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.