If your dentist, ophthalmologist or dermatologist asks “Is that your natural hair color?” they’re not being nosy. They probably have your health in mind.
A decade’s worth of clinical studies show that there’s a strong link between a woman’s natural hair color and her chances of developing diseases and disorders have been filling the pages of medical journals. The genes that give your hair a charcoal, chestnut, honey or amber hue also affect health conditions like Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and endometriosis, says Cleveland Clinic geneticist Rocio Moran, M.D.
That’s because “the melanocytes, or DNA, that produce hair pigment are controlled by genes that have roles in other processes in the body,” she says.
More sensitive to pain
Before plopping down in the dentist’s chair, you might want to pop an ibuprofen (Advil). And make sure you remind the hygienist and dentist that you’re a natural redhead.
Ginger-haired people tend to be particularly resistant to local anesthetics used in dentistry, according to a 2009 Cleveland Clinic study. Besides making for a painful cleaning – not to mention root canal – that hypersensitivity to pain may lead to anxiety about dental procedures.
Redheads may require up to 20% more local anesthesia (Novocain or other, similar pain-numbing drugs) than other colors, says the study’s lead researcher, Cleveland Clinic anesthesiologist Daniel Sessler, M.D.
That’s because redheads’ melanocortin-1 receptors (the DNA responsible for hair color) are malfunctioning. In fact, red hair itself is the result of a gene mutation.
The best way to avoid unnecessary pain: Talk to your dentist before having any work done, says Sessler.
“Establish a method [before the procedure], for example, raising a finger, to communicate discomfort, so additional pain-block medicine can be administered.”
Higher risk for Parkinson’s
Redheads have nearly a 50% greater chance of developing Parkinson’s than people with other hair colors, according to a 2009 Harvard Medical School study. People with black hair have the lowest chance, followed by brunettes, then blondes, researchers found.
The gene responsible for fiery hair hues is headquartered close to a gene that, if mutated, can increase the risk for Parkinson’s disease. And proximity can be all it takes to make one gene affect another.
“The lighter the hair, the stronger the likelihood of developing the ‘bad’ variant of the Parkinson’s gene,” says Svetlana Kogan, M.D., an internist at Lenox Hill Hospital – and a natural redhead.
“We found that [people] with a family history of melanoma had an increased risk of Parkinson’s,” says one of the Harvard researchers, Xiang Gao, M.D., Ph.D., instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Prone to eye issues
Buy UV-blocking shades, if you haven’t already. Age-related macular degeneration, an eye disease that may cause blindness, strikes women more often than men, and blondes more than other hair colors.
“The fairer your hair, the greater your risk,” Kogan says. And if you have blue eyes too, you’ve increased the odds. “Although the exact link isn’t fully understood, the lack of pigment to protect blondes’ eyes from the sun’s retina-damaging rays may be a cause,” she says.
Greater chance of skin cancer
It’s no secret that fair skin increases your chances of melanoma, but light hair is a risk factor too. Researchers at Harvard say that no matter your skin tone, blondes should never leave home without slathering on a full-spectrum UVA and UVB sunscreen with at least 30 SPF.
“Blondes produce less melanin, the cells that give your hair and skin its pigment. [It] can leave them especially sensitive to sunburns, sun damage and developing skin cancer,” says dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, M.D., president emeritus, American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology and Aesthetic Surgery.
And just because the sun isn’t shining, that doesn’t mean you’re safe from its rays. “You can get a nasty sunburn when it’s partly cloudy too,” Schlessinger says.
Most likely to shine
Blonde hair has different characteristics than brunettes and reds, which allow it to reflect light better while still appearing to have a soft, warm tone, according to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Science.
More likely to smoke
Dark-complected people are more susceptible to nicotine dependence, according to a 2009 Pennsylvania State University study.
The melanin that gives your hair its chocolately color also slows your liver’s ability to metabolize nicotine, making it stay in your system longer. That makes you more likely to become dependent on cigarettes, Lewin says.
Lower risk of skin cancer
Many studies have linked brunettes with decreased odds of developing a host of health conditions, from melanoma to endometriosis. And a 2008 Australian study found brunettes have less of a chance of developing multiple sclerosis.
“In most cases, brunettes tend to have darker complexions than blondes and redheads, which seems to provide some protection from multiple sclerosis,” Schlessinger says.
More likely to get lymphoma
Unless it’s jet-black, the darker your hair, the greater your chances of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), according to the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics.
“Women with dark hair often have a certain DNA coding that not only affects pigment, it increases the risk for this disease,” says lead researcher Marit Bragelien Veierød, Ph.D., of the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences in Oslo, Norway.
Family history and age are the major factors that influence when hair color changes. But if it goes gray before your peers or seems to change more quickly, that could be the sign of other health issues.
“Stress, smoking – which has been linked to cell damage – vitamin B12 deficiency and thyroid disorders can cause the body to stop making pigment, leading to premature or sudden graying,” Moran adds.