People can carry a “silent” red hair gene that raises their risk of sun-related skin cancer, experts warn.
The Sanger Institute team estimates one in every four UK people is a carrier.
The gene’s effect is comparable to two decades of sun exposure in terms of cancerous changes, they say.
While people with two copies of the gene will have ginger hair, freckles and pale skin and probably know to take extra care in the sun, those with one copy may not realize they are at risk.
Around 25% of UK adults have one version of the gene called MC1R which increases their risk of malignant melanoma.
These carriers may not always look like “easy burners”, say the researchers but they are.
Although not true redheads, they will have pale skin and some freckles and are prone to sun damage. Their natural hair colour can range from brown through to blond, sometimes with a hint of red.
The researchers looked at more than 400 tumour samples from patients who had been diagnosed with melanoma.
They found that the patients who had at least one copy of a genetic variant of MC1R had 42% more sun-associated mutations in their cancers than individuals without these variations – equivalent to the toll of an additional 21 years in the sun.
The findings, in Nature Communications, suggest that people with the red hair gene are naturally less able to protect themselves from the sun’s damaging UV rays.
MC1R provides instructions for cells that produce a pigment called melanin, which is what makes skin go brown to protect it from UV damage.
The red hair gene version of MC1R does not offer much tanning or sun protection.