Abstract Free electron laser–photoelectron emission microscopy (FEL-PEEM), femtosecond absorption spectroscopy and electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) measurements of oxygen photoconsumption were used to probe the threshold potential for ionization of eumelanosomes and pheomelanosomes isolated from human hair. FEL-PEEM data show that both pigments are characterized by an ionization threshold at 282 nm. However, pheomelanosomes exhibit a second ionization threshold at 326 nm, which is interpreted to be reflective of the benzothiazine structural motif present in pheomelanin and absent in eumelanin. The lower ionization threshold for pheomelanin is supported by femtosecond transient absorption spectroscopy. Unlike photolysis at 350 nm, following excitation of solubalized synthetic pheomelanin at 303 nm, the transient spectrum observed between 500 and 700 nm matches that for the solvated electron, indicating the photoionization threshold for the solubalized pigment is between 350 and 303 nm. For the same synthetic pheomelanin, EPR oximetry experiments reveal an increased rate of oxygen uptake between 338 nm and 323 nm, narrowing the threshold for photoionization to sit between these two wavelengths. These results on the solubalized synthetic pigment are consistent with the FEL-PEEM results on the human melanosomes. The lower ionization potential observed for pheomelanin could be an important part of the explanation for the greater incidence rate of UV-induced skin cancers in red-haired individuals.