Seven Facts about Gingers

1. The term “ginger” came from our friends in the United Kingdom

A “ginger” is a slightly derogatory term mostly used by people in the UK for persons with red hair. However, the term has spread to other english speaking countries, including the United States. If you have grown up as a ginger, you probably know that it is best to make fun of yourself before everyone else does. In the spirit of that, the term ginger will be used throughout this website to help make the term more fun than derogatory.

2. Ginger hair is caused by a mutated protein

Ginger hair occurs naturally on only 1–2% of the human population. Ginger hair appears in people with two copies of a recessive gene on chromosome 16 which causes a mutation in the MC1R protein. Ginger hair varies from a deep burgundy 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.

3. Ginger’s actually do feel and see things differently than others

Two studies have demonstrated that gingers have different sensitivity to pain compared to people with other hair colors. One study found that gingers are more sensitive to thermal pain (associated with naturally occurring low vitamin K levels), while another study concluded that gingers are less sensitive to pain from multiple modalities, including noxious stimuli such as electrically induced pain.

Researchers have found that gingers require greater amounts of anesthetic. Other research publications have concluded that natural gingers 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 ginger 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 ginger hair had a greater analgesic response to morphine-6-glucuronide.

The unexpected relationship of hair color to pain tolerance appears to exist because redheads have a mutation in a hormone receptor that can apparently respond to at least two types of hormones: the pigmentation driving melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH), and the pain relieving endorphins. (Both derive from the same precursor molecule, POMC, and are structurally similar.) Specifically, gingers have a mutated melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R) gene that produces an altered receptor for MSH. Melanocytes, the cells that produce pigment in skin and hair, use the MC1R to recognize and respond to MSH from the anterior pituitary gland. Melanocyte-stimulating hormone normally stimulates melanocytes to make black eumelanin, but if the melanocytes have a mutated receptor, they will make reddish pheomelanin instead. MC1R also occurs in the brain, where it is one of a large set of POMC-related receptors that are apparently involved not only in responding to MSH, but also in responses to endorphins and possibly other POMC-derived hormones. Though the details are not clearly understood, it appears that there is some "cross talk" between the POMC hormones that may explain the link between ginger hair and pain tolerance.

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

4. The highest proportion of gingers is in Scotland

Scotland has the highest proportion of gingers; 13% of the population are gingers and approximately 40% carries the recessive gene. Ireland has the second highest percentage; as many as 10% of the Irish population has red, auburn, or strawberry blond hair. It is thought that up to 46% of the Irish population carries the recessive gene.

In the United States, it is estimated that 2–6% of the population are gingers. This would give the U.S. the largest population of gingers in the world, at 6 to 18 million, compared to approximately 650,000 in Scotland and 420,000 in Ireland.

Editor’s note: While I don’t have any proof, having traveled all over the world, I believe the highest concentration of gingers in the U.S. is in the Pacific Northwest, which has similar weather to Ireland and Scotland, perfect for gingers. In fact, on August 13, 2013, roughly 1,600 redheads gathered in downtown Portland (Oregon) for 10 minutes, unofficially setting the world record for the most ginger-haired people assembled in one place, until it was broken a month later in the Netherlands.

5. Gingers don’t need as much Vitamin D as the rest of the population

Humans make vitamin D in our skin. We rely on sunshine to make vitamin D and if you have very dark skin, it's harder to make that vitamin D. Being pale, gingers are more efficient at making vitamin D and do not need so much sunlight in order to get the amount they need. So, in certain places in the world at least, there's a big advantage to being in this minority.

6. Ginger hair with blue eyes is the rarest combination in the world

Like ginger hair, blue eye color is a recessive trait, meaning that both parents must carry the gene for a child to be blessed with it. This makes those gingers with blue eyes the rarest minority in the world, with only 1% having both. We are the 1%!

7. Gingers require more anesthesia during surgery

A 2004 University of Louisville study of female surgery patients showed that female redheads require 19% more anesthesia during surgery.