Redheads: The Genetics of Hair Color

My husband and son carry MC1R polymorphisms, and display the red hair phenotype.
My husband and son carry MC1R polymorphisms, and display the red hair phenotype. | Source

Genetics of Red Hair

What do Napoleon Bonaparte, Oliver Cromwell, and Thomas Jefferson have in common? Besides the obvious similarity as heads-of-state, all three had red hair.

Hair color ranges from platinum blond to ebony, due to levels of pigments produced by specialized cells called melanocytes. Those with dark hair have cells that produce a pigment called eumelanin, and those with blond or red hair have cells that produce pheomelanin. The relative ratio of eumelanin to pheomelanin determines a person’s hair color. A complete absence of both pigments leads to white hair color.

The gene responsible for determining hair color is called the Melanocortin 1 Receptor, or MC1R. If the MC1R gene is active, it produces eumelanin and a person will have darker skin and hair. If the MC1R gene does not function (i.e. it is blocked or inactivated), the melanocytes will produce pheomelanin instead of eumelanin. A person with a malfunctioning MC1R gene will have blond or red hair, due to the lack of eumelanin, along with freckles. MC1R gene mutations are seen in all ethnicities.

MC1R Gene Location

The MC1R gene is located on the long arm of chromosome 16. Its official location is 16q24.3, and is 3,098 base pairs in length. Depending on the specific mutation (known as a polymorphism in the language of genetics), hair color will range from strawberry blond to auburn. The MC1R gene encodes a protein made up of 317 amino acids. Over 35 sites on the gene have been identified with polymorphisms, and only a small number of these mutations cause red hair shades.

Red Hair Mutations and Hair Color

red hair, increased melanoma risk
red hair, pale skin, increased melanoma risk
red hair, pale skin, increased melanoma risk
red hair, pale skin, increased melanoma risk
red hair, increased melanoma risk
Weak red hair gene, increased melanoma risk
Weak red hair gene, increased melanoma risk
Weak red hair gene, increased melanoma risk

People with only one allele will have strawberry blond hair rather than bright red hair. Some alleles, such as the V60L gene, result in reduced function of the MC1R gene. As the gene is not completely inactivated, hair color may be auburn or reddish in tint rather than bright red.

How likely am I to Have a Child with Red Hair?

Red hair is recessive, which means a person may have brown hair, and carry the “red gene” without expressing the hair color. A person must have two copies of the recessive gene to express the trait. The chances of having a child with red hair depend on the genes of the parents. For simplicity’s sake, the various polymorphisms in the MC1R gene will be called the “red hair gene.” The red hair gene will be labeled as a lowercase r in the charts below and brown hair will be labeled with an upper case R.

Case 1: Parents with Brown Hair

In the first scenario, two parents have brown hair and do not carry any polymorphisms on the MC1R gene. In other words, neither of the parents is a carrier for the red hair gene. None of their children will have red hair, unless a new mutation arises spontaneously. These parents have almost no chance of having a child with red hair, unless a de novo mutation were to arise.

Case 2: Brown-Haired Carriers

In the second scenario, both parents have brown hair, but carry a red-hair causing gene. These parents are both called “carriers” of the gene. In this case, the parents will have a 25% chance of having a child with brown hair who does not carry the red gene. They have a 50% chance of having a child with brown hair who carries the red gene. There is a 25% chance that the parents will have a child with red hair.

Case 3: Parents with Brown and Red Hair

A third possibility involves a parent with red hair and a parent with brown hair. The parent with brown hair in this case is not a carrier of the red gene. Each of the children will have one allele for the red hair gene, and will be carriers of the gene. None of the children, however, will display the physical trait of having red hair.

Case 4: Parents with Brown Hair (Carrier) and Red Hair

In a fourth scenario, one parent has red hair and the other has brown hair, but is a carrier of the red gene. There is a 50% chance that the children will have red hair, and a 50% chance that the children will be brown-haired carriers of the red gene.

This is the scenario in my own family: I have brown hair and probably do not carry red-causing MC1R polymorphisms. My husband, however, has the classic red hair phenotype. One of my sons is blond, and the other has strawberry blond hair.

Case 5: Parents with Red Hair

The last case includes two parents with red hair: in this situation, all of the children would have the same phenotype as the parents. The children will all have red hair, since neither parent has the dominant "brown hair" MC1R genotype. In some cases, different polymorphisms (alleles) may be inherited from each parent. This scenario is common in locations where red hair is a common occurrence: primarily in Scotland and Ireland.

Famous Redheads

  • Emily Dickinson, the American poet
  • Antonio Vivaldi, the Italian composer
  • Mark Twain, the American author
  • Malcolm X, civil rights activist
  • Cleopatra, Egyptian ruler
  • Vladimir Lenin, Russian revolutionary

Melanoma Risk in Europe

A map showing the density of light-eyed people in Western Europe. Melanoma risk increases for those who produce less eumelanin.
A map showing the density of light-eyed people in Western Europe. Melanoma risk increases for those who produce less eumelanin. | Source

Genetic Mutation MC1R: Beyond Hair Color

The MC1R gene is expressed in many cells, and is responsible for more than hair color. MC1R plays a role in inflammatory response, pain sensitivity, and the immune system. The far reaching effects of the MC1R gene are listed below:

Cancer risk

Redheads have an increased risk for melanoma, as the melanocytes in people with red hair do not produce the protective eumelanin pigment. Unfortunately, the risk of cancer is increased even when there is no exposure to sunlight, so those with red hair should have regular check-ups with a dermatologist to monitor any skin changes. It is important to note that people who have dark skin and MC1R mutations are also at risk for skin cancer.

Increased pain sensation

People who have red hair are more sensitive to pain caused by burns and freezing than people with brown hair. Studies performed by Edwin B. Liem at the National Institutes of Health demonstrated an increased sensation of pain caused by thermal changes, and an increased need for anesthetic. Redheads required 19% more anesthetic than their brown haired counterparts. Interestingly, those with red hair demonstrate a reduced sensitivity to stinging pain (the type of pain encountered when receiving an injection). The MC1R gene affects the binding of endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers.

Red Hair Stereotypes and Beliefs

The most common modern stereotype about redheads is that red hair comes with a fiery, feisty personality. Earlier in history, redheads faced more dangerous beliefs about their red hair. In ancient Egypt, redheads were burned alive as a sacrifice to the god Osiris. Their ashes were blown over agricultural fields by winnowing fans and used as fertilizer for the season’s crops. Early Egyptians regarded red hair as an unlucky trait.

In the middle ages, those with red hair could be labeled as witches or vampires. The Malleus Maleficarum (a report on witches in the Middle Ages) states, “Those whose hair is red, of a certain peculiar shade, are unmistakably vampires.”

Redhead Nicknames

There are various nicknames used around the world for those who have red hair. Sometimes the nicknames are affectionate, but many of the nicknames are used as insults.

Ranga: An Australian nickname for people with red hair. The word is a shortened version of the word orangutan.

Ginger: A name used for redheads, most commonly used in the U.K. The cartoon series South Park satirized the persecution of redheads with a genocidal campaign against "ginger people."

Carrot Top: A nickname often used in the United States, comparing red hair to the color of carrots.

Koakage: The Japanese word for redheads - the word "akage" indicates the red hair and the prefix "ko" for something small or cute.

Other Causes of Red Hair

Some people do not come by their red hair via the MC1R gene. One type of albinism (type 3, or rufous albinism) demonstrates a phenotype of red hair and ruddy skin. This form of albinism is most common in New Guinea and Africa.

Severe malnutrition can lead to a condition known as kwashiorkor – the deprivation of protein and calories from an individual’s diet will lead to failure to thrive, edema, excessive hair growth, and depigmentation, along with the development of red hair. The Biblical story of Esau is fascinating in this regard, because the Bible describes Esau as covered in red hair. As the story goes, Esau sold his birthright as the first-born son to his younger twin, in exchange for a bowl of soup. While the story is intended to demonstrate the hazards of placing material desires over a spiritual blessing, one has to wonder if Esau was simply suffering from the effects of kwashiorkor.

Proopiomelanocortin deficiency (POMC) is a genetic disease resulting in obesity, adrenal insufficiency, and red hair. Children with this genetic disorder exhibit early onset severe obesity and striking red hair, due to the effects the POMC gene has on ACTH production and the influence this gene has on the phaeomelanin:eumelanin ratio in cells.

Natural Hair Color Poll

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The Myth of Redhead Extinction

News reports reported on the imminent extinction of redheads in August 2007. Like many other myths circulating on the internet, the reports were incorrect. Based on the incorrect assumption that recessive genes will "die out" over time, the news reports stated that the gene for red hair would be gone by the year 2060. The reports supposedly came from the Oxford Hair Foundation, but no such scientific entity exists. The Oxford Hair Foundation manufactures beauty products and is not an academic facility. The claim that redheads are going extinct is completely false: recessive genes may become rare, but will not disappear from the human genome. Red hair will exist well beyond the year 2060!

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Comments 32 comments

kschimmel profile image

kschimmel 4 years ago from North Carolina, USA

I'm so glad red hair is not going extinct. Hubby and I have red-haired great-aunts and I have a redheaded sister and neice. Only one of our 6 kids is a redhead, but I'm hoping they all carry the gene on to future generations.

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

The MC1R gene is here to stay - the same rumors circulated about blond hair going extinct. My younger son's hair is getting darker and the red isn't as obvious in the winter. In the summer, though, he has the most wonderful red hair.

Vanderleelie profile image

Vanderleelie 4 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

This is interesting information. The fact that redheads are more sensitive to pain is perhaps one reason why they were considered "different" in other time periods. Voted up!

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

Vanderleelie, there were many myths about redheads that fueled hatred and misunderstanding. Some in the Middle Ages believed that children with red hair were conceived while the mother was going through a menstrual cycle. In earlier times, it was believed to be a sign of witchcraft or an unlucky "mark." I am certainly glad my family lives in modern times!

DFiduccia profile image

DFiduccia 4 years ago from Las Vegas


I haven’t seen a Punnett square since I retired from teaching. It brings back memories of Mendel and dominant/ submissive traits. You really got into this hub—great presentation.

Voted up—DF

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

I did simplify the idea, of course - there are many polymorphisms of the MC1R gene that cause red hair, so one parent could easily carry one variant while another parent carries a different allele. And then there is complete vs. partial penetrance, etc. Still, it gives a general idea of how two brown haired parents might end up with a little redhead! Thanks for your comment, DFiduccia

Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

You did a great job and a lot of research on this Hub. My dad was a redhead and so was I as a child. Alas, my hair turned dark as I aged. By the time I was fifteen, it was dark brown. My mom had coal black hair so it was natural to be confused. lol

I really was fascinated by your research and commend you.

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

Hyphenbird, it is interesting how hair color changes with age. Sometimes the pigment producing cells produce more eumelanin as a person ages, but the gene for red hair is, of course, still there. The red color is just harder to see because it is masked by the darker hair. There are many variants of the MC1R gene that cause varying shades of red, and some are "weak" red genes that don't give the classic "carrot top" color. My husband's hair has darkened considerably, but he still has the freckles and his beard hair is very red!

teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

My mother had red hair but none her children received this blessing. I had tints of red in my hair,but this was the closest anyone came to red hair. I have to say my mother had the most beautiful color of red, it was a darker shade and thick. Thanks for posting, I like your matrix on the dominant colors. Voted up.

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

My mom had auburn hair, but my sister and I didn't pick up the red shade. I was tickled when Nolan's hair turned a beautiful strawberry blond (from my husband's side). The hair in our family tends to get darker with age, though, so it hides the red! Thanks for the comment, teaches!

KellyPittman profile image

KellyPittman 4 years ago from Walker, LA

My son is a red head - Or he likes to say it's orange. (He's 7 now) My husband and I both have dark brown hair and our daughter has light brown hair as I did as a child. Both sets of my husband and I's grandmothers were red heads so we assume we carried on something, though when someone asked our son, "Where do you get that red hair from?" He replies, "It grows outta my head." I do worry about the cancer risk as my grandmother died from a rare case of melanoma. Nice work on this hub. Very informative. Voted Up and Interesting.

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

I worry about the skin cancer risk, too, Kelly. We recently went to the beach and we used a lot of sunscreen on our boys to keep them from getting sunburned. I suppose forewarning is foreknowledge, and all we can do is use sunscreen and monitor for any skin changes!

tamarawilhite profile image

tamarawilhite 4 years ago from Fort Worth, Texas

What do you think of the theory that due to the age of the red haired gene, that it came from Neandertals?

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

Current science disputes the theory - DNA has been sequenced from Neanderthal remains and the genetic sequencing shows an entirely different mutation in the MC1R gene than his found in humans - so the likelihood of a "genetic flow" from Neanderthals to homo sapiens is very low.

DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa

Interesting! I'm a red head but never knew the genetics behind it. I'm told my red-headed, Irish great grandmother was bummed that none of her children or grandchildren were red heads, but after she passed, several of us came along in my generation and the next generation.

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

It is fascinating, isn't it, Deborah? Since it is recessive, it really does take two carriers to have a child with red hair. My son has strawberry blond hair that has now darkened (but returns to its reddish hue during the summer months). He has the freckles to match, so we go through a lot of sunscreen!

PaisleeGal profile image

PaisleeGal 4 years ago from Memphis, Tennessee, USA

Well this is a fascinating read. Redheads have always played a part in my life. While my hair is mousy brown I've always loved redhair. My first love when I was 8 was redheaded. Then when I was 14 my first huge crush was a redhead. I finally married a redhead (not the same guy). My matron of honor at my wedding was redheaded. I was hoping one of my sons would be redheaded like their dad but they ended up like me with brown hair. Two yrs ago I thot my grandson was going to have redhair (his mom was a strawberry blond as a child) but alas so far his hair is not red but is a honey color and when in the sun you can see streaks of reddish. So redheads have always been a big part of my life

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

Redheads are a big part of my life, too - my husband is a redhead and my younger son was strawberry blond. His hair gets darker in the winter, but gets redder in the summer with exposure to the sun. As a toddler and preschooler, he had very reddish hair. My older son was blond as a baby and has brown hair now. You definitely have a life filled with redheads, PaisleeGal!

tiffany delite profile image

tiffany delite 3 years ago from united states

thank you for this very interesting hub. my bestie has red hair and freckles and is so sensitive to the sun just like you said in this article! my hair was lighter when i was younger, and it has gotten darker as i have gotten older...that must mean my genes are slow starters...yes? lol. blessings!

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 3 years ago from Western New York Author

My five year old had very strawberry blond hair as a toddler, Tiffany, and now he is developing darker hair. I suspect he has a "weak" red hair gene or he is only a carrier of the gene. Still, his skin is extremely fair and we go through bucket loads of sunscreen each summer! My husband is a classic red head, and is very susceptible to skin damage from the sun.

pinkhawk profile image

pinkhawk 3 years ago from Pearl of the Orient

such an interesting topic! ^_^...thanks for sharing!...there's a reason for everything, wondering about its other function...

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 3 years ago from Western New York Author

I love genetics, pinkhawk - many genes have an effect beyond the obvious phenotype of having red hair. The increased skin cancer risk is simply the direct effect of the type of melanin the "red" genes express. Eumelanin protects against the sun's radiation; pheomelanin does not protect the skin.

Crystal Tatum profile image

Crystal Tatum 3 years ago from Georgia

The genetics bit was very well written but over my head. I do know that I have a cousin with a brown haired father and black haired mother who came out with orange hair. Apparently there was red hair on both sides of the family back a coulpe of genrations. She's never liked it much ....people were always coming up to her in stores and rubbing her hair! It's hard to believe how barbaric ancient civilizations could be. You did a great job with this hub. Voting up and interesting.

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 3 years ago from Western New York Author

The genetics is interesting to me, Crystal Tatum - it is very possible to carry the red gene and have dark hair - when a child gets two copies of the genetic mutation, they will have red or orange hair. The actual genetics are a bit more complicated than that, of course - there are many different mutations and some are have more penetrance (i.e. "stronger") than others. I have brown hair (blond as a child) and my husband has red hair - we have one son who has blond/brown hair and one son who has reddish hair.. though the red has become less obvious as he has gotten older and his hair has darkened!

Crystal Tatum profile image

Crystal Tatum 3 years ago from Georgia

Perhaps the best answer, as her parents finally taught my cousin to respond when asked where she got that red hair, is "God gave it to me"!

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 3 years ago from Western New York Author

That is a good response! I love red hair and I'm glad one of my kids has it (though it is much less obvious now)!

Jill 2 years ago

People are jealous of me I don't know why I'm almost 60

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 2 years ago from Western New York Author

Perhaps people are jealous of your red hair, Jill?

mbwalz profile image

mbwalz 17 months ago from Maine

Thanks for the in depth info about us redheads! I just wrote a hub about our pain and the things that are being discovered through the mutation of the MC1R gene. It could lead, if there's enough interest and funding, in new classes of analgesics. In the mean time, we just get to ask for more lidacaine instead! Voted up and shared!

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 17 months ago from East Coast, United States

As the mother of two red headed children, I used to think they were just whiners when they complained of pain. Now I know that they actually are more sensitive! I feel like a hardhearted mama! There seems to be a problem with electricity as well. I never knew two people who complained of electrical shocks like the two of them. Of course, they were such gorgeous kids. There is nothing more adorable than a red-headed child!

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 16 months ago from Western New York Author

The resistance to anesthetics is a very interesting side effect to the MC1R gene, mbwalz! My boys also have Ehlers Danlos syndrome, which causes resistance to local anesthetics. They have a double whammy, and our trips to the dentist are usually rather difficult (as you can imagine)!

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 16 months ago from Western New York Author

Isn't it interesting, Dolores? One of my children is blond and the other has red hair, and my red-head is very resistant to local anesthetics.

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