“Ten years ago there were an estimated 50,000 users of image and performance-enhancing drugs [like steroids] in the UK,” Dr William Shanahan, clinical director of addictions at Priory’s Roehampton Hospital, said this month. “But we suspect this number may now be rocketing above 500,000.” The Priory Group emailed THE FACE to say that the “500,000 users figure is supported by research from a panel of 55 experts last year”.
According to UKAD, 20 – 24-year-olds are the most common demographic of users in the UK. Their motives vary: 27 per cent are doing it to “enhance sports performance”, 45 per cent are engaging in “non-competitive bodybuilding” and 56 per cent attribute their use to “improving body image/cosmetic reasons”. Basically, the majority are looking to augment and sculpt their body so they can look like someone from Love Island, or a fitness influencer on Instagram with heavily edited, shape-shifting pictures and more bullshit claims than a Tory minister.
It’s no secret that body image, especially among young men, has changed drastically over the past few years – not to mention how much more content we’re digesting, whether through Instagram or beefed-up reality stars on TV. In late 2021, a study by Better found that out of 2,000 respondents, 54 per cent of men displayed signs of body dysmorphia and said that low body confidence had negative effects on aspects of their lives.
“I started taking steroids two years ago,” Peter, a 27-year-old charity employee, tells THE FACE. “I wanted to achieve the kind of size that I knew would not be possible to achieve naturally.” He injects the drugs into muscles rather than taking tablets, as it bypasses his liver and hopefully results in fewer side-effects. “I got my information [about steroids] from a very knowledgeable friend who is interested in harm reduction,” Peter continues. “There are also forums online which I will occasionally check.”
He “cycles” his steroids by smashing the gym the whole time – having a set period “on” and then the same period “off”, which is one reason he believes he’s not experienced potential side-effects such as baldness, a reduction in the size of your balls or gynecomastia – a condition where men can grow breast tissue. When Peter is “off-cycle”, he takes supplements (“post-cycle therapy”) designed to help his natural testosterone bounce back, and doesn’t drink, which he believes reduces the risk of liver damage. “A lot of people I know are paying coaches to work out these regimens for them,” he says.
It’s always been unclear how many people are using steroids. In 2015, the UK Anti-Doping Agency told Sky News that one million people in the UK were using image and performance-enhancing drugs. This shocking number was immediately cemented as a statement of fact and subsequently reported in Men’s Health (2016), The Guardian (2018), BBC News (2022) and Metro (2023). Fact checkers Full Fact investigated the claim as a follow-up.
“Full Fact has been able to trace it back to an estimate given by a researcher in 2015,” they report on their website, “which was based on an extrapolation of data from studies at a number of needle and syringe exchanges.” They added: “Other available evidence (including the review by a panel of 55 experts published last year) suggests the one million figure may be a significant overestimate.”
You could get in a lot of trouble for selling these drugs, which are Class‑C under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, but possessing personal amounts is not an offence. Evidence from Border Force indicates the majority of steroids that arrive into the UK are purchased online and get posted into the country from China, eastern Europe and areas of Asia.
There are certain advantages to buying them this way, Peter explains. “I do know someone I can buy them from [IRL] but I like getting them online,” he says. “There’s a wider choice of different substances. Some of the labs that produce these substances use an oil suspension that I am slightly allergic to, so I know not to use that lab. But if I was going to a dealer in person I wouldn’t have that range of options.”
One reason that it’s hard to work out these figures is that the use of steroids is shrouded in secrecy; when you look around the gym, you have no idea what assemblage of chemicals could be fuelling people. It’s just not talked about. There’s more stigma attached to these drugs than street drugs like cocaine or ketamine, especially when fitness influencers on social media are covertly juicing themselves while claiming to be all natural.
Charlatans like the Liver King (45-year-old Brian Johnson) sold his followers an impossible dream: that they too could achieve a chiselled and bulky physique if they ate a ridiculous diet consisting mainly of raw liver. But he was exposed by another fitness influencer last month; it turned out that along with his “ancient, primal carnivorous diet” he was also smashing testosterone and HGH (human growth hormone). He is what is known in bodybuilding circles as a “fake natty”: someone who claims to be natural but in reality they are anything but.
Exactly how many people take steroids is still unclear. “My fear is [that] we are sleepwalking into a health crisis, especially for young men,” Dr Shanahan of The Priory Group says. But with the previous accepted figure of one million users now considered incorrect and the new figure of half a million just an estimate, he also admits that “there is a lack of clear data” in this area.
“It’s still only an estimate, but it’s the best that we’ve got until we can get some funding and are able to do a more detailed piece of work,” Professor James McVeigh, who worked on the latest research, told Full Fact. Even funding is beside the point, unless the social stigma surrounding these drugs is tackled, a full picture is unlikely to emerge anytime soon.