Whether bright orange, auburn, or more of a strawberry blond, red hair is a real eye-catcher. Celtic countries, like Scotland and Ireland, are most commonly associated with red hair, but fiery locks can pop up in people of multiple ethnicities around the world. Still, natural redheads are relatively rare — only one or two out of every 100 people can claim this distinction.
What makes red hair red? In what other ways are redheads unique? Which famous people are secret gingers… and which famous redheads are secret brunettes? Read on for 12 fabulous facts about carrot tops.
The difference between red hair and hair of other hues extends beyond just its color. On average, redheads have fewer hair strands overall compared to blonds and brunettes. Blonds, for example, have an average of around 150,000 strands of hair on their heads, whereas redheads have only 90,000 or so. Luckily, red hair tends to be coarser and thicker, so the discrepancy is not easily noticeable. Redheads also remain distinct from others as they age because red hair doesn’t go gray — instead, it turns silver or white.
Our genes make up a lot of who we are, including our looks. When people have red hair, it’s typically the MC1R gene that’s responsible.
The color of your hair comes from two possible pigments. Eumelanin makes your hair light or dark; people with black hair have a lot of it, while blonds don’t. The second pigment is pheomelanin, which is a redder pigment. Usually people don’t have a lot of the latter, because the MC1R gene converts pheomelanin into eumelanin. Redheads have a mutation in their MC1R gene that allows the pheomelanin — and the bright red color that comes with it — to flow free.
In order for someone to inherit red hair, both their parents need a mutated MC1R gene — and even then there’s about a 1-4 chance of redheadedness. Non-redheads can be redheaded gene carriers and not know it, although there are some ways to guess.
Auld Reekie, otherwise known as Edinburgh, likely has the highest concentration of redheads in the world. A DNA analysis conducted in 2014 discovered that 40% of people in the southeast region of Scotland, which contains the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, had variants of the red-haired gene. (Notably, they didn’t necessarily have red hair themselves, since the gene is recessive.) That percentage is higher than in any other region of Scotland, or the world. Of course, the area known as Scotland today has long been associated with red hair (though it’s believed the mutation first took place in central Asia).
The Tudor dynasty, which ruled England from 1485 until the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, sported a whole family of redheads, chief among them Henry VIII and the “Virgin Queen” herself.
King Henry was described as strong, broad-shouldered, and possessing golden-red hair. His daughter with Anne Boleyn (also sometimes described as having auburn hair), who became Queen Elizabeth I in 1558, similarly sported a fiery mane. However, Queen Elizabeth I took the fashion for red hair to a whole new level. Although red hair was often associated with barbarians — and the Irish and Scots, with whom England constantly quarreled, were seen as descended from such barbarians — the queen made the hue so popular that English courtiers allegedly dyed their hair and beards red to show support for her (and also the Protestant cause).
Every year, thousands of ruddy-haired people descend on Tilburg, Netherlands, for the Redhead Days Festival. Spread across three days, the event offers workshops on make-up and skin care tips as well as photo shoots and meet-and-greets. These events can be particularly impactful for people with red hair, as research in 2014 found that 90% of redheaded males experienced bullying simply because of their hair color. The event began by accident in 2005 when a local amateur painter placed an ad in a Dutch newspaper for 15 redheaded models — and 10 times that number showed up. The event was so popular that the redhead meet-up became an annual tradition and then a full-fledged festival. At the 2013 meet-up, 1,672 redheads set the world record for the largest gathering of people with natural red hair.
Portraits of George Washington often feature an elder statesman with powdered white hair (as was custom in the 18th century). However, as a young man, Washington actually had reddish-brown hair, as captured by portraits painted of him when he was younger. One example can be seen in the painting The Courtship of Washington, depicting Washington with his wife, Martha, and her two children (Washington never had biological children of his own). Even though the painting was completed some 60 years after Washington’s death, biographer Ron Chernow confirms that this was likely Washington’s true hair color. Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate, even has a lock of his hair that displays the amber hue.
In 2007, an article by an unnamed geneticist posited that redheads are going extinct. Despite many experts’ assertions to the contrary, the myth has persisted — but thankfully, no such extinction is on the horizon. This myth comes from the idea that recessive genes can essentially die out. If people with this rare genetic mutation (about 1% to 2% of the population) don’t have children, the color red will slowly fade away, or so the idea goes.
However, that’s not quite how genetics works. While only a few people (around 70 million to 140 million) sport red hair, many more are carriers of the gene, and it’s not uncommon for the red hair gene to skip a generation. Despite being carried through recessive genes, red hair color is genetically stable, meaning that evolution would need to select red hair as disadvantageous for some reason in order for it to become extinct. So no need to worry — red hair is here to stay.
Carrying two MC1R gene mutations can cause redheadedness, but even people with only one mutation are three times as likely to develop ephelides, the medical term for what most of us think of as freckles, compared to those without any MC1R mutations. If you’re carrying two mutated MC1R genes, you’re 11 times more likely to get them. So if you have a light dusting of freckles across your nose (and they’re not just tattoos), your future child might be redheaded — even if your hair is blond or black. (Unfortunately, you also have a higher risk of developing skin cancer.)
The most familiar photos of Samuel Clemens, better known under his pen name Mark Twain, are not just in black and white, but also taken when he’s older. So it’s easy to miss that as a young man, Twain had vibrant red hair, which went gray in his 50s.
Before color photography, hair looked either light or dark — so many historical redheads are hiding in plain sight. Other redheads we’re not used to seeing in color include former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge and Dracula author Bram Stoker.
Lucille Ball was one of Hollywood’s most iconic redheads, but she was actually a natural brunette. She went blond early in her career, when she was only appearing in black and white movies — but when she was cast as the lead in her first technicolor role, 1943’s DuBarry Was a Lady, she made the switch.
Still, that red wasn’t really the same red that she became known for. Hairstylist Sydney Guilaroff developed her famous shade a few years later to go better with her apricot-colored costume in Ziegfeld Follies (1946), using a few different dyes and a henna rinse.
Our bodies generate vitamin D when the sun’s ultraviolet rays interact with our skin. This essential vitamin helps us absorb calcium and ward off a host of other health problems. Unfortunately, redheaded people tend to have fair, sensitive skin that doesn’t pair well with too much sunlight; it burns easily and is susceptible to skin cancer. Fortunately, redheads may produce more vitamin D with less sun than other people, according to a 2020 study from the Czech Republic, making up for at least some of that lost sunlight. No wonder the dark and rainy climes of Scotland and Ireland are full of them.
While results vary, multiple studies have found that people with redhead genes have a different response to pain than other people. In one 2005 study, they were able to withstand greater levels of electrical current and were more sensitive to opioid medications. A separate 2005 study found they were more sensitive to pain from heat or cold, and also tested sensitivity to the anesthetic lidocaine. That one found that when applied under the skin, lidocaine was less effective on redheads than other participants, which may mean redheads sometimes need more anesthesia.
The evidence is far from conclusive, however. A more recent study, this one from 2020, concluded that MC1R genes do affect pain, but not the same variants that affect hair color. All in all, it’s a fascinating look at what one gene can do.