Being Well

Do Redheads and Melanoma Have a Connection? New Study Suggestions Maybe

Using sunscreen is especially important for those who carry one or two R allele mutations. Find out how to protect you and your family and prevent skin cancer.

People with fair skin are often careful to avoid intense sun exposure, but there may be another compelling reason for redheads to be extra diligent. A recent study has shown a possible link between redheads and melanoma, a cancer that usually begins on the skin. The research, published in Nature Communications, links a certain genetic component to potential development of melanoma.

The Study

As with much of health research, scientists attempt to isolate a possible genetic component to determine if there’s a reason why a disease is more prevalent in certain groups of people with shared traits. Researchers took a similar route for attempting to demonstrate a genetic tie between redheads and the development of melanoma. In the study, scientists were able to isolate a specific gene in people who have melanoma. This dangerous R allele, shown in pairs for many of the redheads studied, increased the chance of melanoma tumor mutations.

Even more interesting is that it wasn’t just redheads who carried this genetically risky allele. Some of the patients studied didn’t have red hair or freckled skin but did carry at least one R allele. This finding shows that even those who carry one R allele are at a higher risk of developing melanoma than those without the R allele.

What to Do Next

What does this study show for redheads and melanoma? Essentially, it demonstrates that there’s in fact a strong suggestion that red hair and freckles can mean a genetic double R allele and an increased risk of developing the dangerous skin cancer. Fortunately, there are precautions you can take to keep your skin as healthy as possible, no matter your hair color.

First, limit your exposure to the sun when possible. Aim to spend time outdoors in the shade by seeking rest under trees or beach umbrellas. Protect your skin further by wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sporting lightweight cover-ups. Also, never skip or skimp on sunscreen. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends seeking a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen that protects from UVA and UVB rays and looking for an SPF of at least 30. Keep a new bottle of sunscreen, a hat and an extra umbrella in your car, golf bag or front-hall closet so it’s easy to grab and go. You can also look into getting clear window protection for your car and home, as the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends.

If you have red hair, or have a parent with red hair that could have passed along one R allele, consider talking to your doctor about starting a regular dermatology preventative care protocol. Regular visits to a dermatologist, including visits to check on any unsymmetrical or troublesome freckle or mole, can further assure you’re more likely to catch a possible issue early. And of course, don’t go to tanning beds to avoid unnecessary UV exposure (but do be honest with your doctor about your tanning history).

Genetic knowledge can give patients and their medical care providers a leg up on potential issues. Healthy skin practices and avoiding sun exposure, however, are still excellent ways to keep your skin as healthy as possible. Enjoy your summer sun responsibly!

When it comes to cancer, the best treatment is early detection. UVA Cancer Center offers free skin cancer screenings.

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Haley Burress
Haley Burress