Why Red Heads Are at an Increased Risk for Melanoma
If you’re a redhead like me, you probably know all too well just how easily your skin can burn, even if you only spend a short amount of time in the sun. However, even if you’re great about staying out of the sun and always wearing sunscreen, you could still be at a greater risk for developing melanoma than someone without red hair and freckles. Here’s why.
Genetic Risk Factors for Melanoma
A study recently published in JAMA Dermatology found that despite sun protection habits, whether good or bad, people with red hair and freckles are at an increased risk for melanoma. The gene that is responsible for determining the unique characteristics of your skin, including its pigmentation, is called melanocortin-1 receptor, or MC1R. Certain variations of this gene produce the characteristics associated with redheads, including fair skin, freckles, and, of course, hair color.
Carriers of this specific MC1R variation also produce higher amounts of a specific type of melanin called pheomelanin, which is less photoprotective than eumelanin, the primary pigment produced by people with brown or black hair. Pheomelanin is also known to produce reactive oxygen species (ROS), which contribute to DNA damage.
Therefore, environmental factors like sun exposure are not the only determinants of an individual’s risk for developing skin cancer. Redheads in particular are at a greater overall risk because of their genetic makeup.
Staying on Top of Your Skin’s Health
Taking steps to reduce the risk of skin cancer is important for everyone, not just redheads. However, because redheads are already at an increased risk whether or not they lounge in the sun, it is especially important that they schedule at least annual full body exams with their dermatologist. Red heads who have a family history of melanoma should get full body exams more often than just once a year.
In between visits with your dermatologist, you can also keep track of any moles and other pigmented spots on your skin yourself. The American Academy of Dermatology suggests making a mole map to keep an eye on any potentially harmful moles that may require your dermatologist’s attention. When assessing your skin on your own, look for the ABCDE’s of melanoma: Asymmetry, irregular Borders, Color variation, large Diameter, and evolution or change in the characteristics of the mole over time.
The Bottom Line
Knowing your individual risk factors for melanoma and other types of skin cancer is one of the first steps to better protecting your skin’s health. While genetic influencers like the MC1R variation discussed above are impossible to avoid or change, you can take an active role in your skin’s health by scheduling annual check-ups with your dermatologist.
As always, sun protection is still a must for everyone, including red heads. Although genes can play a role in determining your melanoma risk, extrinsic factors like sun exposure, air pollution, and smoking can still contribute to skin cancer and other adverse effects on the skin.