Red Hair Genes and Melanoma

Cynthia Bailey, MD|September 6, 2016

Did you know if you have red hair in your family you may be at higher risk for melanoma?

A recent scientific study has discovered that simply having red hair and fair skin in your family may put you at an increased risk for melanoma. All you may need is to inherit a single copy of the gene for red hair to share the heightened cancer risk of your ginger relatives.  It turns out it’s the gene that's the risk factor, not just the milky-fair skin that often comes with having red hair.

For years, we dermatologists have known that patients with red hair and their very pale skin are at higher risk of melanoma. We attributed the risk to the relative lack of melanin and the different type of melanin in their skin. Now we know that melanin is only part of the story.

Genes are still a relatively new scientific frontier for scientists, and in this discovery phase it appears that inheriting the red hair gene itself is enough to put you at higher melanoma risk. This means that even without actually looking like a redhead you can be at risk just because you inherited a red hair gene from one of your parents. In other words, you can be a brunette with skin that sometimes burns and mostly tans, known as Fitzpatrick Skin Type 3 , but be at higher risk for melanoma because you inherited a red hair gene. You just don't see it because it's not dominating your hair and skin color.

The MC1R Gene: What is it?

The Melanocortin 1 Receptor gene, or MC1R gene, regulates the type of skin and hair pigment your melanocytes make. Melanocytes are small cells that are scattered in your skin and hair follicles; they make all of your pigment including your natural hair and skin color as well as your tans and freckles. The MC1R gene expressing melanocytes for red hair make a light red/orange pigment called pheomelanin. The MC1R gene expressing melanocytes for normal brown pigment make the more common brown melanin called eumelanin. You get one MC1R gene from your mom and one from your dad. The combination of the two will determine your hair color and skin tone.  

Bright ginger redheads have 2 MC1R that code for red hair and fair skin. They will have Fitzpatrick type 1 or 2 skin that burns easily, rarely (if ever) tans, and freckles when exposed to the sun.

Blondes and brunettes may have one MC1R gene coding for red, and one coding for brown. They may also have two coding for brown. If they have an MC1R coding for red pigment they can pass that red hair gene on to their kids, who may or may not be redheads depending on if they got a red or brown one from their other parent.  

You don’t need to have bright red hair to have the gene. You may have blond or brown hair and darker skin, but if you have just one redhead MC1R gene, that means that your skin and hair melanocytes produce the red pigment pheomelanin as well as the brown pigment coding gene eumelanin. So while you may not have the red hair or fair skin, that one redhead gene is still in your DNA, and that alone puts you at increased risk of melanoma!

To quote directly from the study investigators:

"carrying one or more of the MC1R red hair genes increased risk of melanoma mutations by 42% compared with people who do not have any MC1R gene. Age was also associated with an increased risk.…..This (study) suggests that the majority of persons with one MC1R gene, who do not have a red hair/sun sensitive phenotype (characteristic), may still be highly susceptible to the mutagenic effects of UV light (aka prone to Melanoma when they get sun or tanning bed UV ray exposure)."

Paraphrased, if you or someone you love has inherited the MC1R gene for red hair, there may be as much as a 42% increased risk of developing melanoma compared with people who don’t have one or two of those genes. Also, people with the MC1R gene developed melanoma at a younger age and in fact, having the gene was like adding 21 years of wear and tear to the skin in terms of melanoma age-related risk!

There’s one more bit of bad news to add to this study before we turn to some good news. When we combine this new information with that of a 2012 study that showed pheomelanin to be cancer causing even without the sun, it feels like a double hit to redheads! Yep, pheomelanin can form DNA-damaging free radicals in the skin all by itself, even without the sun. It’s sort of like a DNA auto-destruct mechanism in the skin that can run on its own. Dear Darwin, it’s hard to understand how that was an evolutionary survival advantage for redheads! This new study adds yet another layer of worrisome news linking melanoma to anyone who has inherited one of the genes for red hair – like me!

Who here thinks unraveling the mystery of human genetics and correlating our gene-coding for heightened risk of killer diseases is getting depressing?! As a blond with red highlights and the BRCA mutation for breast and ovarian cancer I sure do, but I’m not one to put my head in the sand. So…..on to good news, being proactive and setting up self-care for living well.

Here’s what I recommend for my family and patients that carry even one MC1R gene for red hair:

Bottom line as I see it is that if you have red hair in your family, get in touch with a good dermatologist for annual skin exams, get your sun protection strategy perfected and maintain yourself with antioxidant rich foods and skin care to mitigate free radicals that you know are popping up all the time in your cells.

Become a pro about sun protection.  We know that the sunburn and freckle prone skin of redheads is not designed for the sun.  Now even the ‘genetically inclined’ to red hair need to be more careful. Click here for my new free ebook on understanding sunburns, "The Sunburn Guide" and here for my free infographic that cheerfully illustrates my recommendations. Shop for sun protective clothing, use only the best sunscreens (and use them correctly) and seek out or create shade when you are outside.

Get an annual skin exam by a dermatologist and do monthly self-exams. Know the signs of melanoma, learn your own skin’s pattern of non-cancerous freckles and moles and work with your dermatologist to catch melanoma early.  Caught early, a Melanoma can truly be just an inconvenience that can be removed with simple outpatient skin surgery. When advanced however, Melanoma is life changing and can be deadly.  

Ensure that you have an abundant supply of antioxidants at all times. You want them hanging around to respond when needed to the free radical popcorning that is going on from the sun or the spontaneously frisky pheomelanin. Eat your fruit and veggies, give ‘em the rainbow of antioxidants to really douse them with the best. Click here for my Diet Recommendations for healthy skin and more. Build a skin care routine with proven antioxidant rich products made from formulas that can get the antioxidants through your skin’s outer surface.  Those include green tea and vitamin C, vitamin A and vitamin E (which can cause allergies so care must be taken). The products I trust include Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy, Vitamin C Anti-Wrinkle Serum, Retinol Intensive Anti-Wrinkle Serum or tretinoin prescription cream. I invite you to download my free Sunburn EBook where I outline my skin care advice for skin cancer prone skin.

Is the red head gene the whole story with melanoma? No, but it is a big piece of it. To put it in perspective:

  • 1-2% of the world’s population are red haired.
  • 16% of melanoma patients have red hair.
  • 26-40% of melanoma patients carry the MC1R gene.  That means that 60 to 74% of melanoma patients don’t carry the gene, but they still get melanoma. 

A final and important point:

Everyone needs sun protection. Everyone needs to learn how to identify melanoma. Everyone with a history of sun exposure or a family history of melanoma needs annual professional skin exams and everyone needs a rich dose of DNA protecting antioxidants in their body. Doctor’s orders! The MC1R gene and pheomelanin is becoming a big part of the melanoma story, but it’s not the entire story.

I cover it all in my new free ebook, which is now available for download:  

The Sunburn Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Sunburns.

 

   
 

Do you know if you carry the red hair gene? What do you do to protect your skin and decrease your chances of developing melanoma as much as possible? We love to hear from you!  Join the conversation and also receive early access to store promotions.  

 

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References

  • Robles-Espinoza, C.D. et al. Germline MC1R status influences somatic mutation burden in melanoma. Nat. Commun. 7:12064 doi: 10.1038/ncomms12064 (2016).
  • Mitra, D. et al. An ultraviolet-radiation-independent pathway to melanoma carcinogenesis in the red hair/fair skin background. Nature 491, 449–453 (2012).

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