Drugs that are famous for fighting pain may also protect against skin cancer, a new study found.
The Danish study of nearly 200,000 men and women found that those who took nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory painkillers such as aspirin and ibuprofen were less likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma or malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
"Given the high skin cancer incidence and the widespread and frequent use of NSAIDs, a preventive effect of these agents may have important public health implications," the authors wrote in their study, which was published today in the journal Cancer.
The researchers used medical records from Denmark's government-funded health care system to probe NSAID use among 18,500 people with skin cancer and 178,655 without. They found those who used NSAIDs were 15 percent less likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma, and 13 percent less likely to develop malignant melanoma than nonusers.
"The risk reduction was greatest among long-term and high-intensity users, suggesting a cumulative and dose-dependent, protective effect," the authors wrote.
The risk of basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer linked to sun exposure, was no different among NSAID users and nonusers.
The findings add to mounting evidence that common painkillers may help thwart cancer. A March 2012 study found people who took daily aspirin for at least three years were 36 percent less likely to develop metastatic cancer and 15 percent less likely to die from cancer.
"The mechanism of action is not totally clear, but it's thought to be due to their anti-inflammatory effects," said Dr. Josh Zeichner, assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, adding that inflammatory enzymes help feed tumor growth.
An NSAID cream is already approved for precancers of the skin caused by sun exposure. But Zeichner said it's too soon to recommend drugs like Aspirin, Advil and Aleve for skin cancer prevention.
"This study is exciting, but we need more studies to continue to evaluate this as a possible treatment," said Zeichner, adding that chronic NSAID use can cause ulcers. "Right now the best way to prevent skin cancer is to use sunscreen, wear protective clothing and avoid of the sun between peak hours."