Toddler Showed Symptoms of Puberty After Exposure to Testosterone Gel

  • Barnaby Brownsell developed a “sizable” penis and pubic hair at the age of 2.
  • Doctors told his family this was caused by prolonged exposure to his father’s testosterone gel.
  • His mom launched a campaign to get manufacturers of the gel to include a prominent health warning.

Whenever Erica Brownsell took her 2-year-old, Barnaby, to the play area, other parents would ask why a child his size was still drinking from a bottle.

On one occasion, she said, a stranger remarked that “he looked like a little man.” She said some people had called him a “Viking” or “Samson” because of his muscular build.

But it was only after Brownsell saw pubic hair around Barnaby’s “sizable” penis that she got seriously worried.

“I knew it wasn’t normal,” the 43-year-old mom told Insider, noting that her toddler looked like a 4- or 5-year-old boy. “He’d have massive, sustained erections and his height and weight were off the charts.”

Brownsell, of Brighton, England, added: “He weighed 26 pounds at the age of 1 and put on over two pounds every month between the ages of 12 and 18 months. It wasn’t fat, just muscle.”

Dr. Tony Hulse, a pediatric endocrinologist at Everlina London Children’s Hospital in the UK, was somewhat baffled when Sosna consulted him in March.

Barnaby had as much testosterone in his system as an adult male

Blood work showed that Barnaby had an abnormally high level of testosterone — as much as a grown man — when it should be negligible for a boy his age. He also had the bone density of a 4.5-year-old child.

Further tests ruled out the most common causes, such as an endocrine tumor or a congenital disorder that affects the adrenal glands.

Barnaby Brownsell, two, is shown on a playground slide with his much smaller cousin who is the same age.

Two-year-old Barnaby Brownsell appears to be a 4- or 5-year-old and is much bigger than his cousin, who’s also 2.

Courtesy of Erica Brownsell


“It was very scary,” Brownsell said.”Nobody seemed to know what was going on.”

Then one of Hulse’s colleagues made a suggestion. She wondered whether Barnaby had been exposed for long periods to an artificial testosterone treatment meant for adults.

Hulse told Insider that he emailed Sosna to ask if he’d ever come into contact with the medication.

“My husband had been using testosterone gel for several years,” Brownsell said, explaining that Barnaby’s father, Peter, was born with a complex testicular condition.

Barnaby Browsell, who looks more like a four-year-old than a two-year-old, is carried by his father, Peter, in a park with trees.

Peter Brownsell applied testosterone gel to his skin every day, not knowing that the substance was being transferred to his son.

Courtesy of Erica Brownsell


She said they were “shocked” to learn that the generous amount of topical gel that he applied every day may have caused Barnaby’s issues.

“I spent two years of my life thinking that I was protecting and taking care of him when in fact his own environment was contaminated,” Brownsell said.

According to Brownsell, a career consultant, her husband used the product — brand-named Testogel in the UK and AndroGel for the equivalent type of drug in America — on his skin to help correct his testosterone deficiency.

Dr. Benjamin Udoka Nwosu, the head of pediatric endocrinology at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New York, told Insider that the absorption of testosterone gel or cream — typically applied to the upper arms and shoulders — is “never complete.”

Testosterone gel could be risky for kids if they’re exposed to the medication

“There’s some testosterone left on the skin, even hours after the application,” Nwosu said. “Family members and other individuals who have close contact with the male patient are at risk of direct exposure.”

The doctor said that the testosterone “gets into the bloodstream” even when the patient wears clothing. “Studies have shown that even if you cover the site with a T-shirt, 40 to 48% of the hormone can be transferred,” Nwosu said.

He said that if the exposure “occurs over a long period of time,” the amount of testosterone can be harmful. The high levels are particularly dangerous to children, Nwosu said, because they can enter puberty years before their peers.

The symptoms, he said, include acne, pubic and underarm hair, and oversized reproductive organs.

Brownsell said that she and her artist spouse took turns caring for Barnaby while the other worked. The father frequently watched him in the mornings. His shift would begin after he applied the Testogel, his wife said, before describing the 65-year-old father as a “hands-on dad.”

Hulse told Insider that he was “99.99% sure” that Brownsell’s hormone treatment triggered Barnaby’s puberty at an extraordinarily young age.

Barnaby’s specialist told his parents that the boy’s chronological age would eventually “catch up” with his body

The physician, who strongly advises people to use disposable gloves when they apply the gel, said he was relieved to tell Barnaby’s parents that his chronological age would eventually “catch up” with his body. He explained that the boy’s testosterone levels would return to normal now that his dad had switched to testosterone injections.

“Barnaby will stop growing so rapidly,” Hulse said, adding that the problem was caught relatively early and “hopefully it won’t have done any long-term damage.”

Two-year-old Barnaby Brownsell plays on a swing in a playground as his father, Peter, sits on the next swing and looks on.

Barnaby Brownsell, pictured with his dad, is muscular and the size of a child at least two years older than him.

Courtesy of Erica Sosna


He is now backing Brownsell’s campaign to raise awareness about the risk to children of testosterone gel. She wants to see a prominent warning introduced in the UK on packages of Testogel, along with specific leaflet instructions. AndroGel in the US has had a boxed warning since 2009 because more than 20 cases like Barnaby’s had been reported to the Federal Drug Administration. The adverse reactions led to one child needing surgery, according to the FDA.

Insider reached out to Besins, the European pharmacy company that manufactures the gel, for comment and is awaiting a response.

Meanwhile, Brownsell said that Barnaby’s “avoidable” condition has taken its toll.

“The toxin has effectively distorted its appearance,” she said. “We’ll never know what he was supposed to look like at the age of 2.”

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