer Research UK this year revealed that the overuse of sunbeds and “binge holiday tanning” have led to skin cancer becoming the most common cancer in young women. Meanwhile, the retail analysts Mintel estimate that Britons spend £35m a year on fake-tan products from retailers, and millions more on lotions and sprays in salons.

Emma likes to tan because it makes her look good, but it also holds associations that run more than skin-deep. For Emma, tanning hints at celebrity, holidays, the kind of leisure time that money buys. “When I was using the injections, people would ask if I’d been on holiday because I was so dark. I’d say, ‘Yeah, I was in Egypt for two weeks.’” She tells me: “A lot of famous people are brown: Beyoncé, J.Lo, Katie Price… It makes what you’re wearing look better — it makes your clothes look more expensive.”

“Tanning has traditionally been seen as aspirational,” says Debra Ferreday, a lecturer in media and cultural studies at Lancaster University. “Classically, having a tan evoked ideas like the Grand Tour. A tan is a way of having associations with class mobility inscribed on your body, producing a self that looks socially privileged.”

But the story of skin tone isn’t black and white. While one part of the population are grilling themselves senseless, elsewhere in Britain another group of women are equally obsessed with its opposite. Like Emma, Marie thinks “skin tone is important. Everyone wants a nice skin tone”. She laughs. “You want to look good!” Her rich brown complexion is luminous and several shades lighter than how it began. She shows me her hands. “That’s probably my real colour,” she says. I look at her tawny-brown hands and knuckles, the deep hue of Green & Black’s chocolate, then back at her pretty caramel face. Since she was 18, she’s been whitening it. Marie is 34 and lives in southeast London. Her dark skin tone comes from her Gambian parents. She knows there are “some people who are very dark black and it is beautiful… but I don’t want my skin to be like that.” She spends around £40 a month on skin-lightening products, tubs and tubes of varying strength that she rubs in twice daily “like any moisturising cream”. She says her friends all do the same.

Bordering Brixton market there are rows of beauty shops — hung with acrylic hair, smelling of nail varnish, thronged with girls, and weighed down with shelves of skin-whitening products: Fair andWhite exclusive “whitenizer”; Rosance X20 Whitening Body Lotion; Makari Caviar Face Lightening Cream. Around here everyone has got a skin-whitening story. “It’s a fashion thing,” says Careema Downes, 25. “It’s getting more popular — it began with Jamaicans and Africans who came here, and now it’s more British young people too. A lot of my friends are into it.” She sings me snatches of a song by the dancehall star Vybz Kartel, Pretty Like a Colouring Book. The Jamaican singer, nominated in the reggae artist of the year category at last year’s Mobo (Music of Black Origin) awards, has been at the centre of claims he lightens his skin. In response, he has said: “I feel comfortable with black people lightening their skin. It’s tantamount to white people getting a suntan,” and has launched his own range of men’s cosmetics, including “skin brighteners”

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