Pretty pills: The dark side of the latest underground beauty trend
Just imagine if you could transform your looks by popping a pill.
No need to spend hours in the gym in pursuit of a perfect body; no fake tans, sunbeds or hours baking on the beach to get a tan; and you could say goodbye to facials and expensive anti-ageing treatments.
Just swallow a tablet with breakfast and you're done. It sounds like the bizarre predictions Sixties futurologists made about the year 2000. But, astonishingly, 'wonder tablets' are the new underground beauty trend - and they could have dire consequences.
Earlier this month, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the US body that approves and regulates medicines, cosmetics and supplements, agreed to let pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline sell weight-loss drug Alli over the counter.
The drug is set to hit shelves next month. But many people won't have to wait until June to get their hands on it,despite the fact it is prescription only.
The boom in online pharmacies and web-based drug sales has meant that in a few clicks of a mouse you can have access to a number of pills that, if their claims are to be believed, could do pretty much anything, from whittling your waist size to ridding you of body hair.
Some of these drugs are prescription only, others may not even be licensed in this country, but if you're willing to pay, there's an unscrupulous dealer willing to sell.
Alli, in the form of Xenical or Orlistat, has been readily available on the internet for some time. It works by inhibiting the absorption of fat so that about 30 per cent of the fat you eat is passed through the body undigested.
Prescribed by a doctor, who can explain that it needs to be taken in conjunction with a low-fat diet, it has the potential to be a useful and effective drug.
When Alli arrives in chemists in June, pharmacists will be able to give users the correct information on how to take it.
But online buyers obviously won't have access to this advice and so may think it gives them carte blanche to eat what they like and still lose weight.
They run the risk of, at the very least, suffering a number of unpleasant gastrointestinal side-effects.
But these risks don't seem to deter a growing number of people who think that illicitly acquired drugs could offer a nopain, all-gain route to the body beautiful. Xenical is only one of a number of drugs being used and abused in this way.
Last week, the Mail revealed that a number of 'diet' drugs were being bought over the internet. From Ritalin - usually prescribed for hyperactive children, which has the side-effect of suppressing the appetite, but has also been linked to cardio-vascular damage - to clenbuterol, a drug used to treat breathing problems in horses, which has also been found to increase metabolic rate and cause fat loss and muscle gain.
However, users can experience dizziness, palpitations and severe heart damage.
That there should be serious dangers associated with taking these wonder drugs should come as no surprise. History shows that no quick fix comes without a downside.
The 'slimming pills' popular in the Sixties turned out to be amphetamines, which carried the risk of heart damage and blood pressure problems, while the tanning pills of the Seventies relied on beta carotene, which gave rise to orange palms and discoloured eyes.
And the anabolic steroids taken by body-builders to increase the size and strength of their muscles have been found to contribute to high blood pressure, cholesterol and hormone levels.
But despite these cautionary tales, we seem as devoted as ever to the prospect of a one-stop beauty solution.
Women reluctant to go under the knife but keen to increase their breast size have been known to order contraceptive pills, containing high levels of hormones, in a bid to boost their cleavage.
The dangers of taking a contraceptive without having your blood pressure tested regularly means you could unwittingly be putting yourself at an increased risk of strokes, heart attacks and deep vein thrombosis. Quite a price to pay for a larger cup size or two.
Earlier this month, health and beauty pages were full of the news of a new wonder drug that would boost the female sex drive and suppress appetite.
The snappily named Type 2 Gonadotropin-releasing hormone has thus far been tested only on animals, but researchers behind it have no doubt it could be readily available as a human 'lifestyle' drug within the next decade.
All very exciting, but as fans of the underground vanity pill scene know only too well, you don't necessarily have to wait ten years to get thin and sexy.
Perhaps the most exciting development for pill-poppers in pursuit of the body beautiful is the new and widespread availability of a drug called Melanotan II.
News of it first hit several years ago and it was the subject of much public interest after it was dubbed 'The Barbie Pill' by the media.
The drug, a synthetically produced hormone, was developed by researchers at the University of Arizona to combat skin cancer - it worked by increasing the levels of melanin, which is the body's natural sun protection system.
In the course of research, it was discovered that side-effects included increased libido and reduced appetite. For some, it really did sound like a miracle pill.
However, Melanotan II was not a simple pill. It's a hormone, which means it can't be swallowed, as the chemicals in the gut would destroy it.
It can, however, be introduced into the body through an implant under the skin or via an injection.
It has not yet been approved by the FDA in the US, nor is it a licensed drug in Britain. But this doesn't mean it's not easily available.
Several websites around the world, including one in the UK, sell Melanotan II and give users detailed instructions on how to dissolve the drug in water and inject it.
Aside from all the dangers inherent in untrained people stabbing needles into themselves, there are other risks.
Fans say they are delighted with the results they have achieved, but a closer inspection of internet forums where users discuss their experiences with the drug reveal some worrying stories.
Alongside the potential sideeffects of nausea and flushing, some users are reporting that existing moles and freckles become darker, and that new moles and freckles also form.
Could it be that a product developed to tackle skin cancer might actually cause it? The honest answer is that we just don't know.
Mark Birch-Machin, professor of molecular dermatology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, thinks that the original study into what the drug is capable of has some merit, but stresses that our knowledge of its application and its side-effects is patchy.
"Melanotan II hasn't been around long enough for us to be able to look at the long-term effects this hormone could have on the body," he says.
"And taking any drug that hasn't been extensively trialled will always have its potential dangers."
He also cautions any redheads who think this could turn them into a bronzed beauty to think again.
"This works by stimulating the brown pigment in the skin. If you have very pale skin, your body may not contain any of this brown pigment at all, so it simply may not work," he says.
Once you've bronzed, slimmed and boosted your bust with pharmaceutical help, you would have thought there was nothing left to do. You'd be wrong.
Earlier this year, a new cream called Vaniqa was launched as Britain's first prescription drug for removing unwanted hair. While this, too, should be used only after being prescribed by a doctor, it is also available over the internet.
On the surface it sounds innocuous. After all, you've been able to buy Veet in Boots for years. But Vaniqa doesn't just simply dissolve hair; it actually works on enzymes in the hair follicles to stop them growing.
This is why it is classified as a drug, not a cosmetic, and should be available only on prescription.
"Vaniqa is meant for removing facial hair, but there are all sorts of medical reasons why a woman might have this problem in the first place," says Dr Graham Archand, vice-chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners and a GP.
"It's important to see a doctor to rule out any potentially serious conditions, rather than just tackling a symptom.
"Furthermore, drugs can interact with other medication or cause problems with the liver and kidneys that, if you are not under medical supervision, you may be unaware of."
And that's the bottom line. If a drug isn't available over the counter or is not licensed in this country, there's probably a very good reason for that.
"Prescription medicines aren't available over the counter because they are potentially dangerous. And if a drug is not licensed, it's because it's been shown to be dangerous or there's inadequate trial data to show it works," says Dr Archand.
"It's possible that in the future research will prove these drugs should be licensed or available without prescription."
The reverse, of course, is also true. Future research may highlight serious and dangerous problems that mean these drugs will never be licensed or freely available over the counter. Until we know the truth, people seeking a beauty drug could end up paying a high price for vanity.
Pretty pills: The dark side of the latest underground beauty trend | the Daily Mail