PhotoDermatologists are alarmed by a new fad that they say is jeopardizing health. It's called sunburn tattooing, and doctors say there is nothing “cool” about it.

Some people are creating temporary tattoos by using sunblock or sunscreen to either stencil or freehand designs onto their skin. Then, they bake in the sun, purposefully getting a sunburn on their skin, with the red contrasting with their protected skin.

While it isn't permanent like a real tattoo, doctors say a sunburn tattoo can cause lasting damage.

“When you get any kind of unprotected sun exposure, you are doing damage to the DNA in your skin cells,” said Dr. Michael Ioffreda, a dermatologist at Penn State University Medical Center. “Your skin has memory, so the damage accumulates over time. Eventually, your body’s repair mechanisms can’t keep up and skin cancers erupt.”

True, you may not get skin cancer – at least, maybe not for a couple of decades – but there are more imminent, unappealing side effects of unprotected sunning, dermatologists warn.

Early wrinkles

Too much sun can bring on early wrinkles. Strangely colored spots and irregular pigmentation of the skin can also occur. Ironically, people often expose themselves to the sun's rays in search of healthy looking, radiant skin. Over the long haul, that isn't what they usually get.

Some people may have some degree of natural pigmentation in their skin and are less at risk for the harmful effects of unprotected sun exposure, but doctors say even they can be harmed by too much unprotected sun.

“As dermatologists, our stance is that there is no safe level of sun exposure,” Ioffreda said. “We can’t say it’s okay to get a tan once a week because we don’t know what the threshold is.”

Tattoo artists' warning

Even a traditional tattoo parlor is joining in the warnings against sunburn tattooing. Elite Tattoo Gallery of Jacksonville, N.C., says that you can't get a real tattoo if you have sunburned skin. 

“Tattooing breaks down your epidermis, which, if you’re sunburned, is already damaged,” the company says on its website. Your body is already trying to heal your sunburned skin, so more damage will only mean trouble for a fresh tattoo.”

Ioffreda suggests everyone should be using a daily moisturizer containing sunscreen. If you're going to be spending time in the sun each day, he recommends a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.

Sunscreen should always be applied 15 to 20 minutes before sun exposure so it has time to react chemically with your skin to form a protective shield. Ioffreda says it should be reapplied every hour and a half -- unless you are sweating or in water, in which case it should be reapplied more frequently. You can also use a sunblock such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide instead.

“That’s the real white stuff that lifeguards use,” Ioffreda said. “It’s almost like putting paint on your skin but it works immediately to reflect the sun’s rays.”

Ioffreda and other dermatologists worry about this new fad because it's spreading so quickly across social media. If you have to do it, he suggests doing it with a spray-on tanner. You can get the same effect, he says, without causing damage to your skin.

Henna tattoos

Another temporary tattoo fad has triggered the concern of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The agency says temporary tattoos marketed as "henna" are applied to the skin's surface and usually last two to four weeks.

Henna is a dark coloring made from a flowering plant that grows in tropical and subtropical regions of Africa and Asia. The FDA says henna body artists are using so-called "black henna," which is potentially harmful.

It says inks marketed as "black henna" may actually be hair dye or a mix of henna with other ingredients that can cause dangerous reactions. The FDA says reactions may occur immediately after the application or even up to two or three weeks later.

Reported problems include redness, blisters, raised red weeping lesions, loss of pigmentation, increased sensitivity to sunlight, and even permanent scarring.  

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