That’s Cooked: The TikTok Sunburn Challenge That Shook Australia

Kian Lavender

I’m sure we all enjoy a tan every once in a while. Just Slip, Slop and Slap, right?  But Sid the Seagull isn’t a part of TikTok’s (now banned) sunburn challenge, where teenagers compete for the worst possible sunburn. Peeling skin, blistering sunburns, awkward tan…

Psst! If you’re more of a listener, we’ve got you.

I’m sure we all enjoy a tan every once in a while. Just Slip, Slop and Slap, right? 

But Sid the Seagull isn’t a part of TikTok’s (now banned) sunburn challenge, where teenagers compete for the worst possible sunburn. Peeling skin, blistering sunburns, awkward tan lines – the whole package.

Emerging in late 2022, the sunburn challenge stands as an example of what a harmless challenge can do to the human body.

Participants consisted of teenagers and young adults in Australia and New Zealand. Everyone competed for the worst sunburn, giving the hashtag #sunburnchallenge over 200 million views as of September 2022.

The romanticising of severe sunburns and the strong disregard for the risk of skin cancer was (as you’d expect) a problem for Australia and New Zealand’s skin health – especially when considering the two countries hold the highest skin cancer incidence and skin cancer-related mortality rate worldwide.

In response to this, The Melanoma Institute of Australia (MIA) slammed the challenge, giving birth to the anti-tanning campaign “Tanning. That’s Cooked”. The punny campaign, targeting ages 20-39, was intended to bring humour to the campaign while retaining the original message. 

The MIA also worked closely with TikTok, reiterating the importance of proper sun-related skin care.

“It’s our most deadly form of skin cancer, it’s nearly always caused by overexposure to UV radiation and the sun, and it’s preventable in most cases, yet it’s the most common cancer among those aged 20 and 39 – that’s cooked.”

– Lee Hunter, TikTok Australia & New Zealand General Manager.

With 8.5 million Australians using TikTok regularly every month as of September 2023, MIA Chief Executive Matthew Browne was overjoyed to work with TikTok, saying “TikTok is the perfect partner to help deliver the serious message about the dangers of tanning to young Australians.”

TikTok Australia has since banned the hashtag #sunburnchallenge, and adjusted its system to generate a banner that reads “Tanning. That’s Cooked” upon searching for anything related to the sun, summer or tanning on the platform.

The #sunburnchallenge was no joke, as much as the risks were not taken seriously.

But what was to blame?

That’s Cooked: An Analysis

One of the few positives about the #sunburnchallenge was that it brought several socio-cultural issues to the limelight — Australia and New Zealand’s avid tanning culture, our sun protection habits, and the (sometimes) harmful importance of social media.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever wanted a suntan or ever known anyone who’s wanted one.

I’ll have to trust that your hand is up.

While suntanning has always seemed harmless and otherwise enjoyable, the harmful effects of suntanning are something that isn’t talked about enough. 

The sad truth about suntanning is that it’s always been unsafe. According to the Food and Drug Administration, suntanning occurs through the damaging of skin cells and the body’s response, which is to give those cells extra melanin, giving your skin that “tanned” look.

With every itchy, red sunburn, our chances of melanoma (skin cancer) increase.

After being interviewed on Australia and New Zealand’s suntanning culture, dermatologist Katie Lee said the following:

But to make matters worse, our sun protection habits are not enough to keep us safe under the boiling Australian sun. Combine that with a culture that loves to sneak in a quick tan, and that’s where it becomes more of a problem than ever.

A study by dermatologist Katie Lee reveals that 2.4 million Australian adults get sunburnt each weekend.

That’s a lot of people increasing their risk of melanoma – 2.4 million too many. But the concerning sun protection habits don’t stop there — in 2019, more than one in four interviewed 25 – 44-year-olds (43%) have said they enjoy getting a tan.

So we know that Australia and New Zealand love their suntans. We know that some of us would benefit from reevaluating our habits when it comes to staying safe under the sun.

But what does this have to do with social media?

Social Media Challenges Can Be Cooked (Sometimes)

Social media and the challenges that come with it are both good things, but sometimes they can get a bit cooked (hence the title).

Social media platforms such as YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat are the most popular among teenagers, so it’s no surprise that most participants of the #sunburnchallenge are teenagers and young adults. 

According to a study in 2023 by psychologists Trucco and Cristello, “teenage years are linked to an increase in risk-taking”. The human brain isn’t fully developed until a person reaches their mid-20s, and the part of the brain that’s responsible for reward and dopamine develops much earlier than areas responsible for sound decision-making.

“It appears online reinforcement in the form of likes shares and retweets do motivate some teens who view these as a form of personal validation.”

– Divna Haslam, Clinical Psychologist

When you’re only shown half of the story, it’s extremely easy for anyone to believe that they’ve got the full scoop — especially if that half of the story is all they’ve ever known.

Social media posts or participation in dangerous viral trends typically avoid depictions of injuries or any downsides — only showing the good sides and end result.

All things considered, it’s no surprise that teenagers are overall more likely to act on impulse, risking their safety — or in this case, their skin health — for likes, views, and online attention.

While this trend is long gone, the sunburn challenge brought several problems into the limelight, and these can easily be addressed through the rise of more sun safety campaigns, shutting down the misinformation about safe tanning, and closer monitoring of dangerous trends by social media platforms. 

Audio Credit: SuperLofiWorld on YouTube.

Image Credit:Oleksandr PArmin RimoldiDaniel Eliashevsky.

Reference List

Cancer Council. (2020, November). Kids of the 80’s and 90’s failing the Slip Slop Slap-ometer. Retrieved from website:

Cassidy, C. (2022, December 1). TikTok to ban videos that encourage sunburn and tanning after alarm from medical experts. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Health, C. for D. and R. (2019). The Risks of Tanning. FDA. Retrieved from

Roche, L., Nic Dhonncha, E., & Murphy, M. (2020). TikTokTM and dermatology: promises and pearls. Clinical and Experimental Dermatology, 46(4), 737–739.

Seyfort, S. (2022, December 1). TikTok to campaign against tanning after dangerous “sunburn challenge.” Retrieved from website:

Social Media Perth. (2022, February 22). 2022 TikTok Statistics for Marketers // SMPerth. Retrieved from SM Perth website:

Soyer, H. P., & Lee, K. (2016, March). Explainer: what happens to your skin when you get 

sunburnt? Retrieved from The Conversation website:

Trucco, E. M., & Cristello, J. (2023, May 18). Teenage brains are drawn to popular social media challenges – here’s how parents can get their kids to think twice. Retrieved from The Conversation website:

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