There are many factual inaccuracies when people talk about redheads. Stereotypes have been perpetuated about redheads throughout history: they are fiery and aggressive, they are unlucky, they are practitioners of witchcraft. Ultimately, they are unfounded myths about people with red hair. These myths have often ostracized people, but, more recently, some scientific misunderstandings have led to a more positive misunderstanding: the idea that red hair comes with "genetic superpowers." People with naturally auburn or ginger hair can boast certain characteristic distinctions, but according to scientific research, redheads can't exactly run out and join the X-Men.
While theirs is the rarest of all hair colors, redheads still make up a significant portion of the world’s population, so let's take a minute to run through some ways being a redhead is more complex than simply having incarnadine hair. These are interesting notes, many of which have been oversimplified or misunderstood to create the impression that the color is tied to remarkable abilities.
*Editor's Note: We've corrected a previous version of this article, which incorrectly claimed redheads have genetic superpowers. Read the updated version below.
Red Hair Is Caused By A Genetic Mutation
The scientific community knows how people develop red hair; those with naturally red hair exhibit a recessive version of the gene melanocortin-1 (MC1R), which when the recessive gene is expressed it causes that person’s body to not produce eumelanin, a pigment that darkens a person’s hair color, skin color, and eye color. Without eumelanin, the body instead expresses pheomelanin as the dominant pigment causing a person’s hair to be red and their skin to be lighter than those with the dominant gene.
This genetic mutation isn't thought to be same for all people with red hair, however. Some in the scientific community believe some people of African descent have red hair due to a form of ablinism, which too is caused by a genetic mutation, but not the same as those from Caucasian descent. This form of albinism is called rufous albinism, and it's caused by a mutation in the TYRP1 gene. In most people, the TYRP1 gene produces enzymes which regulate melanin production, but for those with the mutated TYRP1 gene, melanin doesn't get produced thus creating red hair and light-colored skin.
Redheads May Perceive Pain Differently
In recent years the MC1R gene has been thought to affect the way people perceive pain. The melanocortin 1 receptor is found in the midbrain close in proximity to where pain perception is regulated. Scientists have wondered whether or not the presence of this recessive gene rather than it’s dominant alternative changes how a person perceives pain.
In 2004, anesthesiologist Daniel Sessler and his team from Louisville University conducted a study to test if people with the recessive melanocortin 1 receptor gene required the same amount of anesthetic compared to those with darker hair. The researchers found those with red hair required 19% more anesthetic than brunettes.
This study, however, indirectly contradicts a study conducted by Jeffrey Mogil and his team at McGill University, who researched if redheads were more receptive to pain killers where he found that redheaded women were indeed responded better to pain killing medications.
The contrast between the studies does present a greater question, however, how should they be interpreted together? Mogil can’t reconcile the data. “There’s no obvious way to reconcile the data, to be honest, and that’s always been disappointing to people,” Mogil said, “I know it’s frustrating to redheads, who would like to know whether they are more or less sensitive [to pain], and that’s still unclear.”
Others however have come to another conclusion; though these studies aren’t clear whether or not redheads feel more or less pain, some people suggest they may show redheads perceive pain differently than others.
Though Most Common In Northern Europe, Redheads Can Be Found Everywhere Around The World
Because redheadedness is genetic, everyone around the world can potentially exhibit the recessive gene but especially more so where the gene is most present. Anecdotally, it may seem like only people of Caucasian descent have red hair, but that’s also because there are statistically higher rates of people with the recessive MC1R gene in northern Europe than anywhere else in the world.
Redheads make up an estimated one to two percent of the world’s population but Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, among other countries in Northern Europe including Norway and Iceland, have a greater proportion of redheads. Furthermore, though the has a lower percentage of redheads compared to northern Europe, the United States has the largest estimated population of redheads numbering about 18 million.
Generally, because of this higher population and distribution of redheads in northern Europe and the United States, many people are led to believe redheads are only found in this region, but that isn’t the case.
Besides peoples in northern Europe, there are certain ethnic groups around the world who noticeably present the gene more often than others in similar regions, including the Berbers, Riffians, and Kabyles in Morocco and Algeria as well as Ashkhenazi Jews, due to global emigration from northern Europe.
They Can Be More Sensitive To Temperature
Some scientists believe redheaded individuals are more acutely aware of extreme changes in temperature. Due to their MC1R gene and its association to the perception of pain, researchers have studied whether or not those with the recessive version of the gene are more or less tolerant to pain. Though studies have been inconclusive in that respect, a study from Louisville University did conclude redheaded people were more sensitive to temperature related pain. While the majority of people with darker hair reported to feeling pain from cold only when temperatures reached the freezing point, those with red hair reported pain when temperatures reached 6ºC (43ºF).
From this, some researchers have come to the conclusion that the MC1R gene may cause the temperature-sensing gene to become overactive and thus be more responsive to general changes in temperature.
Due To Lower Amounts Of Pigment In Their Skin, Redheads Are More Susceptible To Skin Cancer
Scientists have attributed the higher proportion of redheads and gingers to an evolutionary benefit; as homo sapiens migrated northwards from Africa to northern Europe there was generally less sun. Over generations, humans began to exhibit less eumelanin pigmentation (the melanin that produces the brown-black hue) in their skin to supplement vitamin D deficiency.
All people need vitamin D because it helps with certain body functions, including bone development, and luckily everyone produces it in their skin. Production, however, relies on sunlight. In regions that receive less sunlight, it would be evolutionarily beneficial to have less pigmentation in order to make more vitamin D.
Lower pigmentation, though beneficial in low light, is detrimental when that same person receives too much sunlight. People who lack the eumelanin are more susceptible to melanoma and skin cancer caused by the Sun. Without eumelanin, a person’s skin has a harder time blocking out the Sun’s UV rays, which can cause permanent damage.
Redheads May Have A Higher Chance Of Developing Parkinson's Disease
Multiple studies ranging from 2009 through 2016 have investigated whether or not there is a connection between the MC1R gene and the development of Parkinson's Disease. The studies, plus a meta-analysis of them, concluded that those with the mutated MC1R gene causing redhair also had a higher chance of developing Parkinson's. It is not because red hair causes Parkinson's, however; both red hair and the increased chance of Parkinson's are symptoms of the mutated gene, thus if a we were able to correct the genes function, it would lower the chances of developing Parkinson's.
Since the study came out, however, the UK's National Health Service (NHS) has disputed some of the claims. The NHS's belived the study was too small in scope and doesn't address the full complexity of Parkinson's. The study was only conducted on mice who share the MC1R gene. Though it's true they share it and have exhibited a similar genetic mutation, it is arguable whether or not the tests conducted can definitely say whether or not addressing how the gene functions will lower the chances of developing Parkinson's. NHS argues the disease is far too complex and based of both internal and external factors to definitively address the issue in it's entirety.