As if the “Ice Bucket Challenge” and the “planking in strange places” viral challenges weren’t weird enough, along comes arguably the dimmest challenge ever — the “sunburn tattoo” challenge.

Originally launched back in 2015 by French artist Thomas Mailaender as an (often painful) illustration of body art using ultraviolet light on models, the sunburn challenge has picked up steam on social media sites likes Instagram and Twitter in the summer of 2019.

The sunburn challenge really has nothing to do with raising awareness for charitable purposes. Instead, it’s picked up steam among younger people as a “look at me” form of one-upping among peers — the more illustrative and provocative the sunburn tattoo, the more likely the ensuing image or video gets clicks and attention on social media.

“Everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame and most people want to join in on the latest trend or fad,” says Andrew Selepak, a media professor in the Department of Telecommunication at the University of Florida, and director of the school’s graduate program in social media. “That said, most people don’t ever get their 15 minutes of fame, and some fads, like bell-bottom jeans, should never have gotten popular in the first place.”

The problem is that social media makes too many people, and especially younger people, believe their 15 minutes of fame and social acceptability and notoriety are just an Instagram post away, Selepak says.

“The sunburn tattoo challenge is just the latest example, but at least not as damaging, deadly, and dumb as the ‘hot water challenge,’ where people were filming themselves drinking boiling water or pouring it on themselves or others,” he notes. “Social media is all about getting reactions in the form of likes, comments, and shares — and participating in the latest social media sensation, like the Ice Bucket Challenge or the ‘Mannequin Challenge,’ can be beneficial in raising money for a good cause or bringing people together for a moment of fun, but other internet challenges are dangerous in both the short-term and long-term.”

With the sunburn tattoo challenge, not only are people exposing themselves to a painful burn in the short-term, but possible skin cancer in the long-term, as well as the fact that future employers might one day see these videos of an applicant engaging in a stupid behavior all for fleeting likes on social media, Selepak says.

An unforced error, body- and healthwise

The actual process of obtaining a sunburn tattoo is simple enough.

Individuals wanting to make a body tattoo from the skin-burning rays of the sun just stencil out a message, image, or other form of expression (dragons, flags, and nicknames are among the more popular forms of the tattoos) and spend a few hours with the exposed area under the hot summer sun.

After that, the stencils are removed to reveal a mostly red image on the body that contrasts with the individual’s paler skin.

For art’s sake, maybe there’s a message there. But for skin health’s sake, you’re literally playing with fire when you create a sunburn tattoo.

“The sunburn tattoo challenge is among the most health-damaging challenges of all time,” says Nikola Djordjevic, a board-certified physician and medical adviser with LoudCloudHealth.com, a cannabis and health services-related online platform.

“To complete the challenge, people need to damage their skin enough to tan or burn, which means exposing skin to ultraviolet radiation,” he says. “But this enhances the risks of developing skin cancer; it affects skin so much it ages prematurely and leads to loss of collagen.”

“I wouldn’t advise anyone to leave the house without the sunscreen on, especially during summer when the sun burns with a higher intensity, let alone do it intentionally as part of a social media challenge,” he adds.

sunburn tattoo
Unsplash/Maciej Serafinowicz-

Taking a foolish risk

Medical experts who specialize in skin and body health say those taking on the sun for an extended period of time place their own health at risk.

“The sun is a humongous nuclear reactor in the skies,” says Viseslav Tonkovic-Capin, a Kansas City-based dermatologist and editor at DermBoard.org. “Therefore, sunburn is a form of acute radiation damage to the skin and skin genes. Just one sunburn is sometimes enough to trigger the development of melanoma, which is one of the deadliest cancers in humans.”

Tonkovic-Capin says that happened to one of his patients in her twenties.

“She was sitting under the tent selling the tickets for an event,” he says. “She clearly remembered the sunburn to her left thigh and the mole that appeared there after several months. That ‘mole’ proved to be a melanoma. Fortunately, she is now melanoma-free, but the worry is that the melanoma will come back.”

Given that reality, Tonkovic-Capin says he “pleads with anyone taking a ‘sunburn tattoo’ challenge to stop spreading this truly foolish idea.”

Other skin specialists agree.

“Once a year we read about the sunburn challenge,” says Lukas Peintner, Ph.D., of the Institute of Molecular Medicine and Cell Research at the Germany-based University of Freiburg. “In my opinion, that’s the worst challenge ever, since it bears all the ingredients to cause cancer and, as a cosmetic side effect accelerates skin aging.”

Here’s how Peintner breaks down the damage the sun can do to the human body, in scientific terms.

“Sunlight contains a high amount of high-energy radiation, that is also called UVB light,” he says. “This UV light has the ability to directly interact with DNA inside a living cell. It makes the DNA shatter and the cell has instantly to repair it.”

According to Peintner, prolonged exposure to UV light (as it happens at a beach or swimming pool without protection or shading) simply overwhelms the repair mechanism.

“The cell can’t repair its DNA anymore, it stops functioning, swells, and basically explodes,” he says. “That is called necrosis. Necrosis causes massive inflammation — the red color, the hot sensation, the swelling and the pain when moving the skin. During the process of inflammation all the dead cells get removed and replaced by living cells — this can take up to several days.”

One sunburn once in a while is probably not the end of days, Peintner says. But recurring sunburns bear the danger that mutations can occur. “UV light harms the DNA and it needs to be repaired,” he says. “This repair mechanism fails once in a while, increasing the potential accumulation of mutations in the skin that can lead to cancer. That is the reason why the incidence of melanoma (the type of cancer mostly caused by excessive sunlight exposure) is so high in areas exposed to high levels of UV light.”

Pouring cold water on the sunburn tattoo challenge

Like flavors of ice cream at Baskin-Robbins, social media challenges come in different varieties, too — some good and some bad.

File the sunburn tattoo challenge in the latter file.

“There is nothing inherently wrong with a social media challenge, but when it is done with no possible benefit to yourself or society, and potentially dangerous, it does not project the image of someone capable of making good choices on the job, in a relationship, as a parent, or in life as a whole,” says Selepak.

In that regard, count the sunburn challenge as one of social media’s more ridiculous and dangerous stunts — until the next one comes along.