If you have red hair, pale skin, and freckles, you probably fit into the Fitzpatrick skin type I category. However, you don’t have to fit this description to have skin type I – blondes and light brunettes are also contenders. Of all people, those with skin type I are at the highest risk of getting sunburned and developing skin cancer. This means that they need to be extremely careful when it comes to sun protection¹.
Why is skin cancer so common amongst redheads? Genetics can explain. Scientists compared tumors from people with a redhead-associated gene variant to tumors from people without the variant, and discovered that these tumors had 42% more sun-associated genetic mutations. You may also be surprised to know that you don’t have to be a redhead to have these gene variants, which means you may be at a higher risk of developing skin cancer than you think².
But it’s not all bad news for redheads – they make vitamin D
from sunlight more efficiently than darker-skinned individuals. Why is this? UVB photons are required to make vitamin D from the sun, but melanin pigment in darker skin absorbs some of these photons, meaning they can’t be used to make the vitamin³. Interestingly, only 1-2% of the world’s population has red hair, but 13% of Scotland’s population are redheads. The managing director of the ScotlandsDNA project proposed that red hair may have evolved to be common in Scotland since redheads can efficiently make vitamin D from the sun. This ability is like a superpower in cloudy places with little sunlight like Scotland⁴.
Redhead or not, sun protection is a must. If you’re going outdoors, make sure to apply and reapply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF30, wear a hat, sunglasses, and UV protective clothing, and seek shade whenever possible. You can rely on Sun Index to let you know exactly what sun protection you should be using for your unique situation.
- Skin Cancer Foundation. (2016). Where Does Your Skin Fit In? Quiz. Retrieved August 2, 2016
- Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute Media Team. (2016). Red hair gene variant drives up skin cancer mutations. Retrieved August 2, 2016
- Brenner, M. and Hearing, V. J. (2008). The Protective Role of Melanin Against UV Damage in Human Skin. Photochemistry and Photobiology, 84(3):539-549. Retrieved August 5, 2016
- Barnes, J. (2012). Red hair? It might be down to the weather as gloomy climate forces genetic adaptation to exploit sunny days. Retrieved August 5, 2016