A Bright Ray of Sunshine?

Reader question of the week: “I’ve lost my tan over the past few months. Is it safe to “top off” my tan in a tanning booth?”

Answer: No. A July 2012 study posted in the British Medical Journal reported a 20% increase in melanoma skin cancer risk in patients that had EVER used a tanning bed as well as a 42% increase in melanoma risk in heavy users. Tanning before you have reached age 35? An 87% increased melanoma risk compared with those who have never tanned. Ouch! And not just from the sunburn possibility. Think you are alone? I’m afraid I fall into the 87% increased risk category.

I always tell my patients that none of my soapboxes are too high as I have made the majority of mistakes personally; and yes, I logged time in a tanning booth when I was younger. However, our medical knowledge in the aesthetic and anti-aging field has been advancing exponentially. We now know that not only does sun tanning increase your risk for skin cancer, it also accelerates the aging process in your skin. Take a look around the next time you are in a public place. You can identify the tanners by the worn, weathered look of their skin. The modeling and fashion industries have recognized this. You either see spray on tans or the new “bright white” look made more popular by the Twilight movie series (I still get to keep my man card, I have only seen short clips due to the bad influence of my wife).

You’re saying that sun tanning is bad, it accelerates the aging process, and increases my risk for skin cancer. Is melanoma really that bad? That depends. Is death considered a bad outcome? While the 2012 cancer death statistics have not been officially finalized, the National Cancer Institute projects that more than 9000 people in the United States alone will die of melanoma skin cancer in 2012. Whoa! The future doesn’t look as bright and sunny anymore. While the melanoma death rate is less than 6% for the under 45 age group, it more than doubles for the 45-54 age range (13.5%) and continues to increase until it reaches a high of 24% for the 75-84 age group.

Well doc, like you, I made mistakes when I was younger. What can I do to decrease my risk of skin cancer death? Self-inspection is first and foremost. If you have read the previous series of articles dealing with sex you should be familiar with getting naked with your partner. This is an instance where you need to keep the lights on, as skin cancer likes the shadows. Start with a visual inspection of your partners skin and specifically look for skin lesions larger than a pencil eraser. Red flags are increasing size, irregular border, changing color, irregular margins, and changing texture. While a personal or partner exam is great for identifying new or changing skin lesions, it doesn’t obviate the need to have a board-certified dermatologist perform an annual skin inspection. I recommend that my patients see a board-certified dermatologist by age 40 if they have a history of increased sun exposure and age 50 (also the age for your first colonoscopy) if they don’t report active sun tanning.

We don’t have a dermatologist in Ruidoso, but there are a couple in Roswell, and more in Las Cruces and Albuquerque. Make sure you check your physicians credentials on the New Mexico Medical Board website ( and verify board certification at prior to your visit. Board certified dermatologists have four years of specialty training and thousands of patients worth of experience working to keep you alive. Until then, do your part. Stay out of the tanning beds and wear sunscreen!

Disclaimer: Dr Stephen Rath, MD, DABA is a board certified anesthesiologist as well as the owner and medical director of Fusion Medical Spa located in Ruidoso, NM. He isn’t a dermatologist, but he is doing his part to educate patients about the risks of skin cancer. Comments or questions? His email address is: