In 2019, Josh Brolin, celebrated actor and star of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ended up with a sunburnt anus.


This unlikely but true sentence was made possible by the bizarre wellness fad of ‘perineum sunning’ (genuinely exposing the patch of skin between anus and genitals to direct sunlight). It’s just one of the countless wellness fads, fashionable diets, and questionable products and procedures that claim to improve your health and appearance that are everywhere in our modern world.

Others include ‘vampire facials’ (injecting your own purified blood into your face), coffee enemas (self-explanatory) and the treasure trove of often-vagina-centric dubiousness that is Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Goop’ company.

Such fads and practices often make grand claims about the health benefits they offer, but seldom offer any robust evidence for them. Which is a shame, as they’re things that purport to affect people’s health that fly in the face of accepted science.

And yet, despite all this, they persist. If anything, they’re more popular than ever. It’s a bleakly regular occurrence, for an A-list actor, high profile celebrity, and now even Instagram influencer, to claim that they’ve discovered some new way to improve health, wellness, or restore lost youth.

And, despite it typically being extremely unscientific, ridiculous, embarrassing, even actively harmful, and the person advocating having no medical training or expertise whatsoever, countless people embrace it, as if it were the elixir of life and the fountain of eternal youth combined.

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This persistent phenomenon, of celebrities having more influence over how people understand health and wellbeing than most doctors, may seem nonsensical, and in many ways it is exactly that, but it’s also likely inevitable. There are numerous fundamental properties of our brains that mean celebrity wellness fads are likely to be around for many years to come.

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First and foremost, the human body and human health are incredibly complex things. Medical doctors have to train for nearly a decade to get to the point where they can competently intervene and improve people’s health, and even then there’s a lot they don’t know.

Your average non-medic person will have nowhere near this degree of insight and understanding, so wouldn’t necessarily be able to accurately differentiate between genuinely helpful health interventions and pseudoscientific fashionable nonsense, particularly when the latter is presented uncritically by ‘official’ media sources, which they regularly are.

There’s also the way the human brain instinctively prefers options that provide the biggest reward for the least effort. Constant exercise, healthy diets, or powerful medications? These are hard work, and/or unpleasant. So, if someone tells you that there’s a way to make you healthier that involves much less work than the usual methods, a lot of people will subconsciously want to believe it’s true, and be motivated to try it out.

The fact that such wellness fads are blatant nonsense is less important than you’d think. Or hope. Once we’ve decided to do something, our brains are often reluctant to change course or question our choices or beliefs, even when there’s ample evidence that contradicts them.

Granted, many health fads certainly seem far-fetched or ridiculous, even embarrassing. Indeed, many involve inserting weird things on or into our more intimate nether regions. Shouldn’t that put people off? Maybe it does in many cases. But for others, they might make it more convincing.

An influencer discussing a cosmetic product © Getty Images
© Getty Images

If you have doubts, and ask yourself “If this is so good, how come I’ve never heard of it before now?”, anything that can address this concern will make it more believable. Incorporating our more sensitive, private regions may help with this. “Why have I not encountered this before? Oh, because it involves putting things up [insert orifice of choice], and people are too squeamish. Well, not me.” It may seem a bit much, but our brains are often fine with such mental gymnastics.

Why is it always actors or celebrities who champion these fads? Because such individuals are popular, and admired, even worshipped. Celebrity endorsements are a long-established tool of marketing and advertising. It’s important to remember that, for much of our evolutionary history, our main source of information was other humans. This is why, as much as scientific and rationalist types may object, anecdotal evidence is still very persuasive.

Particularly when it’s someone ‘higher status’, like someone rich or famous. We’re instinctively inclined to do what they do, own what they own, to make ourselves seem higher status as a result. This is why endorsements work.

We’re also more inclined to trust those we’re emotionally connected to, in some way. While doctors and scientists have rules and regulations about not getting emotionally attached or engaged with others, celebrities have no such limitations, meaning their claims are bound to carry more weight than even the most accomplished expert, in the eyes of the typical person.

This reveals a more fundamental question; why do so many celebrities end up creating and/or embracing such surreal and far-fetched fads in the first place? What is it about life at the top of the A-list that disrupts your grasp of medical science, or basic logic?

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It’s impossible to be 100 per cent certain about this, given how it’s incredibly hard for scientists to convince multiple international megastars to take part in a study about why they’re gullible, but still, there are a number of known phenomena that could explain it.

One is normative informational influence, which reveals that our thinking and worldview are heavily shaped by the people around us, to an often-surprising degree. So much of the typical human life is spent interacting with others, and perceiving what they do and speak. Our brains take all this in, and incorporate it into our own conscious processes, and understandings of how the world works.

This can cause enough problems in normal people, as the modern prevalence of harmful or ridiculous beliefs reveals. However, it must be even more impactful for celebrities. I’ve never been one myself, but being an A-list celebrity often seems to involve being surrounded by people dedicated to your wellbeing, your comfort, and happiness. Agents, assistants, PR people, stylists, and so on.

Essentially, a considerable proportion of a big celebrity’s life may consist of everyone telling them they’re brilliant, marvellous, and right all the time. Without the feedback of criticism or disagreement, or just different ideas or perspectives, you could easily end up with a massively inflated sense of your own wisdom and understanding.

Could an enhanced tendency to believe, promote, even create dubious health fads be a possible outcome of that? Absolutely. Because if you’re a major celebrity, who’s going to tell you you’re wrong?

A woman receiving an injection to the forehead © Alamy
© Alamy

Status is also a big part of this. Humans are subconsciously very sensitive to their social status. We want to be liked, to be respected, and looked up to. There are many ways to achieve this, but it’s undeniable that big celebrities are about as high as it gets, status-wise, at least in the developed world.

However, achieving status is one thing, but we’re also compelled to maintain it. Being famous for your acting/singing/performing skills, or your attractiveness, is all well and good, but what if you could also make people healthier? What if you knew things that the medical establishment didn’t? That would make you even more respectable, more impressive. And you must be right, because nobody tells you otherwise, and countless people follow your advice.

Throw in the fact that people of higher status tend to be more receptive to others of similar status and you get a situation where celebrities and famous people follow each other’s advice and recommendations more than they perhaps should. And Josh Brolin ends up with a sun-scorched sphincter.

So yes, there are plenty of reasons why health and wellness fads remain popular and widespread, despite being completely contradicted by science as we know it. And a lot of this is thanks to how our brains work.

Be aware of this next time you’re presented with the latest dubious-sounding claims about how to boost your health or enhance your wellbeing, because you could end up getting burned. And in a very intimate place, too.

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Dean is a neuroscientist, author, blogger, occasional comedian and all-round ‘science guy’. He is the author of the the popular Guardian Science blog ‘Brain Flapping’ (now ‘Brain Yapping’ on the Cosmic Shambles Network with accompanying podcast), the bestselling books The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain, and his first book aimed at teens, Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up the Wall and What To Do About It.