Redheads run a greater risk of skin cancer from exposure to the sun than people with darker hair.
The reason, according to a talk given yesterday at the American Chemical Society’s meeting in Washington, is that small differences in the chemistry of the skin pigments in people with different coloured hair affects the production of cancer-causing agents when the skin is exposed to ultra-violet light.
The risk of skin cancer is about two to four times higher for redheads and blonds than for those with dark hair. In 1995 there were 5,626 new cases of melanoma - the most dangerous form of skin cancer - in Britain, but by 2000 this had risen to 6,967. Each year about 1,700 people die from melanoma, the third most common cancer among people aged 15 to 39, reports Times Online.
According to News-Medical, the study has shown that chemicals are likely to activate oxygen by taking up electrons, and such changes are known to be linked to cell damage and cancer.
Their work found that the red melanosomes were much more reactive than the black melanosomes and this suggests that it takes less of a trigger, in the form of UV rays in sunlight, to make potentially harmful cellular changes in people with red hair.
Professor Simon explains that activating oxygen can produce compounds called radicals that put oxidative stress on cells.
Such stress could ultimately lead to cancer and other diseases.
According to Simon not only do people with red hair have less protective pigment than people with darker hair, but the pigment they have appears to be more likely to react and produce harmful agents associated with cancer.
Dr Steven Rotter of the U.S. Skin Cancer Foundation says they measured something called the oxidation potential of the red and black melanosomes, and this has helped to clarify at a molecular level knowledge they have had for years.
Ed Yong, science information officer for Cancer Research UK, says although it is well known that red or fair-haired people have a higher risk of skin cancer, this study provides a possible explanation for it.
Yong advises people with red hair and fair skin to take particular care to avoid sunburn and to protect their skin by avoiding the sun in the middle of the day, seeking shade and covering up with a T-shirt and sunglasses and using sunscreen of at least factor 15.