Can Red Hair Cause Melanoma?

A new growth, darkening of the skin or a change in an existing mole color can signify Melanoma. Known as the most serious of skin cancers, Melanoma occurs when pigment-producing cells become cancerous. Higher risk for Melanoma often correlates with having red hair and fair skin due to the lack of melanin. In fact, approximately 16% of Americans diagnosed with Melanoma have red hair. Yet, recent studies have shown the risk factor goes deeper than hair color. In fact, the Melanocortin 1 Receptor gene (MC1R) has a strong correlation with cancer. Approximately 26% to 40% of Melanoma patients carry at least one R allele of the MC1R gene. Since this is a recessive gene, patients do not always show the obvious redhead and freckled appearance. Yet, carriers remain at the same heightened cancer risk. If detected early, Melanoma will require outpatient skin surgery and will not produce its more serious effects. Thus, it’s important to understand the gene and the prevention methods.

What is the MC1R Gene?

Melanocytes are small cells scattered throughout the skin and hair follicles. These cells produce the pigment in your hair, skin color and freckles. The combination of two MC1R genes, one from your mother and one from your father, determines your hair color and skin tone. Thus, the gene regulates the type of pigment the melanocytes create. People with red hair and fair skin inherited two MC1R genes, which produces a pigment called pheomelanin. This pigment often creates freckles and fair skin. Yet, someone with blonde or brunette hair may only have one MC1R gene. As a result, the MC1R gene is recessive. While it may not be visible, the gene remains active. So, your body may still produce the red pigment pheomelanin, as well as the brown pigment called Eumelanin. The pheomelanin pigment causes cancer, and can form DNA-damaging free radicals in your skin. This puts carriers of the gene at risk for cancer-causing mutations without even exposing skin to the sun. Furthermore, the red gene remains in your DNA, allowing you to pass the gene to your children. Those who have this gene are at a 42% increased risk of developing Melanoma at a younger age.

Prevention Methods for MC1R Gene Carriers

Whether you have the dominant features of the MC1R gene or the gene is recessive and the red pigmentation does not show, you are at a higher risk of developing Melanoma. Dermatologists advise taking the proper precautions to avoid long-term consequences. About 60-74% of Melanoma patients do not carry MC1R. Thus, you should still check your skin for Melanoma prevention if you do not carry the gene. A prevention strategy includes scheduling an annual skin exam, as well as protecting skin from sun exposure. Patients with red hair and fair skin should limit sun exposure. When in the sun, be sure to apply a high-quality sunscreen, wear sun protective clothing, and seek out shady areas.

Contact Short Hills Dermatology for more information about Melanoma. Our skilled team can offer insights about treatment plans, as well as cancer screenings. Be sure to consult with doctors for symptoms of Melanoma.

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