You've likely never heard of melanocortin receptors, but everyone has them and they're actually responsible for your hair, skin, and eye color. In fact, people with red hair have red hair because there's a specific mutation in the melanocortin receptor that's responsible for the different color pigment. And while people with light skin and red hair are at a higher risk for sunburn—something we've all known for a while now—a recent study showed that a mutation in the melanocortin receptor also means there's an increased risk of melanoma (the most deadly form of skin cancer).
The study in Nature Communications found that patients with the mutation were estimated to have the same risk of melanoma as non-redheads 21 years older than them—that's 21 years of additional sun exposure and associated risk. What's interesting, though, is that the red hair and light skin themselves aren't the reason for such a drastic jump in risk. Rather it's the mutation itself, which researchers say made the skin less capable of protecting itself from ultraviolet light damage.
Now, about two percent of the general population has red hair, but if you look at melanoma patients, 16 percent of them are redheads. While this gene helps explain why melanomas may be more prevalent in redheads, it doesn't necessarily explain the melanomas that develop in darker-skinned people. Because as we all know, melanoma affects patients of all skin and hair colors, and while your risk may be lower if you do not have red hair, you certainly are not out of the woods. (See: 10 Skin Cancer Mistakes Even Smart Women Make.)
There are several risk factors for melanoma independent of fair skin: A history of sunburns, excessive exposure to UV light, and living in areas with more sun exposure, like latitudes close to the equator. In addition, patients with a larger number of moles or a family history of melanoma are thought to have a higher risk. Finally, people with a weak immune system (e.g. from medications) are also more likely to develop melanoma. (See: How to Identifty Different Types of Skin Cancer With Pictures.)
While you cannot change your hair pigment or skin color, you can be proactive to minimize your risk of developing melanoma or another form of skin cancer. Practice sun-smart behavior, which means more than just wearing sunscreen. (Though this new sunscreen compound could change the skin cancer game.) Seek shade during peak sun hours of 10am and 2pm. Wear broad-brimmed hats, sunglasses, and sun-protective clothing. Pay attention to your diet. When it comes to sunscreen, opt for SPF 30 or higher and apply a one-ounce, shot glass-sized amount to the full body every two hours, or immediately after swimming or heavy sweating. Most importantly, get a skin cancer check from a board certified dermatologist. Because yes, the best cure for skin cancer is early detection. (But you can't just remove skin cancer and never worry again.)