Redhead warning: Why gingers are at higher risk of sunburn

Summer is coming - and its bad news for gingers exposed to sunlight.

Experts warn redheads are highly at risk of burning up in New Zealand's scorching sun. And the reason is due to a mutant gene which gives them 42 percent more sun-associated changes in their cancer.

Redheads have a variant of the melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R) gene which gives them red hair and pale skin. However, this gene is also involved in skin pigmentation.

The MC1R gene affects a receptor molecule that sits on the surface of skin cells called melanocytes. These specialized cells produce a pigment called melanin which shields the skin from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.

However, melanin comes in two forms, a dark brown pigment called eumelanin and a reddish one called phaeomelanin.

Unfortunately for them, redheads mostly produce pheomelanin - which does not protect skin from UV radiation.

"People with red hair have a different type of melanin than people who don't have red hair - and the type of melanin that redheads have is less able to protect them from the sun," researcher David Adams told the Guardian.

The result is that gingers have far-worse levels of skin cancer. Redheads currently make up less than 2 percent of the world's population but 16 percent of melanoma patients.

Scientists are also studying whether pheomelanin itself may contribute to the high incidence of melanoma - even without UV exposure.

Studies have shown that redhead gene mutations lead to the equivalent to an extra 21 years of sun exposure compared with people who don't have these mutations. According to a study on ginger mice published in Nature, even staying out of the sun isn't enough.

"There is something about the redhead genetic background that is behaving in a carcinogenic fashion, independent of UV," says David Fisher, a cancer biologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who led the study. "It means that shielding from UV would not be enough."


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