Dermatologists have warned patients against a TikTok trend encouraging women to buy prescription-only skincare on the black market because of the risks to their fertility and health.
With a surge in skincare accounts on social media, most recently TikTok, users are being recommended treatments that require medical consultation before they are given to patients, with sellers taking advantage of people’s insecurities by offering prescription-only products illegally.
Dr Jane Ravenscroft of the British Association of Dermatologists told i: “Getting prescription products in this way is a real public health risk because online sellers and medicines cannot be properly regulated.”
The prescription medicine tretinoin, a member of a group of powerful drugs called retinoids, is commonly used to treat acne but has also gained widespread notoriety among young women for its ability to fade dark marks and improve the appearance of wrinkles.
On TikTok and across social media it has gone viral, with social media users promoting its benefits and some uploading videos boasting about obtaining it without prescriptions.
In the UK it is against the law to advertise prescription-only medicines to the public, sell them outside legitimate supply chains or for patients to sell prescription drugs to others.
However, i understands that patients in the UK are buying such medicines without a consultation with a medical professional, and in some cases suffering the consequences.
Aestheticians and dermatologists have raised the alarm about the dangers of obtaining potent skincare drugs by such means, with side effects ranging from aggravated skincare issues to mental health problems and foetal abnormalities.
Dr Ravenscroft said there were particular concerns around the trending tretinoin, which is only available via prescription in the UK “for good reason”.
“They should only be used under the supervision of a medical professional who can advise on whether they are the right treatment for you and tell you about possible side effects,” Dr Ravenscroft said. “Retinoid creams such as tretinoin cream can cause spots to get worse at the beginning of treatment and often make the skin red and sore.
“Treatments can have interactions with one another, or with other procedures, which is information that your doctor can provide you with. For example, something as commonplace as facial waxing treatments can cause problems for people on retinoid creams including tretinoin.”
Dr Anjali Mahto, a consultant dermatologist at Self London, who prescribes prescription products on a daily basis, told i: “This trend is incredibly frightening and I’d urge extreme caution to anyone thinking about this.”
Dr Mahto said it was “deeply worrying” that people had access to prescription medications without first having a medical consultation.
Where to go for professional advice if you have a skin concern
Dr Jane Ravenscroft, of the British Association of Dermatologists, says: “If you have a skin problem, then don’t turn to social media for the answer. It is important to get an accurate diagnosis before reaching for treatments, so your first port of call should be your pharmacist or GP.”
Here are some reputable websites people with skin concerns can turn to for information on how acne should be managed effectively:
“One of the key things to flag with regards to tretinoin is that it absolutely cannot be used if you are trying to conceive or are pregnant. It’s this sort of information that needs to be spoken about during a consultation that will be missed if someone buys randomly on the internet,” she added.
Dr Ravenscroft also warned taking tretinoin without consultation can seriously impact the user’s mental and physical health. “Retinoid medicines such as Isotretinoin taken by mouth can cause many different side effects and have been linked with mental health problems. They are also teratogenic, meaning that they can cause foetal abnormalities if taken whilst pregnant. It is not recommended that retinoid creams are used during pregnancy either.”
Not only can black-market skincare buyers expose themselves to side effects from genuine medicines, they can also be tricked into purchasing counterfeit products.
“Another concern with buying prescription skincare products and medicines over the internet is that some websites sell fake products. You may not even be getting what you think you are getting,” Dr Ravenscroft said. “Some products labelled as herbal cream treatments bought through these routes have been shown to contain steroids, which if used incorrectly can cause major side-effects and make existing skin conditions, such as acne, worse.”
While she has not treated patients who have sourced tretinoin illegally online, Dr Mahto has had to correct the advice given to people who have turned to online sites to treat their skin complaints.
She said: “In a clinic only last week, I had someone who had been prescribed an online prescription product for acne, but when I took a look at their skin and did a full consultation, they actually had rosacea and the acne prescription was likely exacerbating their symptoms.”
TikTok has been approached for comment.