Gingers, redheads, carrot tops–there are a lot nicknames for those with red hair, especially considering that red is the rarest human hair color. However, while gingers may be (relatively) few in number, their fiery locks attract outsized attention. Nonetheless, there are some facts about redheads that may still surprise you. Below, find 10 fiery facts about the gingers who walk among us…
10. They congregate
Gingers of the world, unite! That’s the message behind “Roodharigendag” (“Red Head Days” in English), an annual weekend festival held in the city of Breda in the Netherlands that draws gingers from across the world (and thousands of spectators) to celebrate their fiery locks.
The festival began in 2005, when a local Dutch artist sought to emulate some of history’s great painters by looking for 15 redheaded models for his paintings. When his ad in the local paper drew ten times that number, the gathering kicked off an annual tradition. 2013’s festival in Breda set a world record for the most redheads gathered in one place—1,672—who were captured in a photo at the event.
Breda’s Roodharigendag has inspired additional gatherings around the world. In 2015, Chicago held its own Redhead Days, drawing more than 1000 gingers and similar gatherings were held in 2016 in the UK and in Ireland, though as of 2017, Roodharigendag remains the world’s largest ginger party.
9. There are some “beard-only” gingers
One of the many trends driven by hipsters has been a resurgence of the popularity of facial hair. But as some men grow out their beards for the first time, they may be in for a surprise. Redheaded men aren’t the only ones who grow red facial hair! The so-called “gingerbeard” can appear on men with blond, brown, or black hair on their heads.
What’s behind the gingerbeard–the same force that drives red hair—genetics. According to an expert at a Dutch genetics organization, the MC1R gene, which produces red hair when two copies are present (one from each parent), can produce patches of red hair elsewhere (including in facial hair), when just one copy is present. Basically, any guy with a redheaded ancestor has a chance of carrying this gene, and thus, of being able to grow a gingerbeard. One Irish publication went so far as to say this genetic twist is the reason that all Irishmen have beards with at least a touch of ginger in them.
8. Not all gingers are white
When you picture a redhead, chances are you picture someone who looks like Ed Sheeran or Christina Hendricks, which is to say someone with very fair skin and features that are stereotypically “white.” But people of color can have red hair too. Photographer Michelle Marshall captured this reality in her photo series MCR1 (named for the gene that produces red hair), which features portraits of gingers of Afro-Caribbean ancestry. In China, the Uyghur population counts natural redheads amongst its ranks. In both of these cases, scientists believe the redheads reflect some degree of European ancestry (though not recent ancestry).
However, in the Solomon Islands, about 5 to 10% of the population, who generally have dark skin, also have blond or reddish hair. While scientists initially suspected some long-forgotten European ancestors were responsible for the genes that produced the light hair, studies showed a completely different gene, TYRP1, which is not linked to European ancestry, was the cause. There are also some diseases or genetic disorders that can result in red hair, including one variety of albinism, a syndrome caused by malnutrition, and the absence of a certain precursor polypeptide. So, while many redheads have European ancestry, not all do, and there are redheads of color whose appearances challenge conventional ginger stereotypes.
7. Depending on how you measure it, gingers have the thinnest, or the thickest, hair – and it wants to stay red
On average, redheads have the thinnest hair. They also have the thickest hair. How can you untangle this gingery paradox? The truth depends on your definition of “thick” or “thin” hair. On average, a strand of red hair is larger in diameter than strands of other hair colors, red hairs are on average the “thickest.” However, on average, redheads have the fewest number of hair follicles on their scalps—90,000–vs. brunettes, who average 140,000 follicles and blonds who clock in with 100,000, on average. So, in terms of number of hairs per head, redheads have the “thinnest” hair. In addition to these physical differences, the composition of red hair means that, basically, it fights to stay red. Red pigment is the hardest hair color to remove through bleaching, which is why brunettes (whose hair contains some red pigment) trying to go blond may end up with a brassy shade of copper. Additionally, as gingers age, their hair is more likely to appear strawberry blond than grey, because the lightening effect that happens to hair as we age combines differently with red pigment than with other hair colors.
6. Gingers have inspired great art
Red hair catches the eye, both because of its brightness and relative rarity. This quality has long attracted artists, many of whom have featured redheads prominently in their work. Titian, the leading member of the 16th century Venetian school, featured redheaded women in several of his works. His use of color was very progressive for the time and his signature “Titian red” color survives to this day, both as a paint color and an adjective applied to gingers.
Later, the painter Rossetti would also be inspired by redheads, using several as models for his portraits of “flaming libertines,” and even taking one as his lover. Other artists drawn to redheads include Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas. Degas painted perhaps the most ginger painting of all time, “La Coiffure” (“Combing the Hair”), which features a an older redheaded woman brushing out the fiery locks of a younger woman on a red background.
5. Gingers aren’t going extinct any time soon
In 2014, there was a flurry of media coverage that suggested that redheads could be going the way of the dodo. Articles, such as this one, suggested that a change in climate that produced less cloudy weather could cause the recessive gene that causes red hair (and also allows for better Vitamin D absorption in locales without much sunlight) to die out within a few hundred years.
So will humanity’s future be gingerless? Not likely. The premise of the extinction of redheads is based on a lot of faulty science. Basically, even if we assume the future will be sunnier, and that redheads will be uniquely disadvantaged in their ability to handle the new climate, and that redheadedness is exclusively linked to a single gene which confers no other qualities than hair color and reaction to sunlight (all of which are themselves problematic and likely incorrect assumptions), this premise ignores the fact that most carriers of the gene that is most clearly linked to red hair are not, themselves, ginger. Basically, as long as anyone with any ginger in the family tree is producing offspring, there’s a chance that the gene survives and eventually, when two non-ginger carriers of the gene have a baby (or several), BAM, gingers will be produced and redheads will avoid extinction.
4. Gingers have their own dating websites
Speaking of not going extinct, gingers have found another way to ensure the continuity of their redheaded genes—through ginger dating websites. Taylor Swift once reportedly said, “I like people with red hair, I would do a ginger” and the existence of numerous matchmaking websites for redheads (and those who love them, or want to love them) proves that Taylor’s not alone in that sentiment.
While mainstream dating website Match.com came under fire for ads that suggested red hair and freckles were “imperfections,” sites like redheaddates.com, findaginger.com, and gingersingles.com are designed for those who think redheads are the perfect potential partners. Most of these sites only offer their services in countries where redheads are relatively more common—the US, the UK, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, so if you’re in a part of the world that’s light on gingers, you may have to meet them the old-fashioned way.
3. Being a ginger can be a pain—literally!
Do redheads really feel pain differently? Even the researchers who conducted studies around this issue admit that they initially viewed the idea that redheads require more anesthesia as an, “urban legend in the anesthesia community.” However, science has shown that those who carry the MC1R gene (which includes a majority of redheads, as well as some non-redheads who are carriers) really do have different reactions to pain medication than the general population.
In terms of anesthesia, redheads require more medication for general anesthesia and are less sensitive to the effects of local anesthesia (like the numbing agents used by dentists). A study by the American Dental Association showed that redheads were more likely to have dental phobias and avoid dental care, perhaps because of this effect. Gingers are also more sensitive to pain caused by temperature—so grabbing an overly hot cup of coffee may cause more intense pain for a redhead than for someone without the MC1R gene.
But it’s not all bad news for gingers. In some areas, like opiate/analgesic painkillers, drugs actually impact MC1R carriers more strongly, meaning redheads can withstand more pain at the same dosage of painkiller, than their blond and brunette counterparts without the MC1R gene.
2. Redheads are rare, but less so in some countries
While there is no “ginger census,” making exact figures difficult to come by, it is generally estimated that 1-2% of the world’s human population has red hair. However, these tens of millions of redheads are not evenly distributed across the globe. Instead there are “ginger pockets,” places where the genetic predisposition for red hair is carried by a higher percentage of the population.
These redhead hot spots fall largely where you might expect, with England, Scotland, and Ireland having the highest per capita ginger rates. Scientists suggest that a form of natural selection that took place tens of thousands of years ago meant that the ginger gene became most common in human settlements in areas with less sunshine, since redheads are more easily able to produce Vitamin D, even with minimal sun exposure. According to a 2013 DNA study, Scotland is the Earth’s ginger capital, with roughly 6% of Scots having red hair. The Edinburgh region was the most ginger area of Scotland, with 40% of the population carrying a genetic predisposition for red hair. In terms of sheer numbers, the US is likely to have the largest ginger population of any country, up to 18 million according to one estimate.
1. Gingers have been well-represented amongst British royalty
Redheads have been well represented on the British throne and amongst its Tudor royal family. Perhaps the most well-known royal redhead is Elizabeth I, who reigned as Queen of England from 1558 to her death in 1603. Queen Elizabeth often wore wigs, and made her red hair a signature part of her look, with some rumors suggesting that she even had the tails of her horses dyed to match. Why did she make her ginger tresses a key component of her look, especially since, at the time, red hair was stigmatized for its association with the “barbaric” Irish and Scots, as well as its association with Judaism (including the frequent depiction of Judas, who betrayed Jesus, as a redhead)?
Queen Elizabeth had a few reasons for her ginger pride. Her father, Henry VIII, had been a redhead, so her red hair helped definitely establish that she was clearly his legitimate child, and therefore, entitled to the throne (her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, also inherited the Tudor red hair, but her tresses were not sufficient to protect her throne, or ultimately, her life). The red hair, coupled with her pale skin, also helped to differentiate Elizabeth’s look, and Protestant England, as distinct from the darker looks and Catholicism that predominated elsewhere in Europe. While she clearly chose to be a redhead through her wigs, accounts suggest Elizabeth’s ginger roots were also natural.
The most prominent contemporary royal ginger is Prince Harry. Prince Harry once complained that an official portrait made him look, “a little bit more ginger…than I am in real life” and shared that his brother and Army buddies had teased him for his red hair. Prince Harry’s lack of redhead pride didn’t stop a so-called “ginger extremist,” with neo-Nazi beliefs and mental health problems, from concocting a bizarre plot to murder Prince Charles and Prince William so that Prince Harry would become king and the crown would once again rest on a ginger head. Luckily, the plan was foiled, and those who want to see a redhead on the throne will now have to hope that Prince George (William’s son) gets more ginger with age.