Redheads’ increased melanoma risk may be in their genes, not sun exposure

Actress Lindsay Lohan, a natural and dyed red-head. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

Pity those poor redheads. The very gene that gives them their fiery auburn tresses—and Lindsay-Lohan-like tempers if you buy into the stereotype—also predisposes them to an increased melanoma risk that has little to do with getting sunburned, Massachusetts General Hospital researchers report in a study published online in the journal Nature.

Instead, it appears to be due to a mutation they carry in the melanocortin-1 receptor gene (MC1R) that’s been linked in previous research to pain sensitivity and a higher risk of Parkinson’s disease.

The researchers compared melanoma rates in red-furred mice with the MC1R gene mutation with those who were albinos (with no skin pigment) and those who had black fur. They found that without any exposure to sunlight or ultraviolet radiation, the red mice were far more likely to develop melanoma than the other mice. (All the mice carried specific proteins that predisposed them to the skin cancer.)

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“We’ve known for a long time that people with red hair and fair skin have the highest melanoma risk,” said Dr. David Fisher, chief of the MGH Department of Dermatology who conducted the research. “These new findings do not increase that risk but identify a new mechanism to help explain it.”

Unlike more common and treatable skin cancers, melanomas often develop on areas of the skin that have little sun exposure, such as on the buttocks, near the genitals, or underneath the breasts. Sunscreen studies have also yielded mixed results through the years on the cream’s ability to prevent melanomas.

“We don’t want people to take this to mean that the sun isn’t dangerous,” said Fisher, “but rather that it’s not the whole story when it comes to skin cancer.”

While scientists are testing some topical antioxidants to see whether they can lower the risk of melanoma, for now early detection is the best approach for those who are at increased risk. Fisher recommends regular self exams and skin screenings—with a dermatologist or primary care physician—for redheads or anyone with a parent or sibling who’s had skin cancer.

And sun protection is still key, he added, since UV rays do increase the risk of melanoma as well as of other skin cancers. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen, cover-up at the beach, and avoid tanning salons.