How to get Vitamin D without the Sun!

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Sunscreen’s alleged role in vitamin D deficiency is a controversial and complicated subject, and one we take very seriously. There is growing research showing that liberal application of sunscreen inhibits the production of vitamin D (which is a critical substance that is important for our bodies); so, the million-dollar question is: How can you get vitamin D without putting skin at risk from the sun’s harmful rays? It turns out the solution is actually quite simple, but first let’s explore why vitamin D deficiency is such an important issue…
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Recommended Sun Protection

The Vitamin D Dilemma

The dilemma we all face is that vitamin D is one of the few nutrients the body cannot make on its own. The “natural” way to get vitamin D is to expose skin to the sun’s dangerous UVB rays, which cause sunburn, cell damage, skin cancers, and, possibly, other cancers [1]. Not maintaining sufficient vitamin D levels, however, is associated with risks of bone loss, cardiovascular disease, auto-immune conditions, and some cancers.

Adding to the conflicting research (and we are overwhelmed by the vast number of studies on this) is that even though sunscreen can block vitamin D production, it is also well known that most people don’t wear sunscreen as they should, and in fact, many don’t wear it at all; therefore, sunscreen application does not explain the vitamin D deficiency issue [2, 3]). In other words, just because you wear sunscreen and live a smart-sun lifestyle doesn’t mean you will have inadequate levels of vitamin D. Even in countries where almost no one wears sunscreen and where there is a great deal of sun all year long, there are people who have deficient levels of vitamin D.

You may have heard the recommendation that you need 15 or 30 minutes of unprotected sun exposure per day for your body to produce all the vitamin D it needs. There is no evidence showing that to be the case, especially considering that the amount of sunlight present in different parts of the world and at different times of the year varies dramatically. For example, 30 minutes of sun exposure at noon during nine months of the year in London, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, Seattle, Toronto, or New York won’t do you much good because the amount of daylight present is minimal and the sun is never directly overhead, so the effects of the sun’s rays are somewhat diminished. So, it would be ill-advised to just count the minutes you are in the sun without protection to determine how much vitamin D you’re getting [4, 5].

There is also the issue of how much skin must be exposed to the sun for your body to manufacture sufficient vitamin D. Is it enough if you only expose your face and hands, or should you expose your face, arms, and chest? No one knows for sure, and just guessing is dangerous, for your skin and your health.

Summer or vacation sun-tanning is certainly not the answer. Darker skin color, whether genetic or darkened by sun exposure, provides some amount of UVB protection, which in turn slows the production of vitamin D by the body. So, seriously damaging your skin by exposing it to the sun, and not necessarily leading to higher vitamin D levels, is at best counterproductive and at worst dangerous.

To many researchers and dermatologists the question is not whether or not to wear sunscreen, but rather to ask yourself how you can protect your skin from the serious problems that result from unprotected sun exposure and still get enough vitamin D.

We believe strongly that you can do both. It would be shortsighted to try and solve one problem (getting enough vitamin D) by causing an equally serious problem (skin damage and skin cancer)—especially if forgoing sunscreen doesn’t resolve the vitamin D deficiency problem anyway!

How to get Vitamin D without the Sun

Here’s what you can do to take the best care of your skin and to make sure you have sufficient levels of vitamin D in your body.

At your next physical examination have your vitamin D level checked. You may not be deficient or you may need far more.

If your vitamin D level is low, be diligent about taking vitamin D supplements. Ask your doctor to find out how many International Units (IU) of vitamin D you should be taking because overdosing with vitamin D supplements isn’t healthy either [6, 7]. The amount and frequency of the supplements will depend on many factors, including your blood level of vitamin D, your geographic location, and your overall health.

Most important: Do not give up on sun protection and being sun smart! You can have the best of both worlds: adequate levels of vitamin D without having your skin suffer the aging and cancer-causing consequences of unprotected sun exposure.

What about Tanning Beds?

Fear of not getting enough vitamin D is causing a frightening increase in the use of tanning beds; many tanning salons are taking advantage of this fear by 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 do not lead to the body producing vitamin D. As it turns out, UVB rays are responsible for stimulating vitamin D production in the body, and tanning beds emit almost entirely UVA rays! This terrible misinformation is killing your skin, and it’s not getting you more vitamin D [8].

To learn more about what the sun is doing to your skin and how you can prevent its damaging effects, see our sunscreen infographic.

References Cited:

  1. Jou PC; Tomecki KJ. Sunscreens in the United States: current status and future outlook. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2014;810:464-84.
  2. Norval M; Wulf HC. Does chronic sunscreen use reduce vitamin D production to insufficient levels? Br J Dermatol. 2009 Oct;161(4):732-6.
  3. Diehl JW1; Chiu MW. Effects of ambient sunlight and photoprotection on vitamin D status. Dermatol Ther. 2010 Jan-Feb;23(1):48-60.
  4. Webb AR; Engelsen O. Ultraviolet exposure scenarios: risks of erythema from recommendations on cutaneous vitamin D synthesis. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2014;810:406-22.
  5. Terushkin V; et al. Estimated equivalency of vitamin D production from natural sun exposure versus oral vitamin D supplementation across seasons at two US latitudes. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2010 Jun;62(6):929.e1-9.
  6. Kaur P; et al. Vitamin D toxicity resulting from overzealous correction of vitamin D deficiency. Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 2015 Jun 6.
  7. McKenna MJ; et al. Rising trend in vitamin D status from 1993 to 2013: dual concerns for the future. Endocr Connect. 2015 Sep;4(3):163-71.
  8. Autier P. Cutaneous malignant melanoma: facts about sunbeds and sunscreen. Expert Rev Anticancer Ther. 2005 Oct;5(5):821-33.

About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and helping you solve your skincare frustrations with research-supported expert advice—so you'll have the facts you need to take the best possible care of your skin.

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