Redheads Like Jesse Tyler Ferguson Have a Higher Melanoma Risk – Here’s Why

(Corbis)

Jesse Tyler Ferguson, one of the stars of Modern Family, posted a photo on Instagram Tuesday, thanking his doctor after revealing that he had a skin cancer lesion on his face.

“Thank you to Dr. Bennett & his entire team for taking the cancer out of my face,” Ferguson wrote. “Good luck hiding the stitches tomorrow @modernfamily_makeuphair! #youwannaapieceofme #phantommask #spf75.“

(Instagram)

Ferguson, 40, didn’t provide details about his diagnosis or recovery, but his red hair makes him 10 to 100 times more likely to develop melanoma than people with other hair colors, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, there will be nearly 74,000 new melanoma cases diagnosed in the U.S. in 2015, and nearly 10,000 people are expected to die of the disease this year. Unfortunately, the rates of melanoma have been rising in the U.S. for at least 30 years.

The risk of melanoma is much higher for people with light skin, the American Cancer Society reports: The disease is 20 times more common in Caucasians than in African Americans. Having blonde hair or skin that freckles or burns easily also raises a person’s risk.

Plastic surgeon Brian Gastman, MD, co-director of the Melanoma Program and director of melanoma surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, tells Yahoo Health that people with a combination of red hair and fair skin are at the highest risk of developing melanoma. Why? There’s a molecular explanation.

Molecules in the melanocytes, which give you your skin pigmentation and hair color, are different in redheads, Gastman explains. “That molecular difference makes their protective ability a little bit off,” he says. “As a result, they’re at a greater risk of developing melanoma.”

People with red hair produce more pheomelanin, a type of melanin that isn’t great at protecting their skin from the sun’s rays, Marie Leger, MD, an assistant professor of dermatology at NYU, tells Yahoo Health. Pheomelanin can even enhance the ability of the sun to cause DNA damage that can then lead to melanoma.

“To complicate things further, redheads may be more susceptible to melanoma, even through pathways that aren’t related to sun exposure — pheomelanin seems capable of producing oxidative damage even without the sun, which can lead to skin cancer,” she says.

But what about people who have red hair and darker skin? They likely have a combination of molecules in their melanocytes that may cause better UV protection, Gastman says.

Protection against melanoma for redheads really begins in childhood, Gastman says, citing childhood sunburns and significant sun exposure as a child as big risk factors. 

However, dermatologist David E. Bank, MD, director of the Center for Dermatology in Mount Kisco, N.Y., tells Yahoo Health that it’s especially important for redheads to limit their sun exposure, reapply sunscreen regularly when they’re out in the sun, and wear clothing that blocks UV rays.

“People with red hair should make sure to wear sunscreen of SPF 20 or higher every day, even if it is winter,” Bank says. “Women with red hair should always wear sunscreen under their makeup or choose a foundation with SPF to block any ultraviolet light.”

Gastman also stresses the importance of annual dermatological skin checks, adding that it’s “extremely important” that doctors do a full skin examination. “If you’re going in for a body exam, you need it from head to toe and everywhere the sun doesn’t shine,” he says.

Even if you don’t have red hair, Leger says, it’s crucial to be aware of your melanoma risk and to take the appropriate protective measures. “Skin cancer education is important for everyone,” she says.

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