Ginger gene is just as bad as 21 extra years of sun exposure when it comes to skin cancer
New research reveals
An inherited "ginger gene" associated with red hair, pale skin and freckles is directly linked to the genetic risk of developing skin cancer, new evidence has shown for the first time.
The MC1R gene variant can boost the risk of skin cancer by the equivalent of 21 extra years of sun exposure, say scientists.
Red-haired people all have two copies of the variant, which causes a strong tendency to burn in the sun. But even a single copy of the variant, found in many people without red hair and freckles, increases the number of gene mutations associated with malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
Redheads are disproportionately represented in the UK and Ireland, making up 6pc of the population - compared with 1pc to 2pc around the world. The MC1R variant affects the type of melanin skin pigment they produce, leaving them especially vulnerable to damage from UV rays.
Lead researcher Dr David Adams, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridgeshire, said: "It has been known for a while that a person with red hair has an increased likelihood of developing skin cancer, but this is the first time that the gene has been proven to be associated with skin cancers with more mutations.
"Unexpectedly, we also showed that people with only a single copy of the gene variant still have a much higher number of tumour mutations than the rest of the population."