Having beers on the beach is a rite of passage for summer, but emerging research shows it could come with a big downside: more skin damage. Although the exact cause is still being determined, studies show that alcohol can increase your risk of sunburn, NPR reports. The research isn’t new, but the link between your beachside beer and sunburn has received little attention—despite mounting evidence that alcohol can leave skin more vulnerable to the sun.
The link between alcohol consumption and sunburn stems partly from the effects of booze on decision-making. When you’re buzzed, you’re less likely to be diligent about applying (and re-applying) sunscreen, and your risk of a burn goes up.
But research shows that alcohol can also affect the skin itself, making it more susceptible to damaging UV rays.
“The research suggests that alcohol reduces the amount of time you can spend in the sun before you get a burn,” Aaron White, a senior scientific adviser at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, told NPR.
One meta-analysis published in 2013 found that regular alcohol consumption increased the risk of melanoma, a dangerous skin cancer, by 20 percent. Another study found that alcohol significantly decreased the amount of UV light it took to produce sunburn on a group of men.
One possible explanation is the way alcohol affects compounds present in the skin. In that same study, researchers found that alcohol reduced the concentration of carotenoids, a pigment produced by plants that builds up in the body when you eat fruits and vegetables. In humans, carotenoids act as an antioxidant, neutralizing the free radicals created by UV rays. Lower carotenoid levels mean more free radicals, the researchers hypothesized, and more skin damage.
The evidence is backed up by two other studies, one from Japan and one from France, that confirm that people who drink alcohol have lower levels of beta-carotene (a specific type of carotenoid), NPR reports. More research is needed to track exactly how alcohol interacts with the skin and the rest of the human body—its effect on carotenoid levels is likely just one among many reasons booze can hike up the risk of sunburn. Still, there’s enough evidence to warrant drinking in moderation this summer, and being diligent about sunscreen when you do.