Why Redheads Are at Higher Risk for Melanoma

The redhead gene is recessive and can skip several generations. (Image credit: Thaiview | Shutterstock)

The same genetic mutation that leads to red hair and fair skin may put redheads at risk for skin cancer, a new study suggests.

The results show mutations in a gene called MC1R — which cause red hair, fair skin and poor tanning ability — also set up skin cells for an increased risk of cancer upon exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

The findings may explain, at least in part, why redheads are known to be at higher risk for melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer, the researchers said. [5 Health Risks of Being a Redhead]

"Our findings provide a possible molecular mechanism as to why red-haired individuals harboring MC1R mutations are much more susceptible to UV-induced skin damage than individuals with darker skin," study researcher Wenyi Wei, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said in a statement.

Through experiments on mice and cells in lab dishes, Wei and colleagues found that without the genetic mutation for red hair, MC1R normally binds to a gene called PTEN, which helps protect against cellular changes that promote cancer.

But when the MC1R gene was mutated, as it typically is in people with red hair, fair skin and poor tanning ability, MC1R does not bind to PTEN. As a result, after exposure to UV rays, PTEN is destroyed at a higher rate, and the growth of pigment-producing cells (called melanocytes) is accelerated, as it is in cancer, the researchers said.

However, because the study was conducted on mice and cells in lab dishes, more research is needed to see if the same mechanism occurs in people.

The study is published today (Aug. 22) in the journal Molecular Cell.

Another study, published earlier this year, suggested that the pigment produced by people with red hair, called pheomelanin, plays a role in their increased risk of skin cancer by making cells more susceptible to damage to their genetic material.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.