Aspirin and other commonly used painkillers may help guard against skin cancer, according to a new study about to be published online in the journal CANCER, that was led by researchers from Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark.

Previous studies have already suggested that NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen, and other prescription and over the counter drugs, can reduce people’s risk of developing some cancers.

For example, earlier this year, three studies in The Lancet bolstered the evidence that a daily low dose of aspirin may protect people in middle age against cancer, particularly those at higher risk.

And in another recent study in the British Journal of Cancer, researchers from Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands reported that colon cancer patients who take aspirin regularly shortly after diagnosis tend to live for longer.

In this latest study, Sigrún Alba Jóhannesdóttir and colleagues looked at the effect of these drugs on three major types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and malignant melanoma.

From medical records covering 1991 to 2009 of people living in northern Denmark, they found diagnoses of 1,974 cases of squamous cell carcinoma, 13,316 of basal cell carcinoma, and 3,242 of malignant melanoma.

The records also had information about prescription drugs, enabling the researchers to compare their use in the people with skin cancer to that of 178,655 people without a skin cancer diagnosis.

The results showed that:

  • People with more than 2 prescriptions for NSAIDs has a 15% lower risk for squamous cell carcinoma and a 13% lower risk for malignant melanoma than those with fewer than 2 prescriptions.
  • The link was even stronger when the drugs appeared to have been taken for 7 years or more, at a high intensity.
  • Taking NSAIDs did not appear to be linked to a lower risk of developing basal cell carcinoma overall.
  • But, taking NSAIDs was linked to a lower risk of developing this type of skin cancer in less exposed parts of the body (ie not the head or neck), particularly on a long term (15% reduced risk) or high intensity (21% reduced risk) basis.

Jóhannesdóttir told the press:

“We hope that the potential cancer-protective effect of NSAIDs will inspire more research on skin cancer prevention.”

“Also, this potential cancer-protective effect should be taken into account when discussing benefits and harms of NSAID use,” she added.

Basal cell carcinoma is a type of nonmelanoma skin cancer that grows slowly and painlessly and rarely spreads. It is the most common form of cancer in the US. According to the American Cancer Society, 75% of all skin cancers are basal cell carcinomas. Squamous cell carcinoma is also a nonmelanoma type and grows a bit faster than basal cell carcinoma. Both of these types of nonmelanoma skin cancer are treatable.

Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer and can spread to other parts of the body very quickly. Some cases can be cured if caught very early. Melanoma is the leading cause of death from skin disease.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD