Redheads Beware, Sunscreen May Not Be Enough

Speaking as a natural redhead, I don’t need a study to tell me I’m especially photosensitive to the sun. I’ve spent a lifetime smelling like sunscreen and avoiding the daylight during key hours when the UV is most intense as though I were cast as an extra in Twilight.

However, new research published in BioEssays, suggests sunscreen and avoidance may not be enough to protect the vulnerable DNA enfleshed within redheads. Scientists have posed two hypotheses on why red pigment (pheomelanin) might cause skin cells to be more susceptible to cancer.

Cells produce two types of pigment: dark brown eumelanin and red/orange pheomelanin. The production of pheomelanin has been linked to oxidative stress, which can lead to DNA damage. Additionally, researchers hypothesize that pheomelanin production could use up cells’ antioxidant reserves. Thus, the pheomelanin pigment, that creates the color red in the hair, is now thought to give us an increased risk of melanoma.

Dr. David Fisher – the study’s co-author and chief of dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston – explained why this pigment makes the skin more susceptible. The pigment may be creating unbalanced molecules in the skin.

Fisher and his team first uncovered the apparent link between red hair pigment and skin cancer last fall. That study used genetically altered mice that had been given a mutant gene that increased their risk of contracting melanoma.

In the new paper, Fisher further speculated that pheomelanin could increase the risk, finding that melanoma was still possible among mice with the red pigment even after UV was completely removed.

UV radiation is part of the electromagnetic spectrum that radiates from the sun year round. Excessive exposure to UV rays damages the skin on a cellular level, mutating the DNA over time. DNA is the source of genetic information coded into each living cell.

UVB are the rays that burn you. UVA rays, which account for 95 percent of the radiation, are those that prematurely age you. They penetrate deeper than UVB rays. These rays can penetrate water, glass, clouds, and clothing. Reflective surfaces can impose UV rays into shaded areas.

UV radiation is the primary cause of skin cancer, effecting millions of people a year. Twenty years of research has assessed fair-skinned people, like redheads, are more at risk because of the decreased or inconsistent presence of melanin. However, that does not mean those with darker pigment are completely immune.

Melanin is present in skin, hair, and eyes. It determines color and is produced by melanocytes found in the basal layer of the epidermis (outermost layer of the skin). Melanoma is caused by changes in melanocytes. Melanin is considered a photochemical. When provoked by UVB rays, it reacts with a photo-protectant response, absorbing the ultraviolet light as heat. This process is meant to inhibit the damage to DNA. With prolonged exposure, the photochemical reaction creates freckling, tanning, and burning. The more often you burn, the higher the risk of damaging your DNA. When the integrity of DNA is compromised, a cancer-related mutation can result.


Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the body. A cancer’s degree of perniciousness and cause can depend on multiple factors and isn’t always isolated to one part of the body as it can metastasize (spread).

The findings suggest that redheads should take additional precautions to prevent melanoma, even if they are already diligent about avoiding the sun and using high SPF sunscreen. It is advised fair-haired and light skinned individuals undergo annual screenings with their dermatologists – who are skilled at identifying physical abnormalities in moles. If questionable, these moles can be excised and tested.

SPF stands for Sun Protections Factor. It’s usually seen as an abbreviation followed by a number seen on many beauty and hygiene products and some clothing items. These numbers refer to the product’s ability to screen, reflect, or absorb the sun’s UV rays; the higher the number, the higher the supposed coverage.

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the sun protection factor when trying to understand what the number truly represents. Sunblock makers have come under fire in recent years for obfuscated claims surrounding effectiveness, all day protection, and whether or not there is such a thing as waterproof or sweat proof coverage. Regardless, regular use of some type of SPF is recommended to limit the onset of melanoma.

[Image via Shutterstock]