November 5th is National Love Your Red Hair Day

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November 5th is National Love Your Red Hair Day! Speaking from personal experience, red hair attracts a lot of attention. Everybody knows the stereotype--red hair means pale skin, freckles, and a hot temper. But there are a few other things that come along with the MC1R genetic mutation that causes red hair and pale skin. (Dark skinned redheads exist and are just as beautiful, but they don’t have the same genetic mutation.) So to celebrate red hair, here are some fun facts and common misconceptions:

First, a few facts that are true:

  1. About 2% of the world’s population has red hair. The country with the highest proportion of redheads is Scotland, where approximately 13% of the population has naturally red hair. Ireland is up there too with about 10% of its inhabitants being natural redheads. In the United States, it’s estimated that anywhere from 2-6% of the population is red-haired.

  2. Redheads will never truly ‘go grey’. First of all, red hair retains its pigmentation longer. Peter Pan is often represented with red hair because red hair is associated with youth. It generally retains its color longer than blonde or dark hair does. And when it does lose its color, it doesn’t turn grey. It goes straight to white! As they age, some redheads start to look blonde or strawberry blonde. That’s because their newly white hairs make their hair look lighter. But redheads will never be grey, just white!

  3. Redheads need more anesthetic. In fact, studies show that red-haired women can require up to 19% more anesthetic than dark-haired women. This correlation is probably linked to pain tolerance. Some studies have shown that redheads have higher tolerance of certain types of pain, so it makes sense that they might also need different levels of anesthetic. This phenomenon is related to the genotype of the MC1R genetic mutation that causes red hair. Something about that particular genetic mutation affects not only hair color, but anesthetic requirements and pain tolerance as well. It sounds totally crazy, but I buy it--when I was kid, I took a nightly medication that was supposed to make me sleepy. It never did!

  4. Compared to blondes or brunettes, redheads have fewer strands of hair. On average, brunettes have 140,000 strands of hair, while blondes have 110,000, and redheads only have 90,000. But individual strands of red hair tend to be thicker than blonde or brunette hairs. Maybe it’s compensation for the lower number of strands. Also, red hair is much harder to dye than blonde or dark hair. This is probably because it holds its pigmentation better. To effectively dye red hair, you often have to bleach it first to strip it of the color, then dye it whatever color you want.

  5. Redheads can produce their own vitamin D. The MC1R genetic mutation that causes red hair also causes a lack of melanin. That lack of melanin makes it much more difficult for redheads to absorb vitamin D and protect their skin from dangerous UV rays. Since absorbing vitamin D is harder for those with the MC1R mutation, their bodies can generate vitamin D as needed (under the proper circumstances). Being able to produce vitamin D is especially helpful for redheads because it makes sun exposure less necessary. From an evolutionary standpoint, that’s super important for redheads because the MC1R gene mutation also makes those red-haired pale-skinned people more susceptible to harmful UV rays and have a greater risk of developing melanoma. Lather on the sunscreen and grab a hat!

 

Okay, now for a few things that aren’t true about redheads:

  1. We’re not going extinct! This is a popular rumor, that the rarity of the recessive red hair gene means redheads are an “endangered species” of some sort. That’s not true. Fewer people may be expressing the phenotype for red hair, but there are still lots of people who carry the Mc1R genotype, meaning that even if it’s not as prevalent, red hair is not in danger of disappearing from our population.

  2. We don’t all have terrible tempers. My first college roommate was random, and when her dad found out I was a redhead, he warned her to watch out for my temper! I think this stereotype is hilarious because I’m one of the most laid-back people I know. But the stereotype of a redhead with a temper as fiery as their hair is a persistent one, and probably won’t disappear anytime soon.

  3. Contrary to popular belief, we’re not vampires. That’s right, a book entitled Malleus Maleficarum, or the Hammer of Witches, published in 1487 declared “Those whose hair is red, of a certain peculiar shade, are unmistakably vampires.” Supposedly, some ancient Greek mythology states that redheads became vampires after they died. Even today, there’s the joke that gingers don’t have souls. Where does this bizarre claim come from? No one really knows, but here’s my personal theory: As discussed above, the MC1R genetic mutation makes redheads more sensitive to the sun. And sensitivity to the sun is a common theme in almost all vampire lore. Is it possible that hundreds or even thousands of years ago, someone put two and two together and made a connection between red hair and vampirism? Maybe that’s too far-fetched, but you have to wonder where this myth got started.

 

Red hair is certainly something to celebrate! I love my hair, even if it comes with some expectations and stereotypes. There are a lot of myths about red hair, but there are a lot of awesome, interesting facts too. Who knew hair could be such a big deal!