Red Hair: All About the Melanin, Sunshine, and Fun Facts!

All physical coloring is a mixture of two pigments; black melanin and red/yellow melanin. In red-heads a particular receptor in the pathway for pigmentation, MC1R, is disrupted and black melanin is suppressed while red/yellow melanin is allowed to be made. The result is red hair, light skin color, often freckles and a greater sensitivity to sunlight. Red hair is passed on in DNA through 3 common variants.

Cysteine-red (or R151C)

Tryptophan-red (or R160W)

Histidine-red (or D294H)

The layers of the epidermis (left). Melanocyte...

The layers of the epidermis (left). Melanocytes (rlght), located in the bottom epidermal layer, produce melanin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are other, much rarer variants. For a child to have red hair, both parents must be carriers and there is a 25% chance that their offspring will have it. This is called recessive inheritance. Everyone who carries one of the variants is a direct descendant of the first person ever to have it. Those with Cysteine-red have a 70,000 year old variant that probably arose in West Asia, those with Tryptophan-red are the descendants of someone who likely lived in West Asia 70,000 years ago, and finally Histidine-reds belong to a much younger group who descend from a European who lived about 30,000 years ago.


We all need Vitamin D from sunshine and that it why most Africans are dark-skinned and most Europeans are lighter skinned. It is a question of balance; too much sun in Africa, too little in much of Europe. Red hair and its carriers should therefore occur more frequently further north in Europe? Not exactly. That would mean the most red-heads in Scandinavia, but that is not the case. Most are in The United Kingdom and The Republic of Ireland and the simplest explanation might be the best. Where there are most red-heads, according to present statistics, in Scotland and the north of England there is much more cloud each year than sunshine. In Sweden for example, the average daily number of sunshine hours is 5.4 while in Scotland it is 3.1.

Redheaded girl. on a ferry to great blasket is...

Fun Facts (True or Not) About Red Heads:

  • Scotland has the highest proportion of redheads in the world. Around 13 per cent of the population has red hair, with 40 per cent carrying the recessive gene.
  • Ireland is second with 10 percent, with 46 percent carrying the recessive gene.
  • The United States has about the international average of 2 percent.
  • Current statistics are incomplete and provisional but they indicate that between 2% and 6% of Northwestern Europeans have red hair compared with an average of only 1% to 2% in the world’s population as a whole.
  • During the Spanish Inquisition, flame colored hair was taken as proof that the witch had stolen the fire of hell, so many women were burned at the stake for the simple crime of being redheaded.
  • An old tradition in Corsica, if you pass a redhead on the street you are to spit and turn around.
  • In Greek mythology, redheads turn into vampires when they die.
  • Aristotle, famous Greek philosopher and pompous pain in the rump, believed that redheads were “emotionally unhousebroken”.
  • Adolph Hitler reportedly banned the marriage of two redheads.
  • Numerous cultures have traditionally seen red hair as evidence of high ranking ancestors, and a mark desired in their rulers. In Denmark it is an honor to have a redheaded child.
  • Redheads are harder to sedate than others, requiring 20 percent more anesthesia. They are also more prone to industrial deafness.
  • It is said that in the late 16th century, the fat of a redheaded man was an essential ingredient in making the perfect poison.
  • Bees are thought to sting redheads more than others.
  • In Germany it is a common belief that redheaded women are three times as lustful as other women.
  • The most common color of hair dye for women is red, or some tint of it. This is no doubt because of the rumor that so many men are attracted to redheads. Whether the dye girls will admit it or not, it is the truth. Attracting attention is most commonly associated with appealing to the opposite sex.
  • Neanderthals. Archaeologists have discovered about 400 Neanderthal skeletons across Europe and the Near East. DNA testing shows that some had red hair and fair skin. But the variant was different from that seen in modern humans, and although we cross-bred with Neanderthals, early speculation that they were the source of the red hair in modern Europeans is now thought to be just that.

The Accolade, by Edmund Blair Leighton. Oil on...

The Accolade, by Edmund Blair Leighton. Oil on canvas, 1901

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