Radiant, glowing, luminous skin is something most of us want from our skincare products. It's the reason why ingredients such as retinol, acids and vitamin C (touted by skin experts as the ultimate skin brighteners) are so incredibly popular. But when it comes to targeting concerns like acne scars, pigmentation, melasma and more, it seems women are now looking to other, more unusual forms of treatment. Enter: beauty drips.
The procedure is straightforward and involves an intravenous catheter placed in the hand. It aims to deliver high-powered ingredients such as vitamin C and glucose into the bloodstream to boost the skin's appearance from the inside out. But like some other beauty fads that have gone before them, these drips are proving to be dubious – and controversial.
Last month, wellness company Get A Drip withdrew a £250 IV drip, which claimed to help with fertility, after experts concluded it could "exploit vulnerable women". The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) reiterated there was "no evidence" the drip treatment could enhance fertility. Interestingly, the company still advertises 'anti-ageing', 'beauty' and 'skin brightening' drips, but it isn't the only one out there. 'Skin brightening' drips specifically are widely available in a number of aesthetic clinics in the UK, but the treatment is causing concern among dermatologists, mainly due to one particular ingredient: glutathione.
What are IV glutathione or 'skin brightening' drips?
According to Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and author of The Skincare Bible: Your No-Nonsense Guide To Great Skin, glutathione is an antioxidant, much like vitamin C, with which it is often mixed in high doses and then administered via an IV infusion. In London alone, there are over 10 clinics offering the treatment, with most marketing it as a 'skin brightening' programme. Other claims include anti-ageing, 'detoxifying' the liver and improving the skin in general. Clinics recommend multiple sessions with an average price of £120 per drip.
"Glutathione is an antioxidant, so it is often used a lot alongside chemotherapy agents," Dr Mahto explains further. "The reason it supposedly works in these IV drips is that it makes its way to your cells and blocks or breaks down the pathway involved in causing pigmentation." But what is important to note is that while glutathione may be marketed as a 'skin brightener' or a 'glow booster', it is technically a skin lightener.
Why are IV glutathione or 'skin brightening' drips controversial?
There are numerous ethical issues surrounding 'brightening' drips, the main one being lightening constitutive skin colour. A 2018 study published in the journal Dermatology Practical & Conceptual noted that glutathione has been "hailed for generations as a 'magical skin whitening' molecule", with Dr Mahto mentioning that skin lightening or 'bleaching' is especially popular in places such as the Philippines, Thailand and Mumbai, where individuals often place a focus on fairer skin.
Many women who choose to lighten their skin for whatever reason may have previously used a cream containing hydroquinone, but there are issues. "Hydroquinone is an irritant which can cause ochronosis (increased pigmentation) after 3-4 months," Dr Mahto says. "If someone were trying to lighten their overall skin tone, using a cream would be messier and more labour-intensive than a drip, which is regarded by some as a far more appealing and fast way to lighten skin."
Despite popularity, experts hit home the importance of acknowledging ethical matters. "There are many reasons why women may want to lighten their skin," elaborates Dr Mahto. "It’s partly to do with colonialism and in certain countries, people are seen as higher in social status if they have light skin. If you worked outdoors, you were more likely to be tanned and having fair skin was a sign of your wealth. It is also combined with how the common beauty ideals we see are often Western beauty ideals."
It seems that beauty clinics may also be misleading consumers. Dr Mahto points out that there is a very big difference between using an IV glutathione drip to fade hyperpigmentation on your face as a result of acne or melasma, for example, versus full body skin lightening. "They are two completely different things. We are talking about people specifically lightening their skin tone as opposed to fading the odd patch of pigmentation here or there." In other words, regularly getting an IV glutathione treatment will lighten the whole skin, not just pigmented areas. R29 found that this is something most websites tend to miss out when advertising the treatment.
Dr Mahto also calls out the anti-ageing or 'slow' ageing claims. "In terms of anti-ageing, this is tenuous. Glutathione is an antioxidant and it seems clinics may link it to the ageing process in that way. However, there is no clinical evidence to show that this is true."
What are the risks and side effects of IV glutathione or 'skin brightening' drips?
Head to the website of a clinic which offers an IV 'skin brightening' treatment with glutathione and you're likely to be assured that it is a completely safe, well tolerated treatment. On the contrary, studies show that there are many under-the-radar side effects which could be detrimental to health.
In the Philippines, where the treatment is popular, many adverse reactions have been noted. In a report for the British Medical Journal, Dr Ophelia Dadzie, consultant dermatologist at The Hillingdon Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, wrote: "Potential adverse side effects include toxicity of the nervous system, kidney and liver, headaches, and rare, but serious skin conditions such as Stevens Johnson syndrome." According to the NHS, Stevens-Johnson syndrome is a "serious disorder that affects the skin, mucous membrane, genitals and eyes."
Research conducted by R29 showed that a handful of aesthetic clinics mention that IV glutathione drips can 'detoxify' the liver and body, but the science is scarce, as Dr Mahto reiterates. "There is no evidence that detoxifying your liver is possible. In fact, I’d call this woo-woo mumbo jumbo. Potential organ failure is one of the main side effects that has been associated with regular use and the bottom line regarding safety is that we don’t know. There isn’t any long-term safety data on IV glutathione." She goes on to say that while clinics may suggest a particular number of 'sessions', this hasn't been established in clinical trials. "I can only assume that [clinics] are making up their own protocols," she added.
As a result of the lack of science, not to mention the multiple risks, Dr Dadzie points out that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US and the Dermatology Society in the Philippines have issued advisory warnings against IV glutathione. However, it seems no such measures have been implemented in the UK.
How to protect yourself
One thing all experts agree on is that it's important to do your research should you want to undergo IV glutathione treatment for whatever reason, whether that's brightening, lightening or something else. We now know the multiple potential dangers but there are other elements to consider, too.
"If you are having any invasive treatment such as IV, you should be signing a consent form like any procedure," advises Dr Mahto. "It should be similar to having a mole removed, for example. Also, question what is being documented on the consent form. You should be consenting for not only the common things, but also the less common but very severe or dangerous things. Side effects like liver failure should definitely be documented on these consent forms."
And for clinics, Dr Mahto stresses the seriousness of perhaps screening for a level of body dysmorphia and body issues before carrying out treatments like these, due to the nature of the results. "This should absolutely be factored in," she said. "It's an important way to make sure the consent process is appropriate."