Alcohol 'raises skin cancer risk'

People who regularly drink alcohol increase their risk of skin cancer by around a fifth, research suggests.

Experts found that drinkers have about a 20% increased chance of melanoma compared to non-drinkers or those who only drink occasionally.

The study, published in the British Journal of Dermatology, included analysis of 16 worldwide studies involving more than 6,200 patients with melanoma.

Light drinkers, defined as people who drank less than one drink a day (with one drink defined as 12.5g alcohol), had a 10% increased risk of skin cancer, rising to 18% for moderate to heavy drinkers.

In the UK, 12.5g of alcohol is the equivalent of 1.56 units. It is often defined as the amount in one drink by researchers.

The experts, including from the University of Milan-Bicocca, the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, said previous research had already linked drinking with a higher chance of people getting sunburnt.

They said: " In Western societies, consumption of alcoholic beverages during outdoor leisure activities such as barbecuing and sunbathing is common.

"Other research has shown that people who consumed alcohol during time spent at the beach had more severe sunburns compared to non-drinkers.

"Moreover, a cross-sectional survey investigating the relation between alcohol drinking and sunburns prevalence found that about 18% of all sunburn cases among American adults were imputable to alcohol drinking."

But the researchers also said that the possible effect of alcohol alone on skin cancer is unclear.

However, in the presence of UV radiation, alcohol can " substantially enhance cellular damage and subsequently lead to formation of skin cancers", they said.

Dr Eva Negri, one of the authors of the study, said: "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, said: "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.

"We would always urge people to be careful in the sun and try to enjoy it responsibly. It is not uncommon to have a few drinks whilst on holiday or at a barbecue, we would just encourage people to be careful and make sure they are protecting their skin.

"Many of us have seen holidaymakers who have been caught unawares the day before, fuzzy-headed and lobster red - an unwelcome combination."

Sarah Williams, health information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: "This study doesn't tell us for sure whether alcohol is a risk factor for melanoma. As the researchers themselves point out, the results could be due to sunlight exposure rather than alcohol.

"Research has clearly shown that most cases of melanoma are caused by overexposure to UV rays - you can reduce the risk by avoiding sunburn.

"In January, the UK sun isn't normally strong enough to cause sunburn, but remember to protect yourself if you're skiing or going away for some winter sun.

"And whether or not alcohol is linked to skin cancers, it's still a good idea to limit the amount you drink. Alcohol is linked to seven different types of cancer, and cutting down can cut the risk."

Around 12,800 cases of malignant melanoma - the most dangerous form of skin cancer - are diagnosed in the UK every year.

Incidence rates in the UK have more than quadrupled over the last 30 years.

The latest survival rates show that 84% of men and 92% of women survive the disease for at least five years after diagnosis.

But around 2,200 people still die from malignant melanoma every year - around six per day.

The researchers suggested that alcohol is converted to a chemical compound called acetaldehyde soon after it is ingested.

One theory is acetaldehyde may increase the skin's sensitivity to light, which in turn generates molecules that damage cells in a way that can cause skin cancers.