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 QSun 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