For people blessed with fair skin and titian hair, wave riding can be a rough endeavor. Redheads are rare creatures, accounting for only around 1-2% of the world’s population. In the surf world, we are practically unicorns. In traditional surf culture, we don’t look the way surfers are supposed to look if we are to believe what surf magazines tell us through advertisements and promotions; our pale bodies and contrasting hair are a world away from the bronzed body stereotype, basking in an endless summer of surf and sun. As a redhead, the skin isn’t so much kissed by the sun but rather given a hard, stinging slap which stays red and sore for days. No wonder the ancient Greeks believed redheads were vampires. But even though our pale skin may protest, I for one, actually love the sun and enjoy nothing more than surfing in warm water – vampiric skin and all.
While we’re speaking of mysterious creatures, did you know that redheads have a pretty unique set of genetic quirks that impact us as surfers? Knowing these curiosities and how to deal with them could help us surf longer and continue being a red who shreds. Here are five facts every surfing redhead should know.
1. We have a higher risk of developing melanoma.
Mutations in the MC1R, the so-called “ginger gene” which gives people red hair and freckles, also limits our capacity for sun protection by producing low levels of melanin. Research by the Sanger Institute found that natural redheads are at much greater risk of melanoma, even if we don’t get sunburn. As redheads, we have two copies of a variant of the MC1R gene and these genes increase our risk of developing skin cancer as much as an extra 21 years of exposure to the sun. Thankfully, advances in sun creams and surf specific clothing with built-in sun protection can help. On the flip side, the good news is that redheads don’t need to worry about missing out on all the vitamin D as our magical bodies can cleverly produce its own when exposed to low light conditions.
2. Our skin is more sensitive.
Not only do we have an aversion to sunlight, but the ginger gene also means our skin is usually thinner, drier and more sensitive to environmental conditions and premature aging. As our nerves and blood vessels are closer to the epidermis, everything from weather conditions to cosmetics can aggravate the skin and cause redness and irritation so we need to take particular care to manage this delicate organ. Saltwater can further dry our already parched skin, causing itchiness and irritation. Meanwhile, surf wear can chafe and cause uncomfortable soreness. Using moisturizers and barrier creams can help manage these issues (which will worsen if they are not addressed). As we need to frequently re-apply sun creams and other lotions, always check what you put on your skin. If possible, avoid ingredients like alcohol, fragrances or artificial colors. These may actually cause aggravation, redness, and soreness.
3. We’re at greater risk of developing surfer’s eye.
As well as having fair skin, most redheads also have lighter colored eyes with reduced pigment. Blue, gray or even green eyes have less melanin in the iris and therefore – you guessed it – a lower capacity for protection against the sun’s rays than darker eyes. This means that redheaded surfers are at more risk of developing surfer’s eye, or pterygium as it’s less commonly known. This condition can occur with a perfect storm of surf conditions in continuous contact with the eyes, such as sun, wind, sea, sand and salt. Light reflection from the sea can damage cells at the back of the eyes, causing macular degeneration and in some cases, vision loss if untreated. To help prevent this potentially nasty condition from developing, use lubricating eye drops when your eyes are feeling itchy or dry to help keep your eyes protected from environmental conditions. On land, wear sunglasses to ward off the potential damage accrued surfing and get your eyes checked out if you notice any symptoms.
4. Our hair is more brittle.
Even though our sunset locks are our crowning glory, on average, redheads actually have fewer individual hairs on the head, tending to be thicker, drier and more coarse than other colors. Prolonged exposure to UV rays combined with sea salt damages the hair while scalp burns can also damage the skin on the head as well as the hair follicles. The result is a brittle and dry untameable mane. To avoid looking like the love child of the Mad Hatter and a scarecrow, be sure to apply a sunscreen for the scalp and hair before you hit the water. Our thick hair is especially prone to moisture loss and can have a tendency to be frizzy and dry. To combat this, coat hair with coconut oil or apply a leave-in conditioner before and after surfing. If possible, rinse the hair with fresh water after your surf session. For those wanting to resurrect the fiery color extinguished by the sun and sea, use a color depositing shampoo.
5. Increased sensitivity to certain types of pain.
Research from the University of Louisville, Kentucky demonstrated that redheads are more sensitive to hot and cold pain, as the same mutation which causes red hair also causes sensitivity in even slight temperature changes. The study showed that redheads feel variations in temperature changes quicker and more intensely than people with other hair colors. Not only are we more likely to burn when the mercury rises, but we also feel the most pain when it drops. Therefore, as redheads, we need to layer up in colder waters and keep cool in warmer ones, as well as making sure that we are hydrated in warmer temperatures if we want to avoid heat stroke and keep feeling the surf stoke.
All in all, redheads can be a pretty quirky bunch with a unique set of traits. In a world that zigs, we most certainly do zag. And while redheads may not naturally be children of the sun thanks to genetics, knowing and managing our unique makeup can help us stay healthy and keep us surfing longer, better and not in a state of red alert.