7 Ways Being a Redhead Affects Your Health

Here's how your DNA may influence your pain sensitivity, how fast you age, your risk of certain diseases, and more.

Redheads stand out from the crowd for more than their brightly-hued hair. Less than 2% of the world's population are natural redheads. But in addition to being relatively rare, people with red hair have unique medical concerns. Here's what you should know about how DNA associated with red hair may increase your risk for certain health conditions and provide protection against others.

For starters, redheads typically have fair complexions and are more susceptible to sunburn and skin cancer. Some people with red hair also experience pain differently, or they can look older than they are. At the same time, redheads are better at manufacturing vitamin D and have a lower prostate cancer risk.

The reason for those differences is rooted in DNA. People with red hair carry two copies of a variant melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) gene. According to the National Library of Medicine, the MC1R gene is involved in pigmentation and melanin production. Melanin is a pigment that gives your skin, eyes, and hair their natural colors.

Redheads Have a Higher Melanoma Risk

It's no secret that their pale skin makes redheads more susceptible to sunburns and skin cancers. However, some research has found a link between redhead DNA and an increased risk of melanoma. Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that begins in melanocytes, cells that produce melanin.

The MC1R gene determines the amount and types of melanin melanocytes in the skin produce. Those types of melanin include eumelanin and pheomelanin, which make up our skin, eyes, and hair color. Eumelanin is a black-brown pigment in dark hair, skin, and eyes. Pheomelanin is a reddish-yellow pigment responsible for red hair, green eyes, pale skin, and freckles.

Redheads have more pheomelanin and less eumelanin. According to a study published in 2015 in the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology, the redheaded variations in the MC1R gene reduce the amount of eumelanin, resulting in fair skin.

Eumelanin protects the skin from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. So, a lack of the pigment leaves skin vulnerable to sun damage that causes melanoma.

But keep in mind: non-redheads aren't off the hook. According to a study published in 2013 in the British Journal of Dermatology, carrying just one copy of the recessive MC1R variant may increase the number of mutations linked to melanoma.

It's another reminder of how important it is to protect yourself from the sun's harmful UV rays, especially if you've got fiery locks. Per the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD), wearing a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher is essential to preventing skin cancer. 

Naturally Produce More Vitamin D

Fortunately for redheads, it doesn't take much sun exposure for their bodies to manufacture a healthy amount of vitamin D.

Your body generates vitamin D when the sun's ultraviolet B (UVB) rays penetrate the top layer of your skin. The UVB rays interact with a protein in your skin (7-dehydrocholesterol, or 7-DHC) and activate a process to convert the protein into vitamin D3.

Per a study published in 2020 in Experimental Dermatology, redheads are more efficient at synthesizing vitamin D. The vitamin is crucial for bone health and may protect against depression and fight off colds. A vitamin D deficiency may be linked to several health conditions, from hair loss to cancer.

Additionally, the researchers speculated that redheads have a genetic advantage in gloomy climates, such as Scotland and Ireland. People with red hair can churn out more vitamin D in low-light conditions than others.

May Feel Pain Differently

People with red hair appear to have altered pain perceptions and sensitivity to pain medicines and anesthesia. 

But some studies examining that link come to conflicting conclusions. Depending on the research, redheads either feel pain more acutely or have a higher pain tolerance than others. Similarly, studies on pain medicines and anesthesia show redheads need more or less than people with other hair colors.

Per a study published in 2015 in the Canadian Journal of Anesthesia, researchers stated that past studies found that people with red hair have a lower pain tolerance and are less receptive to lidocaine than others. Lidocaine is a local anesthetic that blocks pain receptors in the skin. 

However, the researchers found no difference in anesthesia requirements between redheads and people with other hair colors. 

In a randomized controlled trial, the researchers could not find a statistically significant difference in postoperative pain management by hair color. Though, the researchers found that redheads metabolized anesthesia differently than others. But the researchers said the difference was not clinically significant.

The reason why redheads can have altered pain perception and respond differently to pain medication isn't entirely apparent. But according to a study published in 2021 in Sciences Advances, there may be a link between the MC1R gene and heightened neural activity in the part of the brain controlling some pain sensations.

The researchers also found the MC1R gene altered the production of hormones that enhance pain perception, block pain, and affect opioid receptors. For those reasons, redheads may be more sensitive to opioid pain medicines, like OxyContin and Percocet (oxycodone), and may require lower doses.

Redheads Look Older Than They Are

Some evidence suggests redheaded adults often appear older than their actual age. For example, one study published in 2016 in Current Biology found that adults who carry two copies of the MC1R gene variant are more likely to look two years older than other people their age.

That wasn't because redheads had more wrinkles, which you might guess since they're more prone to sun damage. The researcher showed the MC1R gene variant correlated to thinning lips, sagging skin along the jawline, and other visible signs of aging.

Have Lower Rates of Prostate Cancer

On a positive note: Redheads are less like to develop prostate cancer. A study published in 2013 in the British Journal of Cancer showed that redheads have a significantly lower risk of prostate cancer than those with light brown hair.

The study followed more than 20,000 men in a long-term health study. The researchers found less than 1% of redheads were diagnosed with prostate cancer, compared to 40% of men with light brown hair.

The precise reason why people with duplicate MC1R gene variants are less likely to develop prostate cancer is unclear. The researchers guessed that it might be related to redheads' abilities to make vitamin D. Another study published in 2015 in Clinical Cancer Research found low vitamin D levels may increase the risk of prostate cancer.

Higher Risk of Parkinson's Disease

People with red hair may have an increased risk of Parkinson's disease. A study published in 2015 in the Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology analyzed rates of Parkinson's disease among people with different hair colors and found a surprising correlation. 

The lowest rates of Parkinson's disease were among people with black hair, while redheads had the highest rates. The researchers observed that rates of Parkinson's disease increased as hair colors became lighter.

Digging deeper into genetic variants, the researchers also found that risk to be even greater among redheads with MC1R variant p.R151C than others. But people with variant p.R160W, also responsible for red hair, do not have a higher risk of Parkinson's disease.

May Have More Sex

According to researchers, redheads may have more sex than people with other hair colors.

The study was conducted by Werner Habermehl, PhD, and published in the book Das Sexualverhalten der Deutschen [The Sex Behavior of the Germans].

Habermehl interviewed German people about their sex lives and found redheads had the most sex. However, the study did not differentiate between natural redheads and those with dyed red hair. So, it's unclear whether genetic or social factors are behind the supposed phenomenon.

A Quick Review

Redheads often stand out from the crowd with their fiery-colored hair. But their genetics, namely two copies of the MC1R gene, may put them at a higher or lower risk for many health conditions than others. 

For instance, some people with red hair may have an increased risk of skin cancer. And those genetic variants may protect others against prostate cancer. 

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