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Why (most) Gingers Can't Get a Tan

Those post-holiday blues are the worst. After building yourself up for months for the holiday of a lifetime, it flashes by in the blink of an eye and before you know it, you are back at your desk planning work for the week ahead. But from your fabulous adventure, you have gained lifelong memories, amazing photos and a glorious tan… or not.

Being a redhead, I know the pain of coming back from a holiday with very little to show for it physically. I have just come back from a two-and-a-half-week vacation and after one full day back in work, I have been asked ‘Where is your tan?’ about 10 times. The thing is, I have tried and tested every bloggers technique on ‘how to get a perfect tan’ but all of those tips resulted in a very red, very sore Jules. And trust me, having your skin matching your hair colour is naht a good look. The deep-routed envy I feel watching those blessed sun-kissed individuals lounging on the beach all day from under my parasol smothered in factor 100; knowing my attempts would lead to a tragic burn-peel-pale cycle. Whilst coating myself if aloe-vera following another failed tanning session, I used to always think ‘How did this happen? I was doing everything the same as those other people. What makes my skin not deepen and bronze like everyone else?’

Well I am happy to say that science answered my questions.

The majority of people with red hair have a mutation in a specific gene which causes this rare trait. These mutations are found in a gene called melanocortin receptor 1 (MCR1) and in redheads, two mutant copies of this gene (1 from mum and 1 from dad) are usually present in their DNA. As a result, redheads produce a faulty MCR1 protein. So how does this lead to pale skin and freckles?

Melanin is a protein responsible for skin colour, hair colour and producing a suntan. Levels of this protein increase in the cells (keratinocytes) in the top layer of the skin (the epidermis) when you expose yourself to the sun’s ultra violet (UV)-containing rays. Too much UV exposure can be harmful as this radiation can produce mutations in your DNA sequence. Suntan lotion protects your skin by both reflecting and absorbing the sun’s rays to prevent the majority of UV reaching your DNA. Those rays that do pass through stimulate the production of melanin, a UV absorbing protein, in special cells called melanocytes. Therefore, sun cream and melanin both act to prevent damaging UV radiation from mutating your DNA in cells within deeper layers of the skin.

There are two types of melanin: eumelanin and pheomelanin. Eumelanin is the brown-black melanin associated with dark features and getting a deep tan, and its dark pigment enables it to effectively absorb UV. On the other hand, pheomelanin is red-yellow in colour and is responsible for pink skin tones. Pheomelanin's light colour means it is not as good as protecting your cells from UV radiation. When melanocyte cells are produced, they can either contain eumelanin, pheomelanin or a mixture of the two pigments. The respective levels of these pigments and the distribution of melanocytes is what gives a person their skin colour, with dark haired and skinned people having high levels of eumelanin and redheads having high levels of pheomelanin. When an individual has little to no melanin, they have very pale skin and white hair; a condition known as albinism.

The ‘ginger gene’, MC1R, plays a very important role in melanin production. The MC1R protein is a receptor which sits on the surface of melanocytes and its normal activity is one of the components which determines the amount of eumelanin and pheomelanin you possess. When UV rays enter the skin, they enhance the activation of the MC1R receptor. This receptor then signals for melanocytes to produce new eumelanin and convert any pheomelanin into eumelanin in order to produce as much protective melanin as possible. Gingers with genetic mutations in both copies of the MC1R gene generate a receptor which does not work correctly, therefore it cannot respond properly to incoming UV signals. This means the high levels of pheomelanin redheads naturally possess cannot be converted in eumelanin; leaving skin with a pink hue. When keratinocytes containing melanin cluster together they produce freckles, and this is more likely to occur in people with fair complexions and high levels of pheomelanin.

To sum all that science up, red heads have a faulty MC1R receptor which doesn’t switch on in response to the sun’s UV rays. This means the yellow-red pheomelanin in their melanocytes cannot be converted into the brown-black eumelanin which creates a sun tan. They also have pheomelanin in their hair cells, giving their locks a red colour compared to most people who have either little (blonde) or lots (brown/black) of eumelanin in their hair follicles. No matter what your hair or skin colour, you should always wear a good SPF when out in the sun to stop them pesky UV rays doing something they shouldn’t.

Once I learnt the science behind being a redhead, I stopped trying to get a tan. I know that my body does not have the right equipment to get a golden glow so now I just get mine from a bottle instead. I used to hate my skin and freckles when I was a teenager but now, I love being part of the 1% ginger club. Plus, our mutation means we are the best at absorbing vitamin D, so even when it is cloudy us redheads can take a bit of the sun rays and make use of them. Efficient little things, we are.

For all my future holidays, I will be following the 3 Fs: factor 50, fake tan and fabulous hats. And I am fine with that.




If you want to know more about genetics and mutations, check out the basic biology section of my website. There you will find out a few of the basic facts about DNA and what a mutation actually is. If you want more in depth science on melanin and MC1R, check out this review. Now, go out and enjoy that sunshine, but make sure you get the SPF on first!

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