Image Enhancing Drugs

Image enhancing drugs are used to enhance the appearance of the skin and hair. There are various products in this category from drugs to tan or lighten the skin to products to stimulate hair growth or prevent hair loss, and drugs to prevent wrinkles or smoothen the skin.

The use of products used for cosmetics has a long history. For instance, men and women in Ancient Egypt used oils and ointments to clean and soften their skin and mask body odor. More recent is the use of Botulinum toxin products to treat wrinkles and lines around the face. The use of image enhancing drugs may also be indicative of a civilization’s practical concerns; e.g. protection from the sun, class systems or conventions of beauty. Depending on the historical and cultural context certain image enhancing drugs may be more or less popular.

The prevalence of image enhancing drugs remains largley unknown. In Western cultures obtaining a (bronze) tan is mostly desirable. Popular tanning agents are Melanotan I, Melanotan II and Bremelanotide. All these drugs may be used for tanning, but some are consumed for sexual stimulation as well. Quite the opposite, are products for lightening the skin, which are most limited to those with darker skin types such as Asian and Black communities. In these communities a light complexion is regarded as equivalent to youth, beauty and wealth. These products are not only used for their lightening effects, but are likewise used to self–treat acne, blemishes or freckles. Products used for these purposes often contain hydroquinone, mercury or topical corticosteroids. Another popular type of image enhancers are drugs to increase the growth of hair such as finasteride and bimatoprost. Finasteride is used to treat male pattern baldness, and bimatoprost is taken to stimulate the growth of eyelashes. A final group of products are those used to change the shape or contours of the skin including botulinum toxin products and dermal fillers. These drugs are used to reduce the appearance of wrinkles or folds, and smooth the skin.

Little is known about the long-term affects and harms of these drugs. Many of these drugs are also still in an experimental phase, for instance, Melanotan I is currently under phase I and II clinical trials for the treatment of photosensitivity disorder and non-melanoma skin cancer. The most commonly noted harms linked to tanning products are nausea, facial flushing, fatigue and vomiting but these appear to be short-lived. A specific problem of skin lightening drugs is that many products contain mercury compounds to block the production of melanin. Mercury exposure can result in irreversible renal and central nervous system damage or death. Further, a study on the use of finasteride for male pattern hair loss indicates that persistent sexual side effects as well as anxious/depressive symptomatology have been reported even after discontinuation of the treatment.

General readings:

Examples of drugs used to enhance the skin and hair

Name How it works Duration* Route of administration
Hair growth drugs (Finasteride and bimatoprost) Finasteride is used to treat male pattern baldness, and bimatoprost is taken to stimulate the growth of eyelashes. The half-life of Finasteride is around 8 hours and of bimatoprost is around 45 minutes. Oral and eye drops
Skin darkening products; Melanotan I, Melanotan II and Bremelanotide






These are used for their tanning effects but Melanotan II and Bremelanotide are likewise used for their sexual properties. The half-life of skin darkening products varies but is usually within a couple of hours (around 1 to 33 hours). Injections
Skin lightening products; cosmetics containing mercury, hydroquinone or topical corticosteroids




These products are used for their lightening effects and to self–treat acne, blemishes or freckles. The half-life of skin lightening products varies; from several minutes to a couple of weeks. Crèmes and oral
Skin products; Botulinum toxin products and dermal fillers These drugs are used reduce the appearance of wrinkles or folds, and smooth the skin N.A. Injections

* The duration can vary depending on the type of drugs.