Can Aspirin, Other NSAIDs Lower Skin Cancer Risk?

Study Suggests Common Painkillers May Reduce Risk of Some Skin Cancers, Including Melanoma

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on May 25, 2012
From the WebMD Archives

May 29, 2012 -- Aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen may help protect against certain types of skin cancer -- including melanoma, the most dangerous form of this disease.

The new study hints at a possible link between NSAID use and skin cancer risk. It does not prove that a link exists or speak to how these medications may stave off skin cancer risk. Other studies have produced conflicting results. The findings appear online in the journal Cancer.

Researchers led by Sigrun Alba Johannesdottir of Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark compared use of prescription NSAIDs among people with and without the three major types of skin cancer: basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma.

People who filled more than two NSAID prescriptions from 1991 through 2009 were 15% less likely to develop squamous cell skin cancer and 13% less likely to develop melanoma than people who filled two or fewer NSAID prescriptions during the study period. Researchers only looked at prescription NSAIDs, not over-the-counter forms.

No Safe Way to Tan

Use of NSAIDs did not affect overall risk for developing basal cell skin cancer. That said, they did reduce risk of basal cell skin cancer in body parts other than the head and neck that were not regularly exposed to the sun.

The findings make sense to Joshua Zeichner, MD. He is a dermatologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. "NSAIDs help lower inflammation in the body and reduce expression of COX-2, an enzyme involved in growth of cancers," he says.

In fact, a topical NSAID, Solaraze Gel (diclofenac), is approved for pre-cancerous skin damage known as actinic keratoses.

Even if the findings are confirmed in future studies, NSAIDs should never take the place of other skin cancer prevention measures, including judicious use of sunscreen and wearing sun-protective clothing, says Zeichner. "The positive results from this study will hopefully pave the way for future research on NSAIDs and other ways to treat and prevent skin cancer," he says.

But "there is no safe way to tan," he says. "The only safe tan is the one you get from bottle of self-tanning cream." Importantly, "if you protect yourself from the sun, you won't need any preventive treatments."

Julie Russak, MD, agrees. She is a dermatologist in New York City. NSAIDs are known to help treat painful sunburns, but they do confer their share of risks when used for long periods of time, including bleeding and heart risks.

"Sunburns cause inflammation that may lead to the development of skin cancer," she says. "It is a parallel pathway."

The best way to reduce skin cancer risk is to use sunscreen and avoid burns.

Early detection can also save lives. "See a doctor once a year for a skin exam, and if you notice any change in your moles, see a doctor."

Show Sources


Joshua Zeichner, MD, dermatologist, Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York City.

Johannesdottir SA. Cancer, 2012, study received ahead of print.

Julie Russak, MD, dermatologist, New York City.

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