Scut Farkus

Red hair

This article is about people with red hair, also sometimes called redheads. For other uses, see Redhead (disambiguation) and Red hair (disambiguation).

Red hair (also referred to as ginger or titian) varies from a deep orange-red through burnt orange to bright copper. It is characterized by high levels of the reddish pigment pheomelanin and relatively low levels of the dark pigment eumelanin. People with red hair are often referred to as redheads. Approximately 1% to 2% of the human population has red hair. It occurs more frequently (between 2% and 6% of the population) in northern and western Europeans, and their descendants, and at lower frequencies throughout other parts of Europe, Asia and Africa. Red hair appears in people with two copies of a recessive gene on chromosome 16 which causes a change in the MC1R protein. It is associated with fair skin color, freckles, and sensitivity to ultraviolet light, as the mutated MC1R protein is found in the skin and eyes instead of the darker melanin. Cultural reactions have varied from ridicule to admiration; many common stereotypes exist regarding redheads, and they are often portrayed as the “fiery-tempered redhead”.

Geographic distribution


Several accounts by Greek writers detail redheaded people. A fragment by the Greek poet Xenophanes describes the Thracians as blue-eyed and red haired. The Greek historian Herodotus described the "Budini", probably Udmurts and Permyak Finns located on the Volga in what is modern-day Russia, as being predominantly redheaded. The Greek historian Dio Cassius described Boudica, the famous Celtic Queen of the Iceni, to: "be tall and terrifying in appearance ... a great mass of red hair ... over her shoulders".

The Roman Tacitus commented on the "red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia (Scotland)", which he linked with some red haired Gaulish tribes of Germanic and Belgic relation.

Red hair has also been found in Asia, notably among the Tocharians who occupied the northwesternmost province of what is modern-day China. The 2nd millennium BC caucasian Tarim mummies in China were found with red and blonde hair and most likely were of European origin.


Today, red hair is most commonly found at the western fringes of Europe; it is associated particularly with the people of the British Isles (although Victorian era ethnographers claimed that the Udmurt people of the Volga were "the most red-headed men in the world.

Redheads constitute approximately four percent of the European population. Scotland has the highest proportion of redheads, as 13 percent of the population has red hair and approximately 40 percent carries the recessive redhead gene. Ireland has the second highest percentage; as many as 10 percent of the Irish population have red, auburn, or strawberry blond hair. It is thought that up to 46 percent of the Irish population carries the recessive redhead gene. Red hair reaches frequencies of up to 10 percent in Wales. In England, the county of Cornwall, the far north, near the Scottish border, and the counties of Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire also have significant proportions of redheads.

In the United States, anywhere from two to six percent of the population is estimated to have red hair. This would give the U.S. the largest population of redheads in the world, at 6 to 18 million, compared to approximately 650,000 in Scotland and 420,000 in Ireland.

Red or reddish-tinged hair is also found in other European populations particularly in the Nordic and Baltic countries as well as parts of the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Russia and Southeastern Europe.

The Berber populations of northern Algeria and Morocco have occasional redheads.

In Asia, darker or mixed tinges of red hair can be found sporadically from Northern India, northern Middle East (such as Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Jordan,) and in rare instances in Japan and the South Pacific. Red hair can be found amongst those of Iranian descent, such as the Pashtuns.

In Argentina people with red hair also make up a significant amount of the population, due to British and Irish immigration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Biochemistry and genetics

The pigment pheomelanin gives red hair its distinctive color. Red hair has far more pheomelanin than other hair colors, but far less of the dark pigment eumelanin.

The genetics of red hair, discovered in 1997, appears to be associated with the melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R), which is found on chromosome 16. Red hair is associated with fair skin color due to low concentrations of eumelanin. This lower melanin-concentration has the advantage that a sufficient concentration of important Vitamin D can be produced under low light conditions. However, when the UV-radiation is strong (like in the regions close to the equator) the lower concentration of melanin leads to several medical disadvantages - one of them is the higher rate of skin cancer.

The MC1R recessive variant gene, which gives people red hair and fair skin, is also associated with freckles, though it is not uncommon to see a redhead without freckles. Eighty percent of redheads have an MC1R gene variant, and the prevalence of these alleles is highest in Scotland and Ireland. The alleles that code for red hair occur close to the alleles that impact skin color, so it seems that the phenotypic expression for lighter skin and red hair are interrelated.

Red hair can originate from several different changes on the MC1R-gene. If one of these changes is present on both chromosomes then the respective individual is likely to have red hair. This type of inheritance is described as an autosomal recessive mode of inheritance. Even if both parents do not have red hair themselves, both can be carriers for the gene and have a redheaded child. (red hair genetics).


The alleles Arg151Cys, Arg160Trp, Asp294His, and Arg142His on MC1R are shown to be recessives for the red hair phenotype. Also possibly related to red hair is the gene HCL2 (aka RHC, RHA) on chromosome 4.



Red hair is the rarest natural hair color in humans. The pale skin associated with red hair may be of advantage in far-northern climates where sunlight is scarce. Studies by Bodmer and Cavalli-Sforza (1976) hypothesized that lighter skin pigmentation prevents rickets in colder latitudes by encouraging higher levels of Vitamin D production and also allows the individual to retain heat better than someone with darker skin. Rees (2004) suggested that the vividness and rarity of red hair may lead to its becoming desirable in a partner and therefore it could become more common through sexual selection.

Harding et al. (2000) proposed that red hair was not the result of positive selection but rather occurs due to a lack of negative selection. In Africa, for example, red hair is selected against because high levels of sun would be harmful to fair skin. However, in Northern Europe this does not happen, so redheads come about through genetic drift.

Estimates on the original occurrence of the currently active gene for red hair vary from 20,000 to 100,000 years ago.

A DNA study has concluded that some Neanderthals also had red hair, although the mutation responsible for this differs from that which causes red hair in modern humans.


A popular myth that red hair is likely to die out in the near future exists. This is untrue; it stems from questionable research and publicity by a hair products company. The National Geographic article that started the rumor in fact states "while redheads may decline, the potential for red isn't going away".

Red hair is caused by a recessive relatively rare gene, expression of which can skip generations. It is not likely to disappear at any time in the foreseeable future.

Medical implications of the red hair gene

Bleeding and bruising

There is little or no evidence to support the belief that people with red hair have a higher chance than people with other hair colors to hemorrhage or suffer other bleeding complications; however, one study reports a link between red hair and a higher rate of bruising.


Melanin in the skin aids UV tolerance through suntanning, but fair-skinned persons lack the levels of melanin needed to prevent UV-induced DNA-damage. Studies have shown that red hair alleles in MC1R effect increased freckles and decreased tanning ability. It has been found that Europeans who are heterozygous for red hair exhibit increased sensitivity to UV radiation.

Red hair and its relationship to UV sensitivity are of interest to many melanoma researchers. Sunshine can both be good and bad for a person's health and the different alleles on MC1R represent these adaptations. It also has been shown that individuals with pale skin are highly susceptible to a variety of skin cancers such as melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma. Due to this sensitivity many people have advised redheads to wear sunscreen. However it is becoming increasingly apparent that sunscreen protects against sunburn only and not against malignant melanoma; the FDA has proposed changing SPF to refer to "Sunburn Protection Factor" instead of "Sun Protection Factor" (page49089,49079 and 49077)(FDA proposed changes).

Sensitivity to pain

In people with red hair, the cells that produce skin and hair pigment have a mutated MC1R. Researchers have found that this mutation triggers the release of more of the hormone that stimulates these histonal cells, but this hormone also stimulates a brain receptor related to pain sensitivity.

Two studies have demonstrated that people with red hair have differential sensitivity to pain compared to people with other hair colors, but they differ as to the direction of the effect. One study found that people with red hair are more sensitive to thermal pain (a natural low vitamin K level is to blame for this) while another study concluded that redheads are less sensitive to pain from electrical stimuli.

Researchers have found that people with red hair require greater amounts of anesthetic, however this is controversial and other research publications have concluded that women with naturally red hair require less of the painkiller pentazocine than do either women of other hair colors or men of any hair color. A study showed women with red hair had a greater analgesic response to that particular pain medication than men. A follow-up study by the same group showed that men and women with red hair had a greater analgesic response to morphine-6-glucuronide.

Red hair of pathological origin

Most red hair is caused by the MC1R gene and is non-pathological. However, in rare cases red hair can be associated with disease or genetic disorder:

  • In cases of severe malnutrition, normally dark human hair may turn red or blonde. The condition, part of a syndrome known as kwashiorkor, is a sign of critical starvation caused chiefly by protein deficiency, and is common during periods of famine.
  • One variety of albinism (Type 3, aka rufous albinism), sometimes seen in Africans and inhabitants of New Guinea, results in red hair and red-colored skin.
  • Red hair is found on people lacking pro-opiomelanocortin.


In various times and cultures, red hair has been prized, feared, and ridiculed.

Beliefs about temperament

A common idea about redheads is that they have fiery tempers and sharp tongues. In Anne of Green Gables, a character says of Anne Shirley, the redheaded heroine, that "her temper matches her hair", while in The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield remarks that "People with red hair are supposed to get mad very easily, but Allie [his dead brother] never did, and he had very red hair."

During the early stages of modern medicine, red hair was thought to be a sign of a sanguine temperament. In the Indian medicinal practice of Ayurveda, redheads are seen as most likely to have a Pitta temperament.

Another belief is that redheads are highly sexed; for example, Jonathan Swift satirizes redhead stereotypes in part four of Gulliver's Travels, "A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms," when he writes that: "It is observed that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity." Swift goes on to write that: "...neither was the hair of this brute [a Yahoo] of a red color (which might have been some excuse for an appetite a little irregular) but black as a sloe...

Fashion and art

Queen Elizabeth I of England was a redhead, and during the Elizabethan era in England, red hair was fashionable for women. In modern times, red hair is subject to fashion trends; celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan, Alyson Hannigan, Marcia Cross and Geri Halliwell can boost sales of red hair dye.

Sometimes, red hair darkens as people get older, becoming a more brownish color or losing some of its vividness. This leads some to associate red hair with youthfulness, a quality that is generally considered desirable. In several countries such as India, Iran, and Pakistan, henna is used on hair to give it a bright red appearance.

Many painters have exhibited a fascination with red hair. The color "titian" takes its name from Titian, who often painted women with red hair. Early Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli's famous painting The Birth of Venus depicts the mythological goddess Venus as a redhead. Other painters notable for their redheads include the Pre-Raphaelites, Edmund Leighton, Modigliani, Gustav Klimt.

In the Gothic subculture, red hair is desired, right after Black hair. The reasons are the distinctiveness of red color, its aura of drama and the contrast with black and white.

Prejudice/Discrimination towards redheads

Red hair was thought to be a mark of a beastly sexual desire and moral degeneration. A savage red-haired man is portrayed in the fable by Grimm brothers (Der Eisenhans) as the spirit of the forest of iron. Theophilus Presbyter describes how the blood of a red-haired young man is necessary to create gold from copper, in a mixture with the ashes of a basilisk.

Montague Summers, in his translation of the Malleus Maleficarum, notes that red hair and green eyes were thought to be the sign of a witch, a werewolf or a vampire during the Middle Ages;

Those whose hair is red, of a certain peculiar shade, are unmistakably vampires. It is significant that in ancient Egypt, as Manetho tells us, human sacrifices were offered at the grave of Osiris, and the victims were red-haired men who were burned, their ashes being scattered far and wide by winnowing-fans. It is held by some authorities that this was done to fertilize the fields and produce a bounteous harvest, red-hair symbolizing the golden wealth of the corn. But these men were called Typhonians, and were representatives not of Osiris but of his evil rival Typhon, whose hair was red.

In modern-day UK, despite (or because of) being one of the places with the highest populations of redheads, the words "ginger" or "ginga" are sometimes derogatorily used to describe red-headed people, with terms such as "gingerphobia" (fear of redheads) or "gingerism" (prejudice against redheads) used by the media. Redheads are also sometimes referred to disparagingly as "carrot tops" and "carrot heads". "Gingerism" has been compared to racism, although this is widely disputed and bodies such as the UK Commission for Racial Equality do not monitor cases of discrimination and hate crimes against redheads.A UK woman recently won an award from a tribunal after being sexually harassed and receiving abuse because of her red hair; a family in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, was forced to move twice after being targeted for abuse and hate crime on account of their red hair; and in 2003, a 20 year old was stabbed in the back for "being ginger.

This prejudice has been satirised on a number of TV shows. The British comedian Catherine Tate (herself a redhead) appeared as a red haired character in a running sketch of her series The Catherine Tate Show. The sketch saw fictional character Sandra Kemp, who was forced to seek solace in a refuge for ginger people because they had been ostracised from society. The British comedy Bo' Selecta! (starring redhead, Leigh Francis) featured a spoof documentary which involved a caricature of red-haired "Simply Red" singer Mick Hucknall presenting a show in which celebrities (played by themselves) dyed their hair red for a day and went about daily life being insulted by people. In real life, Hucknall has commented that derogatory references to his red hair are a form of bigotry.

The pejorative use of the word "ginger", and related discrimination, was used to illustrate a point about racism and prejudice in the "Ginger Kids" episode of South Park.

Films and television programmes often portray school bullies as having red hair; for example, Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story or the O'Doyle family in the movie Billy Madison. However, children with red hair are often themselves targeted by bullies; "Somebody with ginger hair will stand out from the crowd," says anti-bullying expert Louise Burfitt-Dons.

Religious and mythological traditions

Red hair in Islam is the most preferred colour for hair. It is reported that the Prophet Mohammed used to dye his hair red using Henna. Henna or Hina is a flowering plant which traditionally has been used to dye hair red. There are no side effects to this. Al-Bukhari related in his Sahih, from ‘Uthman b. ‘Abd-Allah b. Mawhab: We went to Umm Salma, and she brought out for us some of the hair of the Messenger of Allah, and lo, it was dyed with henna and indigo.” (Bukhari, Libas, 66) And in the four sunan, from the Prophet, it is related that he said, ‘The best you can use for changing the color of white hair are henna and katam.’ (Tirmidhi, Libas, 20). In the two books of the Sahih, from Anas, it is quoted that Abu Bakr used hair dye of both henna and katam. (Muslim, Fada’il, 100)” (Ibn Qayyim; 259) (Katam is a plant from Yemen which produces a reddish-black dye).

Esau's entire body is supposed to have been covered with red hair. King David is also known for having red hair, based on the description of his physical appearance as "admoni", the Biblical Hebrew word normally interpreted to mean 'ruddy' and/or 'red-haired' (1 Samuel 16-17).

Early artistic representations of Mary Magdalene usually depict her as having long flowing red hair, although a description of her hair color was never mentioned in the Bible, and it is possible the color is an effect caused by pigment degradation in the ancient paint. This tradition is used as a plot device in the book and movie The Da Vinci Code. Thor, of Norse mythology, was generally portrayed as having red hair. Ancient Egyptians associated both red-haired humans and red-colored animals with the god Set, considering them to be favored by the powerful and temperamental deity.

There is a tradition amongst astrologers that the planet Mars ("the red planet") is more likely to be rising above the eastern horizon (on or near the astrological Ascendant, which supposedly influences a person's appearance) at the time of the birth of a red haired person than for the population in general.

The name Rhys may have been derived from the local word for red hair.

Achilles, the central character of Homer's Iliad, is described as having red hair, possibly contributing to the original myths of temperament.

Modern fiction

In Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, the main character states at his trial after his fourth voyage that amongst the once human yahoos, the ones with red hair were the most promiscuous. (see above Culture)

The Sherlock Holmes story "The Red-Headed League" (1891) was a favourite of its author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and included a sub-plot revolving around a pseudo-society restricted to redheads. The 1840 comic play Der Talisman by Johann Nestroy is about prejudice against redheads.

In Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins, redheads are said to be children of the moon, thwarted by the sun and addicted to sex and sugar. Similarly, in The Illuminatus! Trilogy, green-eyed redheads are said to be the favorite cohorts of The Devil.

In the Harry Potter series, members of the Weasley family all have red hair, as did Lily Potter, Harry Potter's late mother, and Albus Dumbledore (before his hair went white with age). J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, has stated that she is fond of redheads, despite the prejudice she observes they experience in the UK.

The hero of Time Enough For Love, by Robert A. Heinlein, observes that mutant humans with exceptional longevity tend to have "the mark of Gilgamesh", i.e. red hair.

In the DC Comics universe, Jimmy Olsen, Superman's friend and side-kick, is a redhair.

The "Darkness" fantasy series by Harry Turtledove includes Algarve, an aggressive and militaristic nation of red-haired, green-eyed people who consider themselves "racially superior" and who brutally persecute as "racially degenerate" people with blond hair and blue eyes.

Howard Roark, the controversial architect who is the main protagonist of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, is a redhead. This is part of his striking appearance, which throughout the book makes some people like him - and others, hate him - on sight. "He wore evening clothes and they looked well on his tall, thin figure, but it seemed that he did not belong in them; his orange hair seemed preposterous with formal dress" ("The Fountainhead", book 2, Ch. 6.)

See also

Further reading

  • Allen Sacharov. The Red Head Book (1985).
  • Stephen Douglas. The Redhead Encyclopedia (1996).
  • Tim Collins. The Ginger Survival Guide (2006).
  • Uwe Ditz. Redheads (2000).
  • Marion Roach. Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning and Sexual Power of Red Hair (2005).
  • Cort Cass. The Redhead Handbook (2003).


External links

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