With eye-popping ginger locks and freckles, redheads with the ginger gene stand out from the crowd in a good way. But did you know that people with fair skin, freckles, and red hair have an increased risk for skin cancer?
If this describes you, you can thank your genetics and a type of gene mutation that doesn’t allow redheads to make dark pigment. Scientists continue to investigate, but they think the type of skin pigment responsible for those defining features may allow more UV rays to reach the DNA.
Besides an increased risk of sunburns, you’re also at higher risk of developing skin cancer including melanoma.
In fact, according to the article “Red Alert” on Skincancer.org, redheads are:
- more than one and a half times more likely to develop basal cell carcinomas, the most common form of skin cancer
- more than 12 times as likely to develop squamous cell carcinomas, which can be aggressive
Red alert: Know your skin cancer risk
Redheads make up 1 to 2 percent of the world’s population, but they comprise 16 percent of the world’s melanoma patients. Redheads are likely to have Celtic, Scandinavian, or Irish ancestry. An estimated 10 percent of Irish people are redheads and have the ginger gene.
The height of summer is a great time to reevaluate your skincare routine and rethink ways to protect yourself from the sun.
The following risk factors have been linked to an increased risk of skin cancer:
- Pale skin that doesn’t tan
- A family or personal history of skin cancer
- Frequent or severe sunburns or skin that burns easily
- Numerous freckles, especially that develop after sun exposure
- Five or more atypical moles
- Sun spots or age spots
- Light eyes
- Red or light hair
- High sun exposure, especially that routinely results in sunburn
- Older age
- Weaker immune system
Gene mutation linked to increase cancer risk
Most people know spending hours at the pool or beach or not wearing sunscreen will damage your skin. The sun’s harmful ultraviolet UV rays cause premature aging, wrinkles, and skin cancer.
So why is the skin cancer risk, including melanoma, so much higher for fair-skinned people? Redheads carry variants of MC1R. A specific mutation in the melanocortin receptor, which is responsible for your hair, skin, and eye color, also makes those with the ginger gene more prone to various skin cancers.
Melanin is a pigment in skin that protects against sun exposure. It actually protects your DNA from the damaging effects of UV rays. The body has two different types of melanin: eumelanin is brown-black and pheomelanin is red-orange. After sun exposure, the melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R) signals the pigment-producing melanocyte cells to make melanin.
For most people, melanin causes the skin to tan and turn darker without DNA damage. However, people with red hair, fair skin, and freckles do not tan due to a mutation in the MC1R receptor gene. This stops melanin from working properly. Cells only produce pheomelanin, which doesn’t protect against sunburns and DNA damage from the sun’s harmful rays.
According to the article “Red Alert” on Skincancer.org:
- People with strawberry blond or auburn hair may carry a few MC1R mutations.
- People with vibrant red hair are more likely to carry numerous mutations in the gene.
- That means the risk for melanoma can vary from 10 to 100 times that of people who don’t carry the gene variants.
- If you have inherited the gene from one parent, you won’t have red hair but your children may have red hair.
- Recent studies have shown having the gene mutation is equivalent to an extra 21 years of sun exposure.
- A genetic test can determine what MC1R mutations you have even though many doctors say it’s not necessary.
Researchers also found people with one copy of the crucial MC1R gene – who may be fair-skinned but not have red hair – also have a higher risk for skin cancers. Additional research has found people with the faulty MC1R gene have cancer-causing mutations unrelated to sunlight, meaning other factors are likely at play.
Rock your red ginger gene, but protect your skin
The bottom line: You’re at a higher risk for developing skin cancer if you’re a ginger or even if you have pale skin and light eyes. The same goes for your children or family members with similar characteristics.
- Know your risk factors
- Learn about your family ancestry and history
- Take extra precautions when outdoors
- Make sure to wear waterproof sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher and research safe ingredients
- Wear protective clothing including sunglasses, broad-brimmed hats, bathing suit cover-ups and clothing with SPF protection
- Seek shade during peak sun hours
- Pay attention to your diet and opt for foods high in antioxidants, which help protect against cellular damage
- Do monthly self-exams at home, checking your skin from head to toe and even your private areas
- See your dermatologist for regular skin exams and cancer screenings
As with fighting any cancer, prevention and early detection are key. You should contact your dermatologist at the first sign of concern or if you notice anything on your skin that is changing or getting bigger.
I know this better than most, as a board-certified dermatologist and a true ginger, I have always preached the importance of skin exams for early detection of skin cancers. I also preach the importance of wearing sunscreen. I am a skin type II of Scandinavian descent which means I mostly burn. As a child, I got bursts of high-intensity sunlight and sunburns (all non-blistering) on yearly trips to Puerto Rico. At an early age, I saw a new mole arise on my chest that turned out to be a melanoma in-situ which was cured by surgical excision by my dermatologist. Early detection prevented it from spreading any further.
APDerm offers a variety of medical, cosmetic, and surgical dermatology services, including Mohs Surgery for skin cancer. Contact APDerm to schedule your annual skin cancer screening or learn more about treatment options!