You know that cavorting in the sun without adequate protection from clothing and sunscreen is a big mistake when it comes to preventing melanoma…and you know that this kind of skin cancer can kill. But did you know that what you drink affects your melanoma risk, too? When it comes to alcohol, it’s true—in fact, your skin cancer risk rises with as little as one serving of alcohol a day, according to new research. Here’s the startling connection…
It’s well-established that the leading cause of melanoma is intermittent, intense, sunburn-causing exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Even sunburns from childhood can come back to haunt you decades later, increasing your skin cancer risk. But other factors (a fair complexion, the presence of moles, advancing age, etc.) enter into the risk equation, too…and researchers decided to see whether alcohol also played a role. To that end, they conducted a meta-analysis, pulling together 16 previous studies that investigated a possible relationship between alcohol consumption and melanoma. The data they examined represented a total of 6,251 cases of this type of skin cancer.
Because the various studies used different measures to describe levels of alcohol consumption, the researchers looked at the grams of ethanol consumed each day, designating one drink as 12.5 grams of ethanol. (For comparison’s sake, in the US, one drink is generally defined as 14 grams of ethanol—the equivalent of a 12-ounce beer, a five-ounce glass of wine or a 1.5-ounce shot of 80-proof liquor.) For the new study, light drinking was defined as no more than 12.5 grams of ethanol per day…moderate-to-heavy consumption was defined as anything in excess of 12.5 grams per day. Although there was limited data on heavy drinking, this level of consumption was defined as more than 50 grams of ethanol (four drinks) per day.
What the researchers discovered: Compared with people who never or seldom drank, people who did drink were 20% more likely to get melanoma. As alcohol intake went up, so did the danger—light drinking was associated with a 10% increase in melanoma risk…moderate-to-heavy drinking was associated with an 18% increase in risk…and heavy drinking was associated with a 55% increase in risk.
What explains the link? You may assume that people who are imbibing at the beach, barbecue or ballgame don’t want to interrupt their fun, so they don’t bother to refresh their sunscreen…or else they’re so buzzed that they’re oblivious to how sunburned they’re getting. And no doubt that plays a part—in fact, other research suggests that nearly one-fifth of sunburns in American adults are attributable to alcohol consumption.
But drunk-induced sunburns don’t tell the whole story, the new study’s authors suggested. Their theory: Alcohol intake may reduce the strength of the immune system, allowing the sun’s UV rays to do greater harm to cells. That’s because soon after ethanol is consumed, it’s converted to a substance that makes skin even more sun-sensitive and vulnerable to oxidative stress, which in turn damages DNA and increases cancer risk.
Self-defense for your skin: If you plan to drink alcohol when you’re outdoors, you’d be wise to slather on the sunscreen beforehand and wear plenty of protective clothing…set a timer on your watch or phone to remind you to refresh your sunscreen every few hours…and limit alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per day. Need even more motivation? Remember that alcohol is linked to numerous other malignancies, including cancers of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, colon, liver, breast and prostate—so in that regard, what’s good for your skin is good for the rest of your body, too.