A new study claims regular drinking could increase the risk of developing the most deadly skin cancer, melanoma by more than half.
The research, conducted by an international team of researchers and published in the British Journal of Dermatology, suggests heavy drinkers who consume more than four alcoholic drinks a day increase their risk of developing the disease by 55%, while moderate drinkers who have two a day have an 18% chance.
This is based on 16 studies involving more than 6,200 patients with melanoma, and the definition that one drink equals 12.5 grams of alcohol – the equivalent of 1.56 units (a glass of wine or half a pint of strong beer).
Scientists say the link between alcohol consumption and sun damage is due to how the skin becomes more sensitive to light as a result of the biological changes that take place when alcohol enters the body.
The direct impact of alcohol on the development of the skin cancer however, is not fully understood, but researchers believe it is something to do with how ethanol (an ingredient found in alcohol that causes intoxication) converts to the chemical compound, acetaldehyde soon after it is consumed.
As well as contributing to hangovers, acetaldehyde is thought to act as a ‘photosensitiser’ – increasing the skin’s sensitivity to light. This in turn triggers molecules called ‘reactive oxygen species’ to damage cells in a manner that can lead to mutations and thus skin cancers such as melanoma.
One of the authors of the study, Dr Eva Negri, explains this process:
“We know that in the presence of UV radiation, drinking alcohol can alter the body’s immunocompetence, the ability to produce a normal immune response. This can lead to far greater cellular damage and subsequently cause skin cancers to form.
“This study aimed to quantify the extent to which the melanoma risk is increased with alcohol intake, and we hope that armed with this knowledge people can better protect themselves in the sun.”
Professor Chris Bunker, President of the British Association of Dermatologists agrees, saying that “Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK and melanoma is its deadliest form, any research into this area is very welcome.
“Brits haven’t always been known for their moderation when it comes to either alcohol or the sun, but this research is important as it provides people with further information to make informed choices about their health.”