Vitamin D: The Sunshine Vitamin

Vitamin D is the one essential nutrient that's linked to getting routine sun exposure. But before you skimp on sunscreen and head outdoors to bask in the sun (as you might have read you should do), you need to know the pros and cons of getting this important vitamin from the sun compared to being sun smart and taking a vitamin D supplement.

Vitamin D Facts

  • Vitamin D is a critical nutrient for your body.
  • Vitamin D is only produced in the body via the sun. Without the sun, unless you take a vitamin D supplement you run a high risk of being vitamin D-deficient.
  • Not having enough vitamin D stored in your body is a serious health issue and an alarming number of people have a vitamin D deficiency especially in parts of the world with limited sunshine in the winter.
  • Normal levels of vitamin D protect our bodies in numerous ways including bone health, immune disorders, reduced occurrences of some cancers and on and on. Continual research is revealing even more ways vitamin D protects our overall health.
  • There are two types of vitamin D: ergocalciferol (commonly known as D2) and cholecalciferol (vitamin D3). Cholecalciferol is often referred to as natural vitamin D because it is the type your body makes upon exposure to sunlight. However, there are serious risks from repeated, unprotected sun exposure.
  • The sun's UVB rays (the rays from the sun that cause sunburn) stimulate vitamin D production.

The Vitamin D & Sun Damage Dilemma

The issue: If exposure to sunlight is the best way to get vitamin D, then what about the damage sun exposure causes? Unprotected sun exposure causes premature ageing of the skin, a heightened risk of skin cancer, macular degeneration, DNA abnormalities, and gets in the way of the body's ability to heal. Swapping one health concern and creating another is not good medicine for anyone.

This dilemma has made the issue of unprotected sun exposure (seeking shade and using sunscreen) controversial and complicated.

The question is: can our bodies create vitamin D if we regularly use sunscreen and seek shade? According to many researchers, the answer is that most likely sunscreen and seeking shade does not block vitamin D production in the body. Despite news stories to the contrary, several large, controlled studies have shown that vitamin D deficiency does not result from ongoing, regular sunscreen use. But there are studies that counter that point of view.

It is also important to understand that people wearing sunscreen and seeking shade doesn't explain the entire problem of vitamin D deficiency. Considering that most people don't use sunscreen on a regular basis and they almost never apply enough of it or reapply it as they should to get the SPF benefit on the label. That means during the day, if you are outside, plenty of sunlight is getting to your skin, enabling your body to make vitamin D.

You may have read that 15 or 30 minutes of unprotected sun exposure a day will create all the vitamin D you need. Yet there is limited evidence showing that to be the case, especially considering the amount of sunlight present in different parts of the world at different times of the year.

For example, thirty minutes of sun exposure at noon during the winter months in London, Paris, Moscow, Seattle, or Toronto, won't do you much good. Just counting the minutes you are in the sun without protection is ill advised.

There is also the issue of how much vitamin D you actually need, which remains a complete unknown. If you are sick, elderly, athletic, or don't live in a sunny environment 30 minutes of sun exposure is most likely not enough to gain the health benefits vitamin D provides.

What Should You Do?

  • Many physicians recommend having your vitamin D levels checked the next time you get a blood test. You may not be deficient or you may need far more than the sun can provide.
  • If your level is low, be diligent about taking vitamin D supplements.
  • Check with your doctor to find out how many IUs (International Units) of vitamin D you should be taking.
  • The amount you should take and dosage frequency will depend on many factors, including your blood level of vitamin D, your geographic location, and health.
  • Most importantly, please do not give up sunscreen and do not give up being sun smart! That means seeking shade and wearing sunglasses and hats. You can have the best of both worlds: adequate levels of vitamin D, without having your skin suffer the ageing consequences of unprotected sun exposure.

Tanning Beds (Solariums)

Fear of getting enough vitamin D is causing a frightening increase in the use of tanning beds. Many tanning salons are advertising that they provide the added benefit of increasing vitamin D levels in the body. Aside from the terrible risks associated with using tanning beds they cannot produce vitamin D in the body. Shocking, right? As it turns out, UVB rays are responsible for stimulating vitamin D in the body and tanning beds emit almost entirely UVA rays! This is one more sneaky way the indoor tanning industry is trying to capture business, even though the purported benefit is practically non-existent.

Psoriasis & Sunlight

Psoriasis is a very specific skin disorder that can be controlled but not prevented by sun exposure. However, it takes far more than 30 minutes in the sun to achieve sun- induced reduction of psoriatic lesions. Studies in patients with psoriasis require hours of sun exposure in tropic or Mediterranean climates.

(Sources for the information above: The British Journal of Dermatology, August 2010, Epublication, and October 2005, pages 706–714; Osteoporosis International, August 2010, Epublication; Mayo Clinic Proceedings, August 2010, pages 752–757; Current Rheumatology Reports, October 2005, pages 356-364; The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Epublication, July 19, 2005; Photochemistry and Photobiology, Epublication, February 1, 2005; Experimental Dermatology, December 2004, page 11; The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, August 2003, pages 3-4; American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, March 2002, pages 185-191; Dermatology, January 2001, pages 27-30; British Medical Journal, October 1999, page 1066; and