I suppose it was inevitable, given the tan lines shown by a little girl and a certain dog on the old Water Babies sunscreen bottles.
Both sun-worshiping and tattoos have had a resurgence in popularity in the last decade. Although they mark your body differently, they have much in common. Sunburns are painful, but so are tattoos, which are done without anesthesia. Pain is part of the contract. Tattoos are also the leading cause of Hepatitis C in this country, so risk is also part of the game.
If you have spent the last few months in a cellar and haven’t heard of sunburn tattoos yet, they are a creation of skin art done by painting a design on your skin with high strength sunblock, then sun-burning everywhere else. This creates a visible shadow. This must be done in a single exposure, because it would be difficult to paint the same exact pattern multiple times. Thus we have sunburn art, not suntan art.
Judging from a quick Internet search for sunburn art, the point seems to be a selfie to share with the world. A very short-lived work of art. One might liken this to a Buddhist Sand painting; something beautiful, only to be swept away.
One might be mistaken.
Sunshine is composed of ultraviolet radiation among other longer, friendlier wavelengths. Ultraviolet rays damage the DNA in skin cells, often killing them. A sunburn is actually a radiation burn. There is an expression, “the skin remembers.”
Melanoma is the most dangerous of the skin cancers, and melanoma risk is doubled by five sunburns in your life. A sunburn is not a piece-of-pizza sort of risk, more like a carton-of-cigarettes risk. Statistically it’s actually much safer to do a selfie while skydiving than to take one showing off sunburn art.
But there is something working against a rational look at sunburn art. The young are immortal – immune to risk and fatal disease. Many, in their eyes, feel that nothing bad can happen to them.
It makes it hard to be cautious. And if you are immune to risk, the superhero of your own life, you want to look the part.
The Aussies have studied sun damage to the skin. Using daily sunblock on your face will give the appearance of taking five to 10 years off your real age. UV light damages elastin, the structural support of skin. Skin with poor support looks old. A good coat of sunblock will do more for your skin than all the beauty products ever made.
So if the need for a sunburn art selfie is consuming you (or your teenage kids), cheat. I use a stencil to carve pumpkins, and the same could be used with spray tan to create the same effect. Perhaps not with a ghost theme.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.