By Kieva McLaughlin
There has never been as much pressure put on anyone, particularly younger people, to look a certain way than right now. Airbrushed magazine covers, celebrities, social media, and TV shows like the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show give an unrealistic image of what beauty is and how people should look. As a result, people are going online and illegally buying potentially life-threatening image enhancing drugs such as tanning injections, diet pills, and steroids to get closer to their idea of perfection.
Tanning injections and tanning nasal sprays have not been approved by the Irish Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA), or the MHRA in the UK. They have not been tested properly and there are already more than 74 side effects associated with the use of these products, including stomach and heart problems.
The products contain Melanotan II, a synthetic hormone that encourages the skin to go brown. Even though the injections and nasal sprays are illegal and dangerous, they are still readily available online. Googling where to buy them will result in countless pages selling the products. It is as easy as choosing the site you are most comfortable with for whatever reasons, whether it be price or apparent legitimacy, and adding the items to your basket. If you order a batch, it can arrive within a week. There are even Facebook pages selling the tanning hormone.
Rebecca*, 20, who has been taking the tanning injections since she was 16, and has recently moved on to the nasal spray, spoke about her side effects. “When I took the tanning injections I used to feel really dizzy for a half an hour or so after injecting and I would feel queasy for even longer. It was worth the tan for me because I don’t tan at all without them,” she said. She began to become wary and a bit squeamish about injecting herself about a year ago so she changed to the nasal spray. She said: “Even though it takes longer to build up my tan with the nasal spray than the injections, it is worth it because I don’t feel the side effects as strongly.”
Like tanning injections, diet pills are also being bought widely online. The drug dinitrophenyl, also referred to as DNP, is the most effective and most dangerous ingredient in diet pills there is. It has been linked to 60 deaths worldwide, the first Irish death being in July of 2015. DNP is not only found in diet pills but in steroids as well. Sibutramine is another illegal drug found in diet pills; it is highly addictive and can cause heart attacks and strokes, as well as epileptic seizures. Other side effects include high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, nausea, hyperacidity, insomnia and painful menstruation.
These diet pills are easily ordered online for only €4, but as they come from countries such as South Africa or parts of Asia, delivery can be an extra €20 or so. For one brand of slimming tablets, ‘Kangmei – Slimming Capsule’ – which contains illegal drugs including sibutramine – the ingredients list is only a partial list of five and is called “the main raw materials”. It lists all the natural ingredients such as “green tea” and “lotus leaf” but excludes the chemicals. The list even finishes off with an “etc.” Like the tanning injections, there are also Facebook pages directing people to websites that sell these diet pills, but there are also a lot of pages warning consumers against the slimming capsules and urging people not to buy them.
As mentioned above, diet pills and steroids can contain some of the same ingredients, such as DNP. Most steroid users don’t consider themselves drug users. The use of steroids is on the rise in Ireland and the UK. It is difficult to find good estimates of how many people take steroids because they don’t tend to go to their GP about it. A doctor at Dublin Institute of Technology explained how he is trying to come up with ways to get students to talk to their doctors about steroid use. He said it is very rare that someone would come to him with side effects they are having or people looking for information about it because they are illegal. Rob Lipsett, a personal trainer and YouTube vlogger, said: “I personally would not recommend them, once you do a cycle of steroids you are on them for the rest of your life, or when you come off them you will not only lose everything you’ve gained, but end up in a worse place than you were before.”
A study from Public Health England has found that users of anabolic steroid and tanning injections are at a higher risk of developing HIV. A study conducted in John Moore University by Jim McVeigh found that the levels of injectors that are HIV positive is as high among anabolic steroid injectors as it is amongst injectors of heroin. It is illicitly manufactured, so people are injecting themselves with chemicals they have no idea about.
According to the NHS, oral steroids are more likely to have side effects than injections or inhalers. Steroid side effects include liver and cardio vascular system problems, diabetes, glaucoma, high blood pressure, and stomach ulcers. Other more common side effects include oral thrush, nosebleeds, coughs, sore mouths and throats, thinning and lightning of the skin where the injection was inserted, infections, acne and gyno. As well as this, there can be mental side effects to taking steroids, such as depression, anxiety, aggression, suicidal thoughts, confusion and hallucination. Rory*, who used to do steroids, said he started because he wanted to bulk up quick. Talking about his side effects he said: “I got really bad depression and anxiety from it and my testosterone levels were low for months after I stopped. I never had any spots before and I got really bad acne, I stopped [taking them] a year ago but I am still getting spots.”
Even though there are so many health effects associated with steroids, people are still using them because they are predominantly young men, and some side effects won’t impact their health for decades. Irish fitness enthusiast and vlogger Cameron Higgs agreed on why people continue to do them. “Bottom line is people do them because they work like magic, they don’t see the major side effects, like an ineffective endocrine system, because they are mainly in the long term.”
Where * people’s names have been changed