Hair color isn’t the only thing that’s different about redheads — they actually experience life a bit differently than others.
Redheads, like the rest of us, get their pigmentation from melanin. Cells called melanocytes make two types of melanin — pheomelanins and eumelanin. Pheomelanins produce yellow and red hair, as well as the pink pigmented parts of your body like your lips. Eumelanin, which creates darker skin colors, is responsible for absorbing ultraviolet light from the sun and turning it into heat to protect the body’s DNA from the damage of UV rays.
However, redheads have a gene called MC1R, which causes melanocytes to produce more pheomelanin than eumelanin, giving red heads their fiery hair and light skin.
1. Redheads Experience Pain Differently
A Danish study found that people with red hair were less likely to suffer from skin pain and could tolerate spicy food better than others. However, they are more sensitive to the cold and toothaches.
“Our tests showed that redheads are less sensitive to a particular type of pain: skin pain,” said Professor Lars Arendt-Nielsen, lead researcher on the Aalborg University study. “They react less to pressure close to the injected area, or to a pinprick. They seem to be a bit better protected, and that is a really interesting finding.”
The scientists believe that the increased tolerance comes from certain genetic subgroups that affect the way people process pain.
2. They’re More Sensitive to Painkillers
The same MC1R mutation that colors their hair red also releases a hormone in the brain that mimics endorphins. You may recognize endorphins from that rush you get when you, for example, ride a rollercoaster, but they have several other functions. One of the primary functions of endorphins is to provide pain relief. This reaction impacts how the body receives pain signals from the brain, which then causes a heightened sensitivity to prescription opioid painkillers. In other words, redheads need less prescription painkillers to get the same level of pain relief as others.
3. They’re Their Own Source of Vitamin D
Redheads can actually produced their own vitamin D. Typically, people are able to get vitamin D from the sun, but redheads can’t absorb sufficient amounts of vitamin D due to low concentrations of eumelanin in their body. So, over the course of evolution, redheads began to produce their own vitamin D.
Due to their ability to produce vitamin D, redheads are less likely to develop rickets, a bone-weakening disease, or to contract the lung disease tuberculosis.
4. They Don’t Get Gray Hair
Redheads skip the graying process altogether — they go from fiery, red hair to light copper, then to blonde and finally white. They also retain their hair pigmentation longer than most people and typically have thicker hair.
5. Redheaded Men Are Less Likely to Develop Prostate Cancer
Redheaded men are 54 percent less likely to develop prostate cancer than men with brown, black or blonde hair, according to one study from Finland’s National Institute for Health and Medicine. The researchers studied over 20,000 men for over 30 years and found that the MC1R gene might help control the way cancerous cells divide and grow.
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.