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Alcohol and Skin Cancer: Understanding the Connection, Studies, and Prevention Tips

Written by Ashley Sutphin

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, help is available. Speak with a Recovery Advocate by calling 888-648-0738 now.

Updated 08/06/2021

Alcohol may be a contributing factor to many kinds of cancer, and that includes skin cancer, according to new research.

A new study looked at the links between drinking outside, the potential to develop sunburn and possible skin cancer risk. Research shows a possible link between drinking and the risk of skin cancer and there are some theories as to why this could be the case.

In addition to recently published research, there have been different studies and analyses that have looked at the same topic of the possible links between alcohol and the risk of skin cancer. There were two meta-analyses in particular that showed a possible association between alcohol intake and the development of skin cancer including basal and squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.

One study found the risk of basal cell carcinoma went up by 7% for every 10-gram increase in the amount of alcohol consumed, and the risk of squamous cell carcinoma went up 11%. A separate study showed a 20% increase in melanoma for drinkers as compared to people who didn’t drink or only drank occasionally. The increased risk cited was based on the amount of alcohol consumed, and there was a 5% risk increase for people who had the equivalent of 50 grams of alcohol a day.

Alcohol isn’t just linked to skin cancer. Consuming alcohol is estimated to be responsible for around 3.5% of all cancer deaths that occur in the United States.

Reasons for Increased Skin Cancer Risk

There are a few theorized reasons for increased skin cancer risk linked to the use of alcohol. One reason researchers offer is that something called carotenoids decreased after consuming alcohol. Carotenoids are pigments that we consume from plant-based sources that protect us from UV light.

There is also a behavioral element that could be possibly related to the increased skin cancer risk that comes with alcohol. When people are drinking and spending time in the sun, they’re less likely to wear sunscreen. They’re also more likely to spend longer amounts of time outside because they are drinking and those are risk factors for the development of skin cancer as well.

Exposure to ultraviolet light also causes mutations in our DNA. Our bodies will usually repair these alternations, but when your body is metabolizing alcohol, it can interfere with this process. That can increase the risk of eventually developing cancer.

Tips for Drinking Alcohol in the Sun

The general recommendation for alcohol use is a maximum of one drink a day for women and no more than two for men. It’s best to avoid drinking alcohol while in the sun. Along with the risks of skin cancer, drinking alcohol in the sun can put you at risk for other serious health complications such as dehydration. If you do drink alcohol in the sun or spend any time in the sun, you should follow The Skin Cancer Foundation’s recommendations for safety. These include:

  • Stay in the shade as much as you can, especially between peak sun hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Never use UV tanning beds.
  • Use protective clothing when you’re outdoors, including a hat with a wide brim.
  • Use a minimum of a product with SPF 15 sunscreen every day.
  • If you’re going to be outdoors for long periods, use an SPF 30 or higher. Choose one that’s a broad spectrum UVA/UVB formulation and also water-resistant.
  • Use at least one ounce of sunscreen on your entire body before you go outside. Reapply every two hours or after swimming.
  • Thoroughly examine your skin monthly and visit a dermatologist for an exam at least once a year.

If you are struggling with alcohol or substance use, contact The Recovery Village Palm Beach at Baptist Health to learn about treatment options and programs.

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