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Study Reports Red Hair Linked to Higher Risk for Skin Cancer

Update Date: May 09, 2013 01:03 PM EDT
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According to a new study, red headed people might need to start caring more for their skin by adamantly protecting it from ultraviolet (UV) rays and checking it occasionally for any signs of skin cancer. The study, headed by Dr. David Fisher and his colleagues, discovered a link between people with the red hair pigment and cases of melanoma, which is considered to be the deadliest kind of skin cancer. After finding this link last fall, the team decided to study the connection between the two by conducting an experiment on mice. They found that a particular pigment, called pheomelanin could explain why redheads have an increased risk of getting skin cancer.

The team genetically modified rats with a mutation so that they would be more susceptible to developing melanoma. The researchers found that a little over half of the mice with the mutation that developed red fur contracted skin cancer without being exposed to any UV radiation. Only 10 percent of normal rats got skin cancer.

This finding hints to the fact that red headed people might already be at risk for skin cancer whether or not they are outdoors in the sun.

Although the researchers did not find the cause-and-effect relationship between the pigment and melanoma, they developed two theories. The first theory states that the production of pheomelanin could contribute to unstable oxygen-containing molecules, which would then damage cells and lead to cancer. The second theory believes that during the creation of pehomelanin, the body takes antioxidants from skin cells, which then would lead to unstable oxygen-containing molecules, also known as reactive oxygen species.

"We think a new prevention opportunity exists if we can block the form of reactive oxygen damage that the red pigment is producing," Fisher explained. " UV is a contributor to melanoma, and UV may actually amplify this red pigment phenomenon. It still is absolutely crucial for people to avoid sun exposure."

Since these findings suggest that this pigment could lead to melanoma without UV radiation exposure, the researchers and dermatologists recommend that red headed people should consider checking their bodies more frequently. Melanoma can develop any where on the body, even in regions that often do not get exposed to sunlight at all. Furthermore, the study also informs redheads to use sunscreen with at least SPF 30 and to reapply every hour. Although results from mouse models might not transfer over human models, extra protection would not hurt the body in this case.

The study was published in BioEssays

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