A couple of weeks ago, my friend Bryce sent me an Instagram post in which a naked woman is lying on her back on a rock; her arms are extended straight up so her hands can hold her widely spread feet and maintain what appears to be the "happy baby" yoga pose, and her nipples have been artfully censored by Photoshopped sunlight. However, it's not her faux-aglow nipples that are the subject of the photo, but rather what the very real sun is doing to her bare crotch: perineum sunning, according to the caption.
In panicking, grammarless all-caps, Bryce wrote, "IS THIS SATIRICAL PLEASE TELL ME THIS IS SATIRICAL." And at first glance, I honestly couldn't tell. Yet in the time since the photo has gone viral, it has become clear that many people, including some celebrities, are taking it seriously. The original poster, who goes by Metaphysical Meagan, laid out an earnest and apparently convincing argument for the practice, writing that she's been doing the "ancient Taoist practice" recently — or as she also put it, "sunning my bum & yoni" — because, she claims, it strengthens organs, improves libido, regulates circadian rhythm, boosts mental focus, and increases energy. And while Bryce wishes this is a joke, dermatologists take the practice's risks very seriously.
"The skin of the vulva and anus is thin," says board-certified dermatopathologist Gretchen Frieling, who practices in Wellesley, Massachusetts. "For the majority of people, this is a part of the body that has barely seen the light of day and, if it is exposed to the sun, has no defense mechanism to deal with the UV rays."
As a result, this particular brand of sun exposure can lead to serious medical problems. "Skin cancers that affect other parts of the body, such as melanoma, squamous cell, and basal cell carcinoma, can occur in genital and perianal skin," says Heidi Prather, a board-certified dermatologist in Austin, Texas. "Furthermore, studies have shown people who have been exposed to HPV coupled with sun exposure had an increased risk of developing skin cancer, and sun exposure can exacerbate the herpes virus."
As if that weren't worrying enough, Prather says that some essential oils that people use in the genital area — like verbena, bergamot, lemon, and lime — may result in increased photosensitivity and sunburn.
In addition to warning against the harm that could be caused by perineum sunning, doctors are also very skeptical about the purported benefits. Prather tells Allure that there is no scientific or medical merit to the claims. "The reported increased energy from daily bum sunning may more likely be from waking up early at the same time every day and getting some exercise to find that private Instagram-worthy sunning rock," she says.
Frieling is similarly skeptical. "All of these things involve an approach to healthy living that goes way beyond lying spread-eagle in the sun," she says. "Any 'benefit' would be strictly out of sheer vanity." If you're hell-bent on getting a tan in this area — though Metaphysical Meagan has said in her Instagram captions that this is not why she personally practices perineum sunning — Frieling says you can use hypoallergenic mineral makeup on your vulva or anus as long as you wash it off every day. (Who knew?)
Unfortunately, some people have already found out that perineum sunning can have immediate and uncomfortable effects. Actor Josh Brolin shared Meagan's photo on his own Instagram grid and shared his tale of woe. "Tried this perineum sunning that I've been hearing about and my suggestion is DO NOT do it as long as I did. My pucker hole is crazy burned, and I was going to spend the day shopping with my family and instead, I'm icing and using aloe and burn creams because of the severity of the pain."
Though it's unclear if Brolin is joking or really did try perineum sunning, he's at least describing the proper ways to soothe this kind of taint trauma. Daval Bhanusali, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, recommends treating with cool compresses, aloe, and short-term use of over-the-counter cortisone cream to relieve any inflammation caused by perineum sunning. If you have any blisters, however, he recommends seeing a dermatologist, and Frieling adds that you should never try to open them.
Ultimately, Bhanusali says, there are safer and more scientifically supported ways to achieve the benefits some people seek through perineum sunning. "Sleeping well, exercising, and taking time for yourself will always help," he tells Allure. I think fads like this will come and go — and particularly spread due to social media — and while I will always be pro-wellness and self-care, experimenting with some of these trends can be more harmful than you realize."
Frieling could not agree more. "There is no one answer to harnessing the 'mystic powers' this viral trend espouses," she says, expressing her astonishment over what people are willing to try. "Good health is achieved from the inside out and time and effort must be put forth on a consistent basis. There is no magic trick."
Allure reached out to Metaphysical Meagan but has not yet received a response.
More on keeping skin protected from the sun:
Now check out 100 years of sun care:
Originally Appeared on Allure