Redheads have known for years that they have a greater risk for skin cancer caused by sun damage. Health experts continually warn those with red hair to pay careful attention and cover up whenever they expect to be in the sun. But a new study has found that redheads may be at risk from skin cancer, even without exposure to the sun.

The study, published recently in the journal Nature, found that the reddish-yellow pigment that causes red hair and hinders a fair-skinned person's ability to tan is itself a potential cause of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. This could explain why redheads are more susceptible to melanoma than anyone else, even blonds.

"Even if you're good about avoiding UV rays — you know, putting on sunscreen, wearing protective clothes and being careful at the beach — it's still possible this red pigment is related to carcinogenic activity anyway," said Dr. David E. Fisher, director of the melanoma program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Charlestown and senior author of the study.

The idea that pheomelanin, the pigment that causes fair skin and reddish hair color, might play a role in melanoma was proposed a few years ago, but it is only recently that chemists have been able to isolate pheomelanin from eumelanin — the pigment that is responsible for brownish/black coloring — to examine them individually for such an experiment.

That's not to say that redheads should throw caution to the wind when it comes to sun exposure. Some might think, if they are doomed to a greater risk of melanoma regardless, then why not hit the tanning bed? Health experts warn that skin damage caused by the sun will increase the risk even further for those with red hair and that they should be even more vigilant to avoid exposure.

But there is some good news for redheads out of this study: researchers hope that as they do more studies on pheomelanin, they'll be able to identify specific antioxidants that could stop skin damage before it begins. These antioxidants might even be be added directly to sunscreens in the future.

In the meantime, redheads — and everyone else — should continue to use sunscreen, protective clothing, and hats to minimize their exposure to the sun.

Related story on MNN: Laura Linney fronts new skin cancer PSA

Redheads face greater skin cancer risk, even without sun
New study suggests redheads are at higher risk of melanoma even if they avoid the sun.