drinking and smokingRegular alcohol drinking could increase your risk of developing melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, by up to 55 per cent, according to research published in the British Journal of Dermatology today.

The study was in the form of a meta-analysis, a type of research that combines the results from previous investigations taking due account of the strength of evidence in each study. In this case the results were drawn from 16 studies, for a combined total of 6,251 cases of melanoma.

The study focused on the effect of what the researchers classify as moderate to heavy drinking (more than one drink, or 12.5g of ethanol a day), and found that this increases melanoma risk by 20 per cent. There has been very little research into the effect of heavy drinking (more than 50g of ethanol a day) in this area, however it was noted that risk increased proportionately with alcohol intake, allowing the researchers to estimate an increased risk of 55 per cent for heavy drinkers.

It has been previously reported that alcohol drinking increases the severity of sunburn , which is one of the major risk factors for melanoma, however, this study, by researchers from Italy, Sweden, USA, Iran and France, has made the link between alcohol consumption and skin cancer.

Exactly how alcohol consumption increases your chances of developing melanoma is not fully established, but the researches explain that ethanol is converted to a chemical compound called acetaldehyde soon after it is ingested. It is thought that acetaldehyde may act as a 'photosensitizer' (making skin more sensitive to light), which in turn generates molecules called 'reactive oxygen species' that damage cells (known as 'oxidative stress') in a way that can cause skin cancers.

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."

The authors do, however, add a note of caution to interpreting the results, as it is not possible to quantify the impact of UV in isolation on each individual and retrospectively adjust the results accordingly if this wasn't factored into the original study.

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 barbeque, we would just encourage people to be careful and make sure they are protecting their skin, this research provides an extra incentive to do so. Many of us have seen holiday makers who have been caught unawares the day before, fuzzy-headed and lobster red - an unwelcome combination."

Alcohol consumption is one of the most important, and potentially avoidable, risk factors for cancer. About 3.6% of all cancers (5.2% in men, 1.7% in women) are attributable to alcohol drinking worldwide.

Facts about melanoma:

  • Skin cancer is the UK's most common cancer, and melanoma is its deadliest form
  • There are approximately 13,000 new cases of melanoma per year in the UK (2010)
  • Melanoma is the 5th most common cancer in the UK (2010)
  • Melanoma is most common in the South East of England and Scotland
  • Incidence of melanoma increases with age, however skin cancers are becoming increasingly common in young people
  • Incidence rates in general have been increasing in the UK, partly due to changing habits in the sun, and an increase in foreign travel with the availability of budget flights to sunny destinations