Women Are Taking Extreme Measures to Lighten Their Skin Through IV Treatments

The boom of inclusive foundation shades. Skin-tone emojis that better reflect our diversity. Popular hashtags MelaninMagic and PaleandProud. In a word: progress. So why are some women going to extreme measures to alter their natural complexions? The reasons might be as complicated as the risks.

Seemal Desai, a dermatologist in Plano, Texas, has noticed more dark-skinned clients requesting the "service" over the last couple of years. And time and time again, he has turned them away. The black-market ask? IV drips of glutathione, a powerhouse antioxidant naturally found in our bodies. Its most notable side effect, however, is lightening the skin by deactivating the enzyme tyrosinase, which helps produce melanin.

Desai, who is also the president of the Skin of Color Society, is troubled by the ethical implications of the non-regulated treatment, mostly administered at med-spas. “My first question is ‘Why are you unhappy with your skin [color]?’” Desai says. He, like many of his peers, points to a complex answer: As our global society becomes less white and more blended, color perhaps even more than race, which technically can’t be seen becomes a deeper signifier of one’s place in the world and of one’s beauty.

And as cultural ideas of beauty become more globalized, “messages about whiteness are very much a part of that beauty,” says Usha Tummala-Narra, an associate professor of counseling, developmental, and educational psychology at Boston College, who adds that this thinking can afford a person higher social stature, public acceptance, and greater access to jobs. The skin-lightening market has always been a robust one, and for decades, bleaching creams were its core.

Sarah Thompson*, who is Asian and African-American, has been using skin lightening creams for years and came upon the lightening effects of glutathione drips by accident. Thompson had been suffering from digestion problems and discovered that the glutathione infusions, which she gets at a med-spa, remedied her stomach issues and left her skin noticeably brighter. “It revitalizes me, and I feel amazing,” she says. Dermatologists suspect patients get accustomed to the hydration and vitamins. “We know IV glutathione has benefits as an antioxidant, but it hasn’t been proven in any randomized clinical trials that it’s safe or effective for skin lightening,” says Desai. “After an infusion, your skin may look temporarily lighter, and you probably feel better.”

Beyond the lack of evidence, there’s an inherent danger in letting someone inject an unregulated fluid into your veins. “What else is in there?” Desai asks. “Are there other antioxidants that may be counterproductive or cause problems?” In the Philippines, glutathione IVs were ubiquitous in neighborhood spas until 2011, when reports of serious skin rashes, thyroid issues, and kidney failure led to a ban by the country's government, and last year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning that injectable skin lighteners were unsafe.

On the opposite end of the skin spectrum, more than one-fifth of a small sample group of white women age 18 to 30 were found to be dependent on tanning beds, according to a study released in 2017. This despite the fact that the number of newly diagnosed melanoma patients in the U.S. has risen by 53 percent over the past decade.

Noreen Sullivan*, a fair-skinned redhead, insists that a tan makes her look “slimmer, healthier, better.” Though many publications, including Allure, have long rejected this notion, Sullivan has maintained her quest for a deeper skin tone and started injecting the synthetic peptide Melanotan-II. Banned in the U.S., Melanotan-II originally found popularity in Australia and the United Kingdom and is available from unregulated online sellers. “Melanotan-II is similar to a hormone in our bodies called melanocyte-stimulating hormone [MSH] that works to stimulate pigment production,” says Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

Sullivan uses Melanotan-II to coincide with her tropical vacations, twice annually. Her protocol includes daily injections six weeks prior, plus visits to a tanning bed twice weekly to activate the tan. (The injections are said to work best when they’re followed by time under UV lamps.) On top of the skin-cancer risk of tanning, research points to other side effects of Melanotan-II, specifically that “you may stimulate pigments in benign and cancerous spots,” says Zeichner. The FDA has warned vendors from selling the stuff, and the rogue injections are not approved for cosmetic use overseas, either.

Clearly, women are putting themselves at risk, but research suggests white females are not looking to forsake their privilege. “Studies in Canada have shown [that] white participants want to be darker in terms of being more olive-skinned, but not dark-skinned,” says Tummala- Narra. “They want to look more tan without giving up any of their whiteness.”

*Names have been changed.

A version of this article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Allure. To get your copy, head to newsstands or subscribe now.

The complexity of colorism:

Dark skin is beautiful, now roll the tape:

See the video.