Redheads and pain tolerance – scientific facts and myths

by mihgasper

Redheads are involved in many myths, some actually being backed with scientific evidence. Do they really feel pain differently than others, bleed more, need more anesthesia?

How about alcohol tolerance of redheads? Or temperature sensitiveness? How many special treats are associated with inglorious MC1R protein?

Several studies proved people with red hair (natural or dyed) act significantly different than everybody else, but their behavior could be influenced by the heavy mixture of historical and cultural heritage.

On the other hand, pain and amount of medication needed to suppress it are undeniably measurable. What a so-called hard science says about natural redheads and pain?

Myths and facts

Red hair is rare. While about 80 percent of people carry the possibility of having a ginger for a child, thanks to the recessiveness of the genes, only a fraction of people actually have a natural carrot top. According to the Fischer-Saller scale with eight different colors of hair, red is the rarest with only between one and two percent of the world population having it (dyed reds excluded).

The exceptional color initiated numerous superstitions and myths related to redheads. It is believed they are bleeding more than others, they need more pain killers for the same effect, they can’t stand dentists, are much more sensitive to the heat and can stand cold much better than a majority of world population.

From the genetical point of view, there is some logic behind these believes, some of them being many centuries old. Let’s examine them one by one.

Redheads, especially women, have a special status among humans for ages
Redheads, especially women, have a special status among humans for ages

Heat and Cold

Liem, Joiner, Tsueda, and Sessler (study 2005)

Article published in Anesthesiology (2005 Mar; 102(3): 509–514) revealed tests done on 30 volunteers with red and 30 volunteers with dark hair. All of them were healthy women between 18 and 40 years. All experiments were done in the first ten days of menstrual cycles of participants at the same time of the day (8 a.m.). Tests were done with TSA-II Neurosensory Analyzer for heat stimuli.

More sensitive to temperature changes
More sensitive to temperature changes

Lidocaine was used as a local anesthetic.

The study showed the pain sensitivity of redheads and brunettes is similar. The measurable difference is at the cold and heat pain.

Reds are more sensitive, what is understandable for heat (they produce less pigment as a skin protector against UV rays), but not for cold.

Until recently it was believed that lighter skin offers a certain advantage in colder climates (largest percent of red-haired people lives in Scotland and Ireland) because it emits less radiation and thus saves some body heat.

Although this still might be true, redheads don't stand more pain caused by coldness. They are actually more sensitive to all changes of temperature.

Pain tolerance is not easy to measure

Not everybody feels pain the same
Not everybody feels pain the same

It was also proved they need substantial higher quantities of lidocaine to suppress the pain than women with dark hair. In other words, they have higher resistance to local analgetic as lidocaine. There are several theories why is so, but none of them is adequately tested. The main concern related to this proven fact is the risk of overdose. If one patient needs four shots of a pain-killer, he definitely risks more than one who needs only half of dose.

A similar study was done at Louisville University in Kentucky in 2005, what leads us to the next chapter.

Pinching And Cutting

Andresen, Lunden, Drewes, and Arendt-Nielsen study (study 2011)

An article from Scandinavian Journal of Pain made on a similar group (20 redheads and 20 dark heads) confirmed the results presented above. They also made another experiment. It was done by injections of capsaicin (active substance in hot paprika). The study showed redheads are less sensitive to burning sensation caused by capsaicin what confirms anecdotical evidence about gingers who can eat spicier food than most others.

Red-headed people are also less sensitive to pain caused by a prick and many tattooists reported that redheads have fewer problems with needles.

They have also higher pain threshold for scratches, pressure, and other skin trauma.

Is possible they have some kind of compensation for sensitiveness in other areas related to pain?

They can handle more tattoos
They can handle more tattoos

Poll for redheads only

Do you need more or less pain killers at the dentist as non-redheads?


Redheads have significantly more fears and even phobias related to the dentist. Several studies in recent years examined this problem from different angles and it seems that the main reason is not in the pain itself.

The problem lies in the resistance to most used anesthetics. At least twice as more shots are required for a typical redhead than for a regular customer and the effect of so well-known dumb-lips is much shorter. For this reason much higher percentage of gingers avoids regular visits and the result is worse dental health.

Ever heard for dental anxiety
Ever heard for dental anxiety

Can we conclude reds are more or less susceptible to pain?

Well, the main conclusion is not exactly flattering for scientists and medicine in particular. We obviously have only a rough idea how anesthesia works. We can say with a relatively high level of certainty that MC1R protein has some role in the pain reception, but this role is not a simple one. What we can say for sure is that red-haired people feel pain differently than dark-haired ones.

Are you a redhead?
Are you a redhead?

To be more specific we need more tests, more experiments with different analgetics and especially better methods to design new studies and interpret results.

One very likely expected side-effect of further investigation should be a better understanding of the work of pain-killers and probably some new approaches, adjusted to different people,

Pharmacogenetics, a new medicine field studying the different effect of the same medicine on different people, is promising exactly that.

Like it or not, being a redhead or not, the color red has a very special meaning for humankind. Here is an article dealing with the meanings of red color:

I bet you can learn at least something new from it. Red is influential and it makes an instant impression. Redheads are special too. They are no better or worse than any other group. They are just different and we all love difference, don't we?

Updated: 01/16/2017, mihgasper
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mihgasper on 12/22/2022

Skin freckles are not directly connected with pigmentation. Lower amount of pigment can lead to higher contrast but freckles are actually a result of hyper pigmentation - even if we are dealing with a low pigmentation in overall.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/21/2022

The fourth paragraph under your subheading Heat and Reds indicates that redheads "produce less pigment as a skin protector against UV rays), but not for cold."

Would that lower pigmentation account for some skin freckling and other skin not and would that mean that redheads feel greater pain from sunburns?

mihgasper on 01/19/2017

When the color of hair changes, your genetics stays the same, what means this should not affect your pain tolerance. On the other hand we all know pain threshold can be changed with proper training. Ladies who clean the fish in ice cold water can bare unbelievable amount of coldness, no matter what kind of hair they have.
Thanks for your comment, frankbeswick.

frankbeswick on 01/19/2017

One issue is that hair colour can change. When young my head hair was golden, and people classed me as ginger, but it changed over the years to brown, now grey. But my hair on arms and legs has remained golden. So how does this affect the issue of red heads and pain? This being said, this was a good article.

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