The ‘Ginger Gene’ & How It Works

Being a redhead myself and having a child with lush red locks, I’ve done lots of research on the ‘ginger gene’ and how it works. 

Why? Because I’ve taken a lot of stick over the years for my red hair and never really had much knowledge on it myself. So what better way to beat back the naysayers (instead of actually beating them up – although this is something I would happily have done back in the day) than being more knowledgeable and making them feel stupid for their childish comments. 

Knowledge is in fact power after all. 

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

After the arrival of my first child, i was even more intrigued to learn more about how the red hair gene works.

With half of my partner’s heritage being Indian we were quite surprised when my little munchkin came out with red hair. Knowing the ‘ginger gene’ is recessive, we were convinced our child would be more like him. Black hair and olive skin. I was prepared to continue being the odd one out. The porcelain white amongst the golden tan.

But it wasn’t to be. Like mother like daughter, she had red fiery locks in abundance.

What is the ‘Ginger Gene’?

Before we dig in to how the gene works, we need to first know what it actually is.

If you haven’t guessed by now the ‘ginger gene’ is what people with red hair are said to have. The ‘Ginger Gene’ obviously isn’t the technical term. When someone has natural red hair, it means that they have a mutated form of MC1R gene. Or melanocortin 1 receptor, to get really technical.

There are many different shades of red hair. To me, that’s what makes it so beautiful.

The ‘ginger gene’ term is usually used as a way to offend redheads, so it’s probably a good idea not to actually say it to a person with red hair.

What causes red hair & how does the gene work?

The chemical responsible for red hair.

So, you know the gene responsible for red hair is the MC1R gene, but there’s more to it than that.

Melanin is the chemical pigment responsible for your hair and skin colour. It’s produced by cells called melanocytes which use the information from your DNA to create melanin.

There are two types of melanin, one called eumelanin, and the other pheomelanin. While eumelanin ranges from brown to black in colour, pheomelanin ranges from red to pink.

And, can you guess which of the two redheads have more of? Yes, redheads have more pheomelanin which makes their skin tone lighter and their hair red.

Red hair genetics.

There has to be a reason why redheads have so much pheomelanin, right? There is. Melanocyte cells (the ones that produce melanin), also contain a protein. The protein is called melanocortin 1 receptor, or MC1R for short. When the protein is activated, it produces pheomelanin. Redheads have a genetic mutation of the MC1R gene that causes their melanocytes to mainly produce pheomelanin.

So yes, redheads are technically mutants. If you take a look at my post – Interesting Facts About Redheads You Might Not Know to what other interesting things about redheads you may not be aware of.

The Recessive Gene

As I mentioned earlier the MC1R gene is recessive. This means that you have to have two copies of the gene in order for the trait (red hair) to be present. Both parents must be carriers of the gene even if they don’t show the traits, i.e. red hair.

So the parents of a child with red hair must both be carriers. Although, both, one or non can physically show the traits.

So in my own case, I carry the gene and I show the traits (I have red hair, pale skin, freckles, the lot!). My hubby does not show any of the common traits but is a carrier of the MC1R gene. And although he has olive skin and jet black hair, he does actually have some very subtle traits. With a slight scattering of barely visible reddish hair in his beard amongst the sea of black and also the odd few freckles, the evidence is there.

When we looked at his other relatives, it was actually unsurprising that he was a carrier with his mum being very fair-skinned and having redheaded relatives herself.

And in case you were wondering, freckles are caused by another variation of the MC1R gene.

So, even if you have very dark hair and skin, it doesn’t mean that you don’t carry the ‘ginger gene’.

Do you have red hair? Or, are the parent of a redheaded child but don’t actually have the trait yourself? Let me know in the comments.

One Clueless Mum

Hi, I'm Alex, welcome to my little corner of the internet. I'm here to share my journey to motherhood and beyond. You may not find structured advice from a 'Stepford housewife' style mum, but you will get honesty & realism from a regular mum just like you. From IVF, women's health & being a redhead, to pregnancy, toddlerhood & life as a work-from-home mum, I've got it all. So stay and take a look around, you never know what you might find.

  1. Smelly Socks and Garden Peas

    I’m currently reading A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford. It’s awesome and has a long discussion about the MC1R gene. I’d highly recommend it, I am absolutely engrossed which is unusual for non-fiction.

    • One Clueless Mum

      Oooo that sounds interesting, I’ll check that out! Thanks for the recommendation. I love a book that gets you hooked right from the start.

  2. Tigar

    My mom is a natural redhead the only one until one of her sisters had 2 boys with red hair, I myself didnt get red hair but always wanted it, my grandmother was 100% irish. I have the ringlets curls blue green eyes and freckles everywhere. Neither of my daughters got the red hair either even though I prayed they would have red hair I’m pretty sure we carry the gene as we all have freckles ,blue green eyes and curly hair

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