They are known for pale skin, freckles, poor tanning ability and unfortunately, an increased risk for developing skin cancer.
Now scientists have found out why they are more prone to melanoma, and it’s down to their genetics.
The findings could lead to new treatments to reduce their cancer risk.
Professor Rutao Cui at Boston University School of Medicine said: “We hope our study allows for the development of a pharmacological prevention strategy for red-headed people to protect their skin and let them enjoy the sun like other people.”
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that can spread to other organs in the body and the first signs are new moles appearing on the skin.
It is caused by skin cells that begin to develop abnormally with being exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun causing most cases.
Sun and sunbeds risky
A sudden intense exposure to sun, particularly while on holiday, which leads to sunburn causes most cases but sunbeds are a risk too.
Having lots of moles or freckles, pale skin that burns easily, red or blonde hair or a family history all increase the risk and each year around 13,500 Britons are diagnosed making it the fifth most common cancer.
Redheads have variants in Melanocortin 1 Receptor (MC1R), a protein crucial for pigmentation in humans.
But how this translates to increased risk for cancer and whether that risk can be reversed has eluded scientists until now.
For the first time Prof Cui found there was a way to reduce cancer risk in redheads.
Specifically he and his colleagues proved MC1R is affected by a special modification process called palmitoylation that is critical for its function. By enhancing palmitoylation in the variant MC1R proteins of redheads, cancer risk can be reduced.
Despite health warnings to cover up and apply sun creams, redheads bear a higher burden of disease making alternative risk reductions strategies an area of active interest to scientists.
Prof Cui said: “Up until now our understanding of the molecular biology of melanomagenesis (developing melanoma cancer) lacks explanations for how MC1R is affected by UV radiation, why redheads are more prone to melanoma, and whether the activity of red hair colour variants could be restored for therapeutic benefit.”
In an experimental model the team used a small molecule which could increase palmitoylation of MC1R named palmostatin B, and then exposed the mice to UV light.
The control group, without palmostatin B treatment, was also exposed to the UV light and showed a significant higher rate of developing melanoma.
Prof Cui said: “These results suggest pharmacological activation of palmitoylation prevents melanoma skin cancer in this particular model.”
He added the study represents the first comprehensive analysis that stimulating palmitoylation can be used as a strategy to prevent disease.
The study was published in the journal Nature.