To Be Or Not To Be- A Redhead!

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By Pam Teel

Do you know who said this? “Once in his life, a man is entitled to fall madly in love with a gorgeous redhead.” It was actually actress Lucille Ball. Lucille Ball brought redheads into the forefront when she decided to make her character a fiery redhead in the popular TV show, I Love Lucy, even though she was born with natural brown hair. MGM studies had asked her to dye her hair red for a previous movie she starred in and she decided to keep it red for I Love Lucy, and the rest is history. Let’s just say red hair dye became very popular during that time period.

Our genes make up a lot of who we are, including our looks. When people have red hair, it’s typically the MC1R gene that’s responsible. The color of your hair comes from two possible pigments. Eumelanin makes your hair light or dark; people with black hair have a lot of it, while blondes don’t. The second pigment is pheomelanin, which is a redder pigment. Usually, people don’t have a lot of the latter, because the MC1R gene converts pheomelanin into eumelanin. Redheads have a mutation in their MC1R gene that allows the pheomelanin and the bright red color that comes with it to flow free.

In order for someone to inherit red hair, both their parents need a mutated MC1R gene, and even then, there’s about a 1-4 chance of having red hair. Non-redheads can be redheaded gene carriers and not know it, although there are some ways to guess. Redheads also remain distinct from others as they age because red hair doesn’t go gray — instead, it turns silver or white.

On average, redheads have less hair than other people. For example, blondes have an average of around 150,000 strands of hair on their heads, whereas redheads have only 90,000 or so. Luckily, red hair tends to be coarser and thicker, so the discrepancy is not easily noticeable Whether bright orange, auburn, or more of a strawberry blond, red hair is a real eye-catcher.

People born with freckles may be redheaded gene carriers. If you’re carrying two mutated MC1R genes, you’re 11 times more likely to get them.  Redheads may also produce more vitamin D in their bodies- Our bodies generate vitamin D when the sun’s ultraviolet rays interact with our skin. This essential vitamin helps us absorb calcium and ward off a host of other health problems. Unfortunately, redheaded people tend to have fair, sensitive skin that doesn’t pair well with too much sunlight; it burns easily and is susceptible to skin cancer.

Redheads may also experience pain differently- A separate 2005 study found they were more sensitive to pain from heat or cold, and also tested sensitivity to the anesthetic lidocaine. When applied under the skin, lidocaine was less effective on redheads than other participants, which may mean redheads sometimes need more anesthesia.

Celtic countries, like Scotland and Ireland, are most commonly associated with red hair, but fiery red hair can pop up in people of multiple ethnicities worldwide. Still, natural redheads are relatively rare — only one or two out of every 100 people can claim this distinction.

A region of Scotland, Edinburgh, could possibly be the world capital of redheads. It likely has the highest concentration of redheads in the world. A DNA analysis conducted in 2014 discovered that 40% of people in the southeast region of Scotland, had variants of the red-haired gene. (Notably, they didn’t necessarily have red hair themselves, since the gene is recessive.) That percentage is higher than in any other region of Scotland, or the world. Of course, the area known as Scotland today has long been associated with red hair (though it’s believed the mutation first took place in central Asia).

Every year, thousands of ruddy-haired people descend on Tilburg, Netherlands, for the Redhead Days Festival. Spread across three days, the event offers workshops on make-up and skin care tips as well as photo shoots and meet-and-greets. These events can be particularly impactful for people with red hair, as research in 2014 found that 90% of redheaded males experienced bullying simply because of their hair color. The event began by accident in 2005 when a local amateur painter placed an ad in a Dutch newspaper for 15 redheaded models — and 10 times that number showed up. The event was so popular that the redhead meet-up became an annual tradition and then a full-fledged festival. At the 2013 meet-up, 1,672 redheads set the world record for the largest gathering of people with natural red hair.

In 2007, an article by an unnamed geneticist posited that redheads are going extinct. Despite many experts’ assertions to the contrary, the myth has persisted, but thankfully, no such extinction is on the horizon.

While only a few people (around 70 million to 140 million) sport red hair, many more are carriers of the gene, and it’s not uncommon for the red hair gene to skip a generation. Despite being carried through recessive genes, red hair color is genetically stable, meaning that evolution would need to select red hair as disadvantageous for some reason in order for it to become extinct. So, don’t worry, red hair is here to stay.

Paleontologists, Maria McNamara and Tiffany Slater have discovered the earliest molecular evidence of pheomelanin, the pigment that causes red hair, in 10-million-year-old frog fossils. The ancient amphibians had preserved fragments of pheomelanin,  a yellowish-red pigment that produces ginger-colored hair in animals, including humans, according to a study published Oct. 6 in the journal Nature Communications.

“It’s the exact same pigment that causes red hair in us,” lead study author Tiffany Slater, a postdoctoral researcher of paleobiology at University College Cork in Ireland. “But that doesn’t mean that the frogs were necessarily ginger colored when they were alive. They could just carry the gene.” (Pelophylax pueyoi is an extinct species of large frog that lived in what is now Spain during the Early Miocene (23 to 5.3 million years ago). Their fossilized remains are part of a museum collection.

Some famous natural redheaded people include: Mark Twain, George Washington, The Tudor dynasty, which ruled England from 1485 until the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, sported a whole family of redheads, chief among them Henry VIII, and the “Virgin Queen” herself. King Henry was described as strong, broad-shouldered, and possessing golden-red hair. His daughter, with Anne Boleyn, (also sometimes described as having auburn hair), who became Queen Elizabeth I in 1558, similarly sported a fiery mane. However, Queen Elizabeth I took the fashion for red hair to a whole new level. Others include, Vincent Van Gogh, Winston Churchill, Eric the Red, Richard the Lionheart, and Malcom X – due to his Scottish ancestry!