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People on TikTok are using nasal tanning sprays. Are they safe?

Experts say the inhaled products aren't FDA-approved and could come with a long list of dangerous side effects.

If you're looking to get a safer tan this year, you've got plenty of options. But there's one type of product that experts recommend avoiding despite its growing popularity: tanning nasal sprays.

These products, which have been advertised on TikTok, aren't strictly self-tanners. Instead, they're inhaled as nasal sprays in an effort to boost the effects of sun exposure or a tanning bed.

Some of the products claim to contain melanotan or melanotan II, which are synthetic chemicals that act like hormones the body makes naturally. But experts say these compounds can have far-reaching side effects — and there's no way to really know what you're getting online anyway.

When reached for comment about the videos, TikTok told TODAY, "Our community guidelines make clear what content is allowed on TikTok. Our policy on illegal activities and regulated goods prohibits the promotion of nasal tanning sprays, and we have removed the videos that you have shared with us."

Unproven, potentially dangerous ingredients

Some of the products claim to contain melanotan or melanotan II, which is a synthetic chemical that mimics the activity of alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone in the body, Dr. Mary L. Stevenson, assistant professor at the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, told TODAY.

The idea is that ramping up the activity of this hormone "drives the increase in our melanocytes both in number and in their ability to produce pigment," Dr. Teo Soleymani, dermatologist and skin cancer surgeon with UCLA Health, told TODAY. 

But experts have serious concerns about these products. "This is not FDA approved and has not been approved in any country either over-the-counter or as a drug or anything like that," Soleymani said.

In 2019, the Australian Department of Health warned against the use of melanotan-type products due to their potential side effects. The government also cautioned consumers against buying drugs online because there’s no way to ensure safety or that the product even contains the correct ingredients. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also previously sent warning letters to companies for selling the unapproved drug.

In fact, products incorporating versions of this ingredient — especially as an injectable — have been around for years. But they can cause a ton of unpleasant side effects, including permanent darkening of the skin, nausea, vomiting and even sexual side effects like unwanted erections.

"The problem with these drugs is that they mimic a naturally-produced hormone that's released by our brain," Soleymani said, "and these hormones have many broad-reaching implications." So the concern isn't just about the potential danger to the skin. Because these hormones are involved in so many bodily processes, high enough doses of melanotan can lead to issues with blood pressure, kidney functioning and even unwanted sexual arousal.

Another major issue is that melanotan can darken moles and has even been linked to cases of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, dermatologist Dr. Melissa Levin told NBC's Kristen Dahlgren. "This is the scary part," she said.

And don't forget about your nose! “Any time you’re inhaling something, you’re also affecting your mucous membrane,” Stevenson said, noting that the drug may have effects on those delicate nasal tissues.

The nasal sprays still require UV exposure to work 

The way the products are currently marketed requires consumers to get intentional UV exposure (either through sun exposure or an indoor tanning bed). Any type of prolonged UV exposure can increase your risk for skin cancer and experts always recommend you avoid it as much as possible.

So, not only are you inhaling something that may or may not contain what it’s actually supposed to, Soleymani said, but also “you’re now voluntarily putting yourself out there for UV exposure to get this drug to work. It’s like a double what the heck.”

Is there a safer way to get a tan?

The truth is that there's no safe way to get a suntan, the experts said. A tan is the "body's way of saying we are getting enough excess ultraviolet radiation that we have to put up a biologic shield," Soleymani said.

But if you're someone who prefers the look of tanned skin, there are self-tanning products you can use without getting sun exposure. "The only way I would recommend doing it is with something applied topically from a bottle or a spray," Stevenson said.

These "sunless" self-tanning lotions, creams and sprays typically contain other regulated ingredients such as dihydroxyacetone, which reacts with the amino acids in your skin to cause a tanning effect. This ingredient "gets oxidized by exposure to air and it turns a brown color," Soleymani explained. "That chemical sticks to our skin for kind of a finite period of time," usually just a week or two, he said.

But the popularity of these nasal sprays is yet another reminder that social media is not a replacement for your doctor. "There's a big difference between listening to social media versus trained medical care professionals," Stevenson said. "So talk to your dermatologist before you start doing things like that."