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Can a Niacin Vitamin Help Lower Your Skin Cancer Risk?

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You know to lather on the SPF and stay out of the sun, but protecting your skin may also be about which vitamins you're popping. People at a high risk for recurring skin cancer can reduce their future cases by nearly a quarter just by taking a certain type of vitamin B3, according to a new study in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers from Australia (a group well acquainted with the danger of skin cancer, as the country consistently ranks in the top three for incidence of the disease) looked at a group of participants who had already been diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancers at least twice. Because of their previous run-ins with basil cell or squamous cell carcinomas—the less deadly but most common types of skin cancer—these survivors were considered high risk for a repeat of the cancerous spots, as well as melanoma. But when high-risk participants took 500 mg of nicotinamide, a derivative of vitamin B3 or niacin, two times a day for one year, the rate of new skin cancer cases was 23 percent lower than in the group that took placebos. (Find out Your Skin Cancer Risk, Ranked By State.)

"This is such a simple solution and this study should change what all doctors do when it comes to preventing skin cancer in high-risk patients," says Delphine Lee, M.D., Ph.D., a dermatologist and director of translational immunology at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, CA. Lee also praises the study, of which she was not a part, saying it supports previous research that has shown B3 to be protective against cancers.

While the researchers' didn't hypothesize how exactly the vitamin works, Lee says that it probably has to do with the fact that nicotinamide is a precursor for cells' ATP production. ATP is the energy powerhouse that allows your cells to do all their normal functions. UV radiation from the sun, however, decreases ATP and reduces cellular functioning. This is where the vitamin comes in, she explains: Nicotinamide counteracts this process by allowing cells to produce more ATP, which then enhances their ability to repair DNA and fix the mutations that may otherwise cause cancer. (Psst: Did you know Consuming Citrus Could Up Your Skin Cancer Risk?)

For people with a higher risk of skin cancer, like those who have a personal or family history of the disease or signs of precancerous lesions, Lee says the treatment is perfectly safe under the supervision of a dermatologist. But the daily vitamin isn't recommended for anyone else. Lee cautions that nicotinamide hasn't been proven to help melanomas or people with no pre-existing skin cancer yet. While the vitamin is extremely safe (doctors use three times the study dosage to safely treat autoimmune disorders), it does have risks for some (like lowering blood pressure), so you shouldn't pop the B3 preventatively unless you're at high risk, she explains.

Rather, Lee advises people in the low-risk category to start with simple sun protection strategies. "UV light is a known carcinogen but people don't realize that," she says. "I advise everyone, regardless of risk, to wear sunscreen daily, avoid direct sun exposure when possible, cover up when outdoors, and be aware of conditions that increase sun exposure like high altitudes or being around water or snow." (Even in winter! It's one of 8 Skincare Secrets from Winter Athletes.)

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