By Liam Miller
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Videographer / director: Sam Jones
Producer: Liam Miller, Ruby Coote
Editor: Florence Kennard
But the beauty therapy student wants people to know: “I’m not racist., I just really like having a tan.”
Hannah, 22, from Belfast, Northern Ireland, is Caucasian but became addicted to tanning when she got an “amazing tan” on holiday in Turkey in 2015. A photo from the trip shows how she completely changed colour from her natural white to a dark brown.
But her remarkable colour isn’t just down to the sun. Hannah uses under-the-counter tanning injections of a substance called Melanotan, which users take to go darker more quickly under sunlight or sun beds.
And while Hannah admits she is at the “extreme end’, she says she is part of a growing trend in tanning in Belfast, with many using the illegal drug.
Despite side effects that include feeling sick, her boyfriend Ben Dunlop, 23, also uses the injections.
“Everyone is doing it,” said Hannah. “It’s become a trend in the city.”
“I use the sun bed for about fifteen minutes, three times a week.
“Ben and I do the injections for about one week each month, where you have an injection before you go on the sun bed each time.
“I just use the injections to top me up for that week, and then I stay really tanned all month.
“I absolutely love the colour I go and much prefer this than spray or fake tan that’s smelly and makes you feel dirty. And it gets all over your clothes and bed.”
Like many, Hannah regularly posts photos of herself on social media and has been using Instagram since 2013, before she became hooked on tanning.
But when she uploaded the first photo of herself on the 2015 holiday in Turkey - when she revealed her new ultra-dark skin for the first time - she started to get hate messages and online abuse.
“I had an amazing tan but I felt like dying,” she said. “People told me I looked like an alien, that I looked ugly,” she said.
“Some people accused me of trying to look like a black woman. I’m not trying to do that at all, I just like the way my skin looks healthy and glowing with a tan.
“Some girls can’t live without getting their nails or hair done and for me its tanning.
“I’m always playing around with my look . I’ve been a skater girl, sometimes had more of a surfer hippy look, and now I like to look like this.”
In January 2017, when Hannah combined her new skin colour with box braids - a type of hair braiding more commonly worn by African and African-American people - she received a fresh waves of attacks.
“People were commenting on my photos accusing me of cultural appropriation and even saying that I was racist, just because of how I looked,” she said.
“I’m not racist at all. I’m just a white girl who likes to be overly-tanned.
“It seems like I am the worst person in the world just for tanning sometimes. It seems to offend people sometimes and I’m not trying to. It seems pretty harmless to me.
“Every girl I see on instagram is tanned. I know I’m at the extreme end but I like the way I look. I feel like me.”
Hannah says she first found out about tanning injections when her brother Jack tried them in 2015.
“He came in one day and was suddenly really tanned,” she said. “We asked how he did it and he said it was Melanotan.”
Trainee barber Ben has been using sun beds since he was 15 and has now been taking tanning injections for three to four years.
He keeps fit with bodybuilding and regularly goes with Hannah to the local gym, where the couple like keep in shape.
Melanotan is widely promoted on bodybuilding websites and forums, aimed at bodybuilders who want to enhance the effect of the way their muscles look with deeper tans.
“Bodybuilding has gotten really popular in Belfast, and so have the tanning injections with it,” said Ben.
“I don’t compete in bodybuilding or go on stage, I just like to work out and feel healthy. Tanning is a big part of bodybuilding. A lot of bodybuilders take tanning injections.
“My mum thinks I look like an idiot but I don’t care, I like it.
“I worry about Hannah sometimes because cancer runs her family, and she goes into the sun bed for longer than me usually. I normally do 10 minutes while she does longer.
“I don’t have a history of cancer in my family so I don’t really worry about myself. I don’t know much about the side effects of the injections.”
Users of Melanotan are able to buy it through Facebook groups and some beauty salons and gyms.
The vial is mixed with water and injected under the skin. Hannah and Ben take around 1iu dosage each time they use it.
“The injection doesn’t hurt,” she said. “You just feel a bit sick and lose your appetite for a couple of days.”
The substance is created in a lab and increases the levels of a natural pigment in the skin called melanin, which responds to sunlight and causes darker skin, hair and eyes.
Increasing it in your body using tanning injections allows your skin to go darker under the ultraviolet (UV) light of the sun or a sun bed.
The UK National Health Service (NHS) warns people on its website against using Melanotan, saying it is not legal because it has not been tested and approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
Because it is injected and users might share needles, other concerns about Melanotan include the spread of HIV and other blood-borne diseases like hepatitis or infections from injecting non-sterilised water.
Despite the other health risks of too much sunlight or sun beds, Hannah is not ready to quit tanning.
“One of the main reasons I do it is I don’t need to wear much makeup,” she said. Tanned skin looks better and it saves me lots of time going out or to work.
“I’m not going to go any darker at the moment but I probably will in the summer, and that will spark off all the abuse again.
“But it’s OK, we’re kind of used to it now.”