Pain Relievers May Offer Small Protection Against Skin Cancer

A woman holds two aspirin in her hand.
(Image credit: Dmitry Lobanov/Shutterstock)

Ibuprofen and some other similar anti-inflammatory pain relievers may slightly lower people's risk of one common type of skin cancer, a new review of research shows, but experts find the benefits too small, especially for a cancer that is fairly curable.

Researchers analyzed the findings of nine previous studies to take a new look at the link between the regular use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which include aspirin and ibuprofen, and the risk of a skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.

The results showed that people who used NSAIDs in general had a lower risk of squamous cell carcinoma than people who didn't use NSAIDs. [5 Surprising Things About Sunscreen]

However, the researches saw a somewhat different picture when they looked specifically at aspirin and other types of NSAIDs. People who took nonaspirin NSAIDs — for example, ibuprofen — had a 15 percent lower risk of squamous cell carcinoma. On the other hand, the data didn't show a significant difference for people who took aspirin, according to the study published today (Dec. 18) in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer. It is mainly caused by too much exposure to sun and is often curable, although it can become deadly if the cancer is allowed to grow. An estimated 700,000 people are diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma each year in the United States, and about 2 percent of people with this cancer — about 8,800 people — died from the disease in the United States in 2012, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

However, the new findings don't suggest that everyone should take NSAIDs to prevent this skin cancer, because the drugs have their own side effects, said Dorothy Bennett, a professor of cell biology at St George's, University of London. "Noting that most [squamous cell carcinomas] are curable by surgery if caught early, this reduction in risk is interesting, but it is hard to say whether it is worth taking action over it," she said.

Moreover, people can reduce their sun exposure by 5 to 10 percent and lower their risk by the same amount as taking NSAIDs, said Brian Diffey, emeritus professor of photobiology at Newcastle University. People who take NSAIDs can experience such side effects such as gastrointestinal bleeding and blistering.

"Given that long-term therapy with NSAIDs is not without risk, a safer option for those who wish to reduce their likelihood of skin cancer may be to spend a few minutes a day less outside," Diffeysaid.

In the review study, the researchers found that people with actinic keratosis, which is a type of flat growth on the skin that can become cancerous, might benefit more from NSAIDs.

It is thought that NSAIDs may protect against skin cancer by inhibiting an enzyme that is released in response to high exposure to sun or ultraviolet light, the researchers said.

Email Bahar Gholipour. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Bahar Gholipour
Staff Writer
Bahar Gholipour is a staff reporter for Live Science covering neuroscience, odd medical cases and all things health. She holds a Master of Science degree in neuroscience from the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris, and has done graduate-level work in science journalism at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She has worked as a research assistant at the Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives at ENS.