I Guess It’s Time to Talk About Testicle Tanning

I Guess It’s Time to Talk About Testicle Tanning
Photo: Janos Kummer, Getty Images

I’m not sure who decided Tucker Carlson is the person to listen to when you want to find out how to become more manly (it was probably Tucker Carlson), but the guy has recently teased an upcoming documentary on the subject with clips that include the concept of “testicle tanning.”

Every now and then I come across things that people talk about on fitness or wellness or biohacking forums that seem ripe for a debunking except that the idea isn’t yet mainstream enough for Lifehacker to cover. Sunning your balls — or better yet, exposing them to a $US1,649 ($2,289) panel of red lights — is the latest hack to escape my “at least I don’t have to write about this” mental list.

So are there a “massive amount of benefits” from exposing your ballsack to red light, as mentioned in the Carlson clip? Well, there are a lot of benefits that people claim from the practice, but the actual science hasn’t been able to back them up. The companies that sell the lights and the biohackers who sing its praises tend to cite a few studies that were done in animals or in test tubes, or that were done in humans but that aren’t specific to testosterone, or the testicles or scrotum.

So how is testicular tanning supposed to benefit you? One hypothesis is that red light helps mitochondria produce more ATP, and that this helps the Leydig cells in the testicles to produce more testosterone. Another hypothesis centres around vitamin D, which some studies have shown is low in men who also have low testosterone.

But there are problems with these ideas. To name one obvious one: vitamin D isn’t produced specifically in scrotal skin. You can increase yours by sunning any body part you choose, or simply by eating more food that contains vitamin D, such as fatty fish.

And when it comes to the effects of red light on mitochondria, this may be true — in skin cells. The testicles are internal organs, and light doesn’t penetrate skin by more than a few millimetres tops. There are light therapy treatments that work on the skin, but there’s not really a plausible way for your testes to increase their production of testosterone just because there’s light shining on the skin of the scrotum.

So why do some guys think it must work? The light therapy proponent in the video clip, Andrew McGovern, was probably correct when he said that people embrace what he calls “bromeopathy” when they “don’t trust the mainstream information.”

That sounds accurate to me, and it’s a phenomenon that powers all kinds of pseudoscientific practices, as I learned firsthand when I went looking for health advice at the Goop summit. It’s the same thing all over again. Shining a light on your balls has the feel of a secret health hack that doctors don’t want you to know about, and yet you can do it yourself for free with the sun. Or you can feel like an expert by researching light therapy devices, then checking your email and calling your mum while standing in front of one with your pants down, as biohacker Ben Greenfield wrote about his experience.

It also probably feels a little bit special and edgy. Remember a few years ago, the lady who posed on Instagram “sunning [her] bum and yoni”? She has said that “[a]s a woman, it has connected me more to my womb space,” which to me sounds a lot like the way Greenfield enthused about feeling “a unique heavenly, warm, tingly glow in my crotch” and then having a great date night with his partner.

So, there you go: The secrets of testicle tanning are revealed. Just don’t be surprised when the next trend goes the opposite direction, like sitting with an ice pack on your scrotum because that, too, is supposed to increase your testosterone.

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