Why People With Red Hair Have a Higher Risk of Skin Cancer

Updated: Mar. 08, 2021

Research shows the cancer risk could be higher because of alterations in one gene in people with red hair.

The most common cancer diagnosis in the United States is skin cancer. In fact, one in five Americans will develop the disease by the age of 70—and redheads are especially at risk. Here’s why people with red hair have a higher risk of skin cancer.

What is melanin?

Melanin is a pigment that special cells produce, according to Megan Winner, MD, a surgical oncologist with expertise in melanoma skin cancer from the NYU Winthrop Hospital. The melanin pigment absorbs light hitting the skin, dissipating the ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun before causing damage, Dr. Winner says. So it acts as the body’s natural defense against the harmful rays of the sun. “Exposure to UV radiation can directly harm the DNA of a skin cell, resulting in changes in the cell’s behavior that ultimately lead to the transformation of a normal cell into cancer,” she says.

Why do people with red hair have a higher risk of melanoma?

People with lighter skin tone, particularly those with red hair, have lower levels of natural melanin protection and thus higher rates of melanoma, Dr. Winner says. The amount and type of melanin in our skin actually helps determine skin color, according to Shari Lipner, MD, a dermatologist at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine. This same pigment determines hair color, too. Pheomelanin is the dominant, lighter pigment in people with red hair, while people with darker hair make the eumelanin pigment. These pigments are essentially why some people “tan” while others “burn” after sunlight damages the skin.

More research could make a difference

The research could make a big difference in decreasing the risk of melanoma in redheads. People with red hair have variants in the melanocortin-1 receptor protein, causing their light skin color, according to Dr. Lipner. The study found that mice who were given a drug that increased palmitoylation, an enzyme reaction that enhances the melanocortin-1 receptor protection, were less likely to get melanoma than those who did not, Dr. Lipner explains. This research uses mouse models, however, and needs more work before applying the findings to humans, Dr. Winner notes. Plus, the body’s natural melanin alone is not enough to prevent skin cancer even in darker-skinned people, Dr. Winner says. So even if this research does eventually apply to people, people of all skin tones should never skimp on SPF.

In fact, people of all skin and hair colors can still decrease their risk of developing skin cancer by avoiding the sun during peak hours, regularly applying sunscreen, avoiding tanning beds, wearing protective clothing, and visiting a board-certified dermatologist for any concerning or changing spots on your skin.