Redheads may be more susceptible to skin cancer because of a pigment in their fair skin which can actively contribute to the development of melanoma, according to a new study.

Identifying the unexpected factor that contributes to melanoma risk could lead to a new prevention strategy including better suncreams, the researchers claim.

There is already an established higher risk of melanoma among people with red hair and fair skin because of a lack of natural protection against ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

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But the team believe the pigment predominantly found in red-haired, fair-skinned individuals may itself be a second contributor to melanoma.

"We've known for a long time people with red hair and fair skin have the highest melanoma risk. These new findings do not increase that risk but identify a new mechanism to help explain it," said Dr David Fisher of Massachusetts General Hospital.

"This may provide an opportunity to develop better sunscreens that address this pigmentation-associated risk while continuing to protect against UV radiation.

"We're excited to have a new clue to help better understand this mystery behind melanoma."

The study is published in the journal Nature.