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The Gene That Makes Skin Cancer Even More Deadly

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Most redheads know they're at an increased risk of skin cancer, but researchers weren't exactly sure why. Now, a new study published in the journal Nature Communications has an answer: The MC1R gene, which is common but not exclusive to redheads, increases the number of mutations within skin cancer tumors. It's the same gene that's responsible for giving redheads their hair color and the traits that go along with it, like pale skin, susceptibility to sunburn, and freckles. The gene is so problematic that researchers say simply having it is equal to spending 21 years (!!) in the sun. (Related: How One Trip to the Dermatologist Saved My Skin)

The researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the University of Leeds looked at the DNA sequences from more than 400 melanoma patients. Those who carried the MC1R gene had 42 percent more mutations that could be linked back to the sun. Here's why that's a problem: Mutations cause damage to the skin's DNA, and having more mutations increases the likelihood that cancerous cells will take over. Put more simply, having this gene means skin cancer will be more likely to spread and become deadly.

Brunettes and blondes should be concerned, too, since the MC1R gene isn't exclusive to redheads. Usually, redheads carry two variants of the MC1R gene, but even having a single copy, like you would if you have a red-headed parent, could put you at equal risk. The researchers also noted more generally that people with light features, freckles, or those who tend to burn in the sun should be aware that they're at a higher risk of developing skin cancer. The research is good news in that it could give people with the MC1R gene a head's up that they need to be extremely careful when out in the sun. If you want to see if you have it, you can opt for genetic testing, though the American Cancer Society recommends regularly visiting your derm, paying close attention to changes on your skin, and being diligent about sun protection. Red hair or not, you should commit to the shade between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. when the sun is the strongest, and make SPF 30 or higher as essential to your morning routine as checking Instagram.

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