Sipping a few cocktails or downing a few beers on the beach may feel like you're in paradise, but the mixing of alcohol and the sun could send waves crashing down on your health. According to a recent study published in the British Journal of Dermatology, drinking more than a pint of beer or a glass of a wine day can raise your risk of skin cancer, specifically melanoma.

Alcohol consumption can have numerous health consequences, whether beneficial or detrimental. The American Cancer Society says cancers linked to alcohol use include: mouth, throat, voice box, esophagus, liver, colon and rectum, breasts, and even pancreatic cancer. For each of these cancers, the risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Ethanol — a type of alcohol found in alcohol beverages — is found to be responsible for the increased risk, rather than other ingredients in a drink. While alcoholic beverages may contain different percentages of ethanol (12 ounces in a beer, 5 ounces in a glass of wine, and 1.5 ounces in an 80-proof liquor drink), a standard drink contains approximately half an ounce of ethanol.

Now a team of international researchers from Sweden and Italy, suggest a chemical found in alcohol — acetaldehyde — may increase a drinker’s risk of skin cancer. Ethanol is converted to acetaldehyde as soon as it is ingested and, therefore, may increase the skin's sensitivity to light, damaging cells. The study — based on a review of 16 other studies involving more than 6,200 patients with melanoma — sought to investigate the extent to which melanoma risk increased with alcohol intake.

The findings revealed consuming an alcoholic beverage or more a day increases the risk of skin cancer by 20 percent. Those who drank more than four glasses of cocktails or a few strong beers a day were found to have a 55 percent higher risk. "We know that in the presence of ultraviolet (UV) radiation, drinking alcohol can alter the body's immunocompetence, the ability to produce a normal immune response,” said Dr. Eva Negri, one of the study authors from the University of Milan, the BBC reported. “This can lead to far greater cellular damage and subsequently cause skin cancers to form.”

Scientists believe alcohol can cause biological changes that make the skin more sensitive to light and may alter the impact of exposure to UV light. However, how alcohol consumption increases the chances of developing melanoma is not fully understood. The researchers of this review suspect acetaldehyde could play a vital role in this process. The chemical compound is thought to act as a “photosensitizer” — making the skin more sensitive to light — which generates molecules called “reactive oxygen species” that cause “oxidative stress,” or cell damage, says the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The extra cancer risk associated with alcohol and skin cancer may also be attributed to people being more careless about sun protection when they’re under the influence. Drinking alcohol impairs the senses and may lead to impaired judgment, distorting a person’s perception of risk and their own abilities. Chris Bunker, a professor and president of the British Association of Dermatologists told The Telegraph, “Many of us have seen holiday makers who have been caught unawares the day before, fuzzy-headed and lobster red — an unwelcome combination.” He believes this study provides an extra incentive for people to take make sure to protection their skin from the sun.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, there are approximately 120,000 new cases of melanoma diagnosed and over 8,700 deaths in the U.S. each year. This form of skin cancer is known to be the deadliest. Tumors start to develop when unrepaired DNA damage to skin cells produce mutations that can lead the skin cells to quickly multiple and form malignant tumors. Cumulative exposure to both UVA and UVB rays can induce melanoma and other skin cancers. Everyone is at risk for melanoma, but genetic factors like family history, and lifestyle factors, such as high alcohol consumption, will determine whether someone has a higher susceptibility. 

 

Source: Negri E. Alcohol drinking and cutaneous melanoma risk – A systematic review and dose-risk meta-analysis. British Journal of Dermatology. 2014.