Sun & Skin News

Red Alert!

By Julie Bain • November 2, 2021

They say that redheads are fiery and interesting. How could I disagree, since I am one, too? Those cute freckles so many of us have let you get away with almost anything. And we’re likely to have Celtic or Scandinavian ancestry (or both, like me). That’s all worth celebrating on November 5,  National Love Your Red Hair Day!

Created to empower redheads to feel confident and proud of who they are, Love Your Red Hair Day is also a good time to remember the downside: We’re way more at risk for skin cancer than the general population. I should know; I’ve had a dozen.

They say redheads should wear jewel tones, so I did at our annual Gala on October 17, 2017.

Yes, our risk is partly because we have pale skin that tends to burn rather than tan. We have less of a chemical that helps the skin absorb and scatter UV radiation before it causes the DNA damage that can lead to skin cancer. We are more than one and a half times as likely to develop basal cell carcinomas, the most common form of skin cancer. And we’re more than 12 times as likely to develop squamous cell carcinomas, which can be aggressive and can even metastasize to other parts of the body. That’s why sun protection from an early age is crucial for those of the ginger persuasion.

But beyond that, we have a genetic risk for melanoma, too — the more dangerous form of skin cancer, which can become life-threatening. This genetic risk to redheads may have less to do with sun exposure than with the gene variants that are responsible for the rosy hues. My father (whose nickname was “Red” as a child) was diagnosed with a melanoma on his chin. Luckily it was caught very early, and surgery was all the treatment he needed.

Redheads carry mutations in the gene known as MC1R. Those with only a hint of red, including strawberry blond or auburn hair, may carry just a few MC1R mutations, while those with vibrant red hair may carry numerous mutations in the gene. So their risk for melanoma can vary from 10 to 100 times that of people who don’t carry the gene variants. Be aware that if you’ve inherited the gene from only one parent, you won’t have naturally red hair but you may have children with red hair. And you will also be at increased risk for skin cancers. Studies have shown that having the redhead gene mutations is equivalent to an extra 21 years of sun exposure compared with people who don’t have them.

A genetic test can determine what MC1R mutations you have, but many doctors agree that it’s not necessary. If you have red hair or family members who have it, or have pale skin and light eyes, you should know you’re at high risk for skin cancer and be taking precautions. You also should see a dermatologist for regular skin exams and be sure to check your own skin from head to toe each month, even in places where the sun never shines.

Early detection is key. Alerting your doctor to anything on your skin that is new, changing or unusual could spare you disfiguring treatment or even save your life, so you can keep rocking your red for many years to come.

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