Although only 1 to 2 percent of the world’s population is naturally redheaded, redheads seem to always have two distinct characteristics that make them unique and beautiful—their vivacious hair color and their snow-white skin. Fun fact: The two actually come as a package deal, because a specific mutation of a gene called MC1R results in both that ravishing red hair and paler skintone.
Unfortunately, with lighter skin there usually comes a higher risk for skin cancer. And now, specific research connects the gene that gives redheads their signature color to a heightened risk for developing melanoma. Not so fun fact.
Melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, originates in pigment-producing skin cells called melanocytes. UVA and UVB rays both can cause these skin cells to mutate, which increases UV damage to the skin and significantly ups a person’s risk for skin cancer.
A series of experiments done at Harvard Medical School and reported online in August 2013 in the journal Molecular Cell showed that under normal circumstances (that is, in non-redheads), the protein encoded for by the MC1R gene binds to a tumor-suppressing gene called PTEN. This protects the PTEN from damage when exposed to UV radiation. The redhead version of MC1R, however, can’t protect PTEN, which leads to increased activity in a key cancer-causing pathway.
“As a result, upon UVB exposure, we saw an increased destruction of PTEN in the mutated pigment cells,” said co-author Lixin Wan, an HMS instructor in pathology at Beth Israel Deaconess.
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To make matters worse, researchers found that this boost in the cancer-signalling pathway also combines with another well-known cancer mutation in a different gene (BRAF), accelerating melanoma development even further. The authors believe this may help explain why redheads are 10 to 100 times more likely to get melanoma than their darker skinned comrades.
So what does this new information mean for all the redheads out there? “People who have red hair have to be even more careful in terms of putting on sunblock and reapplying it, more so than just about anybody else except people who have a strong family history or a personal history of [melanoma],” says YouBeauty dermatology expert Jeanine B. Downie, M.D. “So [they] should be putting sunblock on, they should be reapplying it, they should be using sun-protective clothing like UPF hats, for example, even walking on the shady side of the street,” she adds. She also tells her fair-complexioned patients to line the inside of their car windshield with LLumar, a UV-protective sunshield, and she suggests taking Heliocare, an oral antioxidant that boosts your sunscreen a bit. She also recommends visiting the dermatologist for a mole check every six months instead of waiting a full year, or every three months if you have a history of skin cancer.
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