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Should You Consider Tanning Drugs?

Although various anabolic hormone drugs, including anabolic steroids, growth hormone and insulin, are the most commonly used drugs by bodybuilders and other athletes, they are by no means the only drugs in common use. Depending on need, other drugs are often found in the athletic pharmacopeia, which may include various types of stimulants. While many preworkout over-the-counter supplements contain stimulants, including caffeine, some athletes feel the need for more potent stimulants and resort to drug versions. The precise purpose for such use is to provide an impetus for intense training, often under stringent dieting conditions, which tend to have an enervating effect, and in some cases to suppress appetite as a diet aid.

Such drugs are not without risk, and the pharmaceutical stimulant drugs are particularly hard on the brain. In some cases heavy use of such drugs has caused schizophrenic symptoms in some bodybuilders, while others fall prey to extreme paranoiac symptoms. In a worst-case scenario they can cause permanent brain damage.

Another class of drugs in common use among athletes and bodybuilders is analgesics, or painkillers. Heavy training tends to take an eventual toll on the musculoskeletal system, effects that can range from chronic joint and muscle pain to arthritis, an actual degeneration of joint surfaces. In most cases connective-tissue pain is due to such factors as overtraining, especially when combined with insufficient recovery time. All the tissues of the body, including connective tissue, require time to heal. If that time isn’t provided, the healing is incomplete, resulting in chronic pain.

Tom Prince is a good example of how things can go wrong. Prince was a top pro bodybuilder a few years ago. I often watched him heave the iron at Gold’s Gym in Venice, and no one trained heavier than Tom. Unfortunately, his penchant for lifting heavy year-round eventually caused severe joint pain. Tom opted to self-treat with large daily doses of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen. He often took 12 or more pills daily, but he wasn’t aware that an extensive use of them can seriously damage the kidneys, resulting in kidney failure. Sadly, that’s what happened—his bodybuilding career was cut short by kidney failure, which led to his being treated with dialysis and later a kidney transplant.

There are other, seemingly less-dangerous drugs that are sometimes favored by bodybuilders. One example is tanning drugs. When I competed, one of the more odious requirements of preparing for a contest was acquiring a tan. Having a tan made you look far more defined and even healthy, which was a bit of a deception, since it’s now known that acquiring a tan is a form of skin damage. The tan is the skin’s attempt to defend itself against the damaging effects incurred by exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, but even so, competing pasty white was a no-no back then, and still is. Consider that one of the main reasons that Frank Zane was able to defeat Arnold Schwarzenegger in Arnold’s first American contest, the ’68 IFBB Mr. Universe, was that Arnold, freshly arrived from Europe, competed pasty white. That made him appear quite smooth. In contrast, the considerably smaller Zane showed up with a deep tan, adding contrast to his muscularity compared to the bigger-but-smoother Arnold. Arnold learned his lesson and never showed up again looking like a stand-in for Casper the Friendly Ghost.

Although I have dark hair (now with a considerable amount of gray), I always tended to burn when I exposed my skin to the sun. The only “tan” that resulted was a bunch of freckles. Not long after Arnold suffered that loss to Zane, however I found the answer to my tanning problems—a little-known drug called Trisoralen. Trisoralen wasn’t commonly prescribed and was used mainly to treat a skin pigmentation condition called vitiligo, later made famous when Michael Jackson claimed to have it. Another property of the drug was that it rapidly induced a tanning effect with exposure to UV rays. I recall the drug insert saying that using Trisoralen for two weeks provided the tanning effect of three months of sun exposure. That sounded good to me, even though the same insert warned of “possible liver damage.” You were supposed to use it no more than two weeks. The drug worked by simulating the production of melanin, the primary skin pigment, by prodding the activity of melanocytes, the structures in the skin that produce melanin.

Rumor has it that Trisoralen was the drug used by author John Howard Griffin in researching his book Black Like Me, which was published in 1961 and later made into a movie. In his book Griffin documented the horrible treatment of black people in the Deep South in the late ’50s. He used Trisoralen to turn his white skin into a darker hue, in order to pass as a black man. Apparently, it worked.

As for me, after two weeks on Trisoralen, I walked into Gold’s Gym one day, and Ken Waller, who was managing the gym at the time, didn’t recognize me. He was astounded at my tan, and being a fair-skinned redhead himself, he wanted to know how I did it. The tan that I had acquired with the drug was far deeper than anything I could have ever gotten naturally. I suffered no side effects—other than friends not recognizing me.

In recent years even more sophisticated sunless tanning drugs have emerged. They’re based on a natural body chemical called alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone, or a-MSH, which is the stuff that turns on melanocytes in the skin to release melanin and make the skin darker. The drugs are synthetic versions of a-MSH that were originally developed by scientists at the University of Arizona. One form of the drug is called afamelanotide, also known as melanotan-1. It’s being developed by an Australian company called Clinuvel Pharmacueticals with the trade name Scenesse. The actual a-MSH is just a 13-amino-acid peptide. One problem with the natural version is that it has a short half-life in the body; in other words, it’s rapidly broken down. To offset that, the synthetic version juggles the amino acid sequence, making it last far longer.

Another form, called  melanotan-2, is known to boost skin pigmentation at lower doses, but it also produces more side effects than melanotan-1, including nausea, excess sleepiness and penile erections. It causes the latter by interacting with melanocyte receptors in the brain, which have a neural connection to promoting erections. It can also decrease appetite, which makes some scientists think it may be useful for dieting purposes. The combination of tanning, penile erections and decreased appetite led melanotan-2 to be dubbed the “Barbie drug.”

Melanotan-1, the official drug version, has been shown in numerous studies to induce skin pigmentation with or without exposure to ultraviolet rays, although using it with exposure to UV provides synergistic effects. It is used in an implant form placed under the skin. Its official uses are to prevent the precursors of skin cancer, such as actinic keratoses, and also to prevent common forms of skin cancer. It can also protect those with unusual sensitivity to sun exposure.

Ads for ersatz melanotan-2 are frequently seen over the Internet, prompting the makers of the official drug to warn consumers about the danger of using such home brew versions. Indeed, several reports have been published in the medical literature documenting various changes in the appearances of skin moles in those who have used the Internet-available drugs. The compounds they contain are similar to, but not the same as, those used in the pharmaceutical version of melanotan-2. Some doctors have warned that using the ersatz products can result in cardiovascular and immune system problems, and the FDA has chimed in that there is no evidence of their safety.

The real drugs actually help prevent the occurrence of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. Reg Park, the great bodybuilder, fell victim to that disease. It’s not known whether the Internet-offered drugs offer any similar protection, although the changes they seem to induce in existing skin moles is worrisome, since such changes are early signs of melanoma. The tanning effect induced by the Internet versions does, however, impart some level of skin protection. Considering all that, while lying in the sun to acquire a tan cannot be considered healthful, at least you have a good idea of the end result. The same may not be true for the sunless tanning drugs currently available online.1

Editor’s note: Jerry Brainum has been an exercise and nutrition researcher and journalist for more than 25 years. He’s worked with pro bodybuilders as well as many Olympic and professional athletes. To get his new e-book, Natural Anabolics—Nutrients, Compounds and Supplements That Can Accelerate Muscle Growth Without Drugs, visit  IM


1 Langan, E.A., et al. (2010). Melanotropic peptides: more than just “Barbie drugs” and “sun-tan jabs”? Brit J Dermatol. 163(3):451-455.


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