Why Redheads Struggle with the Sun

If you have redheaded friends or relatives, you might have heard them complain about frequent sunburns. They’re not imagining things – there is plenty of research that has documented the sun induced woes of redheads.

It’s In the Genes

A 2016 report, conducted by a group of UK based researchers, concluded that freckle-faced, pale skinned redheads faced an elevated risk of skin cancer. The study fingered a gene mutation known as MC1R as the culprit responsible for this relationship.

Redheads carry two copies of an MC1R variant. As a result, their skin has a notable pale appearance that tends to exhibit freckles and is highly prone to sunburns. The authors based their findings on tumor DNA sequences extracted from approximately 400 participants.

David Adams, one of this report’s co-authors, pointed out that the study was the first to identify a genetic connection between hair color and skin cancer risk. Moreover, Adams also noted that “people with only a single copy of the gene variant still have a much higher number of tumor mutations than the rest of the population.” It is estimated that 1 to 2 percent of the world’s population has red hair.

Dr. Julie Sharp, head of the head of health and patient information at Cancer Research UK, stated that the study showed that it isn’t just redheads who should exercise caution during the sunny summer months. “[This Report] underlines that it isn’t just people with red hair who need to protect themselves from too much sun. People who tend to burn rather than tan, or who have fair skin, hair or eyes, or who have freckles or moles are also at higher risk.”

Safety Tips for Redheads

Fortunately, there might be some relief for long suffering, sunburned redheads. A 2017 study from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) unearthed a potential method for reducing cancer risk amongst red-headed individuals.

The key to this approach concerns a process known as palmitoylation. In a nutshell, palmitoylation clamps down on the problems caused by the MC1R mutation, thereby bolstering the skin’s defenses against UV radiation. For their study, the BUSM team treated mice with a certain molecule that accelerates palmitoylation. A second group of mice did not receive this molecule, and were used as a control group.

This experiment had the desired effect; when subjected to UV light, the authors noted that the mice given the molecular treatment were noticeably less likely to develop melanoma than their control group counterparts. In a university press release detailing the team’s work, the authors stated that they hope their work “allows for the development of a pharmacological prevention strategy for red headed people to protect their skin and let them enjoy the sun like other people.”

The next step is to repeat the palmitoylation stimulating technique in human subjects. The journal Nature published the study online in September 2017.

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