It’s estimated that roughly 75% of American women have dyed their hair at one time or another, and it’s not hard to understand the appeal. Our hair is a vital part of our identity, and it’s thrilling to be able to try on different colors and feel like a slightly different person with each dye job. Most hair salons work with variations of the natural human hair colors: black, brown, red, blonde, and gray/white. Some people prefer to dye their hair in a rainbow of unnatural neon hues, reflecting their colorful personalities. But one of the most popular colors requested at salons is red; blondes may have more fun, but it’s clear that lots of people dream of having fiery locks! It’s no wonder: red hair has been a rare, fascinating part of human diversity for thousands of years.
The Rare, Regal Redhead
Natural red hair is quite uncommon; it’s actually the rarest natural hair color in humans, occurring in approximately 1-2% of the population worldwide. By contrast, it’s estimated that 50% or more of the world’s humans have black hair! Natural red hair can vary in hue, from bright carrot orange or copper to dark burgundy and reddish-brown. Redheads appear due to a recessive gene expression on the 16th chromosome; they’re literally genetic mutations of the MC1R protein.
Historically, redheads are mentioned in Greek and Roman writing, and mummies with red hair have been found in the Tarim Basin in northwestern China dating back to 2000 BCE. Some Polynesian tribes have red hair as well; however, most redheads can trace their roots back to northern and western Europe, especially Irish, Celtic, Germanic, and Scottish groups. Thirteen percent of Scottish people have red hair, and 40% of them carry the recessive gene; in Ireland, 10% of the population has red hair and up to 46% of them are gene carriers. Red hair appears frequently in the Berber people of Morocco; the Princess Consort, Lalla Salma, is known for her fiery locks and radiant beauty.
The Genetics of Redheads
Human coloring is determined by a natural pigment called melanin; it determines skin, hair, and eye color. Melanin is produced by cells called melanocytes. While humans have roughly equal concentrations of melanocytes in their skin, the cells will produce more or less pigment based on genetic expression. There are two major types of melanin found in skin and hair: Eumelanin, which can be either black or brown; and pheomelanin, which has a pink or red hue. Red hair is expressed through a variation in the MC1R protein, which results in a greater amount of pheomelanin than eumelanin.
The correlation of natural red hair and fair, non-tanning skin seems to be genetic; the low concentrations of dark eumelanin throughout the body results in lighter skin, and the alleles that code for red hair are located quite close to the alleles for skin color on the chromosome. Throughout history redheads have been both beloved and reviled, but wherever they go they have always turned heads!