Genetic discovery reveals whose skin will burn in the sun

Health news

Ten new genetic regions that may dictate whether a person’s skin will tan or burn when exposed to the sun have been identified by scientists.

As well as revealing how skin will react in the sun, the genetic regions – specific locations within the genome – also highlight individuals who may be more susceptible to developing skin cancer.

An international team of researchers, including Dr Mark Iles from the University of Leeds, analysed the genetic variation of 176,678 individuals of European descent, who self-reported their tendency to tan or burn.

Dr Iles, from the Leeds Institute of Cancer and Pathology, said: “The findings in this research more than triples the number of genetic regions associated with our ability to tan.

“By studying the genetics of tanning as we have done, we can learn more about the basis of a variety of types of skin cancer. In future, this could allow us to offer tailored advice to patients on their skin cancer risk based on their genetic profile.”

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in Europeans, with more than 150,000 new cases being diagnosed in the UK every year. The skin’s tendency to burn rather than tan is known to be a major risk factor for skin cancer but there is great variability between individuals when it comes to getting sunburnt.

The researchers, led by scientists at King’s College London, were able to pinpoint ten new genetic regions affecting the skin’s tendency to tan or burn when exposed to the sun. Looking specifically at one of these regions, which has previously been associated with melanoma, the team suggest that variants in this area may increase the risk of developing skin cancer by directly reducing tanning ability.

Dr Alessia Visconti, from King’s College London, said: “This research is the largest genetic study to date of skin’s tendency to tan or burn, and has doubled the number of genetic regions known to be involved in this feature.”

The work is published in Nature Communications and is available online here:

The work was supported by the Wellcome Trust and the British Skin Foundation.

Further information

For additional information and to request interviews with Dr Mark Iles please contact Simon Moore in the University of Leeds press office on +44 (0)113 34 34031 or

The research paper Genome-wide association study in 176,678 Europeans reveals genetic loci for tanning response to sun exposure is published 8 May 2018 in the journal Nature Communications.