It is common knowledge that red heads have particularly fair skin and are prone to sunburn if they are not adequately protected, which invariably translates into a higher rate of skin cancer mutations.
But new research from the Wellcome Trust Sanger points to the fact that any individuals who carry the ginger gene, meaning they might not actually have red hair and freckles, are at greater risk of developing skin cancer mutations.
One copy of the ginger gene spells potential danger, too
Alarmingly, the study concludes carrying the MC1R gene variant associated with red hair and freckles is comparable to an extra 21 of years of sun exposure in contrast to people who do not carry the variant.
The research, published in the Nature Communications journals, points out that an individual who carries two copies of the MC1R gene commonly have red hair and freckles because of an inability to product sufficient types of melanin.
However, individuals with only one copy of the MC1R gene usually produce sufficient melanin to avoid the characteristic red hair and freckles, yet the study found that these individual, just like red heads, need to take more care with regards to sun exposure.
Increased risk of developing skin cancer
"It has been known for a while that a person with red hair has an increased likelihood of developing skin cancer, but this is the first time that the gene has been proven to be associated with skin cancers with more mutations,” said Dr David Adams, joint lead researcher at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.
"Unexpectedly, we also showed that people with only a single copy of the gene variant still have a much higher number of tumour mutations than the rest of the population. This is one of the first examples of a common genetic profile having a large impact on a cancer genome and could help better identify people at higher risk of developing skin cancer."
The research project analysed available data-sets of tumour DNA sequences from more than 400 people and found that an average of 42% more sun associated mutations occurred in people carrying any number of the gene variant.
MC1R could heighten chance of UV rays reaching DNA
The team of researchers believes that its findings give further credence to the belief that the presence of the MC1R gene could allow more UV to reach the DNA, in turn raising the potential for the occurrence of tumour mutations.
However, the study also indicated that the presence of the MC1R gene variation raised the number of spontaneous mutations caused by UV rays, as well as raising the level of other mutations in the tumours.
"This important research explains why red-haired people have to be so careful about covering up in strong sun,” Dr Julie Sharp, head of health and patient information at Cancer Research UK..
“It also underlines that it isn't just people with red hair who need to protect themselves from too much sun. People who tend to burn rather than tan, or who have fair skin, hair or eyes, or who have freckles or moles are also at higher risk.”