As the doctor began threading the needle through my skin, I bit down hard to prevent myself from crying out in pain. The night before, I'd slipped and fallen onto a pair of dubiously placed wine glasses, and I sliced my arm open. After realizing the bleeding wasn’t going to stop on its own, I made an appointment at my University’s health clinic.
Despite three injections of local anesthesia and painkillers to dull the pain, I could feel every puncture from the stitches in my arm. At the time, I assumed I was a giant baby or the doctor actually had no idea what he was doing. It was until a few years ago that I learned the likely culprit of my sensitivity to pain. The responsible party was my two little variant melanocortin 1 receptor alleles, MC1R, better known as the redhead gene.
On average, gingers need 20 percent more general anesthesia than their blonde, brunette and black-haired counterparts, according to a 2004 study. In my experience, the anesthesia wears off as quickly as cheap nail polish, but does work initially. Another study in 2005 showed that redheads are also more resistant to the effects of local anesthesia (the dentist is enemy No. 1). But beyond needing more pain meds, redheads have heaps of other health issues.
One author of the study, Dr. Daniela Robles-Espinoza, explained why redheads are more sensitive to UV rays and much more prone to melanoma, which has to do with the variant gene’s inability to control the production of pigmentation that protects humans from DNA damage.
“Redheads cannot efficiently protect themselves from the sun,” says Robles–Espinoza. “Instead of producing the dark melanin, they produce another version which is red or yellow. It cannot protect against UV rays. It is useless in that aspect.”
Before you start throwing a non-redhead theme party in honor of your lack of scarlet hair, put down the confetti. You may still be at risk for many of the same issues that plague gingers. A recent study published in Nature Communications found that many people carry one variant allele of the MC1R gene (it takes two to be a redhead).
The twist, according to Robles-Espinoza, is there are many people who carry the variant gene and may have a similar level of risk as card-carrying redheads. Having just one variant allele of MC1R could increase cancer mutations at a much faster rate, reaching the number found in a non-carrier 21 years older. Additionally, the redhead gene might show up in a family that hasn’t seen a ginger for decades. You may have no idea the variant allele is lurking in your DNA.
“Non-white people can carry the gene,” says Robles-Espinoza. “Hispanics are a good example of that because we are a mixture of so many [nationalities]. Italians and Spanish surely have a lower proportion of the gene but even though they are more tan and dark-haired, they could still be carrying the gene.”
Although I am half Irish, nobody else in my family has red hair. There may be a third cousin or great aunt somewhere, but both my parents and two sisters are blondes. People rarely believe I am related to my two siblings because of my hair color and freckly skin. I spent a lot of my childhood unreasonably jealous of the dark tans my sisters enjoyed while I slathered on chalky SPF 100.
For me, the sun has always been more foe than friend, as I’ve cowered beneath umbrellas while growing up in Southern California. Despite my precautions, my sunscreen and shade are unlikely to protect me entirely from melanoma. A 2012 study on mice with the red hair/fair skin phenotype and who had never been exposed to UV radiation showed the biological pathway that generates red pigment is in itself mutagenic. This could mean that being born a redhead may be in itself carcinogenic (cancer-causing). Awesome, let me go ahead and add that one to my list of doomsday anxieties.
After mentioning the mice study, Robles-Espinoza was quick to acknowledge that no such study on human subjects has taken place, but it does raise an interesting point. Being a redhead or carrying the gene may mean there are numerous other health issues hiding in the gene that scientists have yet to uncover. It also might reveal that redheads actually have superpowers (definitely) but for now, we’ll have to wait for the research to catch up to the many hypotheses out there.
In the meantime, redheads and non-redheads alike benefit greatly from avoiding the sun between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. and adding sunscreen into their daily routines, says Robles-Espinoza. When I mentioned recent claims that typical sunscreen contains dangerous chemicals, she explained, “There are no studies that prove that they do any damage when used correctly, that is, when applied frequently when out in the sun.” Any certified sunscreen over SPF 30 should do the trick, she added.
Although I’m not thrilled my redheadedness requires extra precautions and warnings to my dentist of my possible terror screams, I am happy to know this kind of niche research is taking place. Because, hey, maybe gingers really do have superpowers.
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