Sun Protection and Vitamin D

As much as you need vitamin D, you also need sun protection. You can have both, and your skin won't get hurt or your body won't get what it needs.

We all need vitamin D. It helps bones grow, and if we didn't have it, we'd be more likely to get diseases like osteoporosis. Vitamin D is also important for the immune system, and some doctors think it can help prevent a wide range of diseases. On the other hand, a lack of vitamin D can lead to a wide range of health problems.

Your body makes vitamin D when your skin is out in the sun. The sun's ultraviolet B (UVB) rays interact with a protein called 7-DHC in the skin, turning it into vitamin D3, the active form of vitamin D.

The problem is that too many people think that using sunscreen and other sun protection causes vitamin D deficiency and that the best way to get enough vitamin D is to be in the sun without any protection. But that can lead to a whole other set of serious problems. Dermatologists explains why, when you weigh the pros and cons, letting the sun beat down on your face and body is not the best way to meet your D quotient. Let’s see how you can have your D and eat it too, without abusing the skin you're in.

Benefits of Vitamin D, Risks of D Deficiency

Vitamin D keeps your bones strong by controlling how much calcium is in your body. For healthy bones, you need to make sure you get enough of this vitamin. People who don't get enough of the vitamin can have aches, weakness, and pain in their bones and muscles. In severe cases, a lack of calcium can slow growth, cause bones to soften, and weaken the structure of bones. This increases the risk of skeletal deformities, osteoporosis, and broken bones.


Studies have never shown that using sunscreen every day leads to not getting enough vitamin D. In fact, people can keep their vitamin D levels steady if they use sunscreen every day.


In the past few years, vitamin D has been used for more things than before. Some people who support it think that it does everything from prevent type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis to cut down on deaths from cancer and heart disease. But these ideas are only based on studies that looked at what happened. This means that the researchers have seen that people who get enough vitamin D have a lower risk of getting these diseases and/or dying from them. However, this does not mean that vitamin D is the reason why the risk is lower. Observational studies can be a good place to start, but they are not proof and should not be used to make medical recommendations


Benefits of Sun Protection, Risks of Sun Exposure

On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence that sun protection has many benefits. Controlled studies have shown that using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day cuts your chances of getting squamous cell carcinoma by about 40%, melanoma by 50%, and early aging of the skin by 24%.

On a molecular level, it has been shown that the sun's ultraviolet (UV) light damages the cellular DNA of the skin. This can cause genetic changes that can lead to skin cancer. Solar UV is a proven human carcinogen, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization. Studies have linked it to about 90% of nonmelanoma skin cancers and about 86% of melanomas, as well as early aging of the skin. UV radiation also hurts the eyes and can cause cataracts, cancers of the eyelids, and other types of eye skin cancers, such as melanomas.


In short, being in the sun without protection puts you at risk for a number of diseases that can damage your skin permanently, disfigure you, and sometimes even kill you. Using sunscreen every day can help keep all of these things from happening


Does Sunscreen Use Lead to Vitamin D Deficiency?

Sunscreens with a high SPF are made to block most of the sun's UVB rays, which are the main cause of sunburn and can lead to skin cancer. UVB wavelengths are the ones that cause the skin to make vitamin D. Even so, clinical studies have never shown that using sunscreen every day makes it hard to get enough vitamin D. In fact, most studies show that people can keep their vitamin D levels the same if they use sunscreen every day.


One reason for this could be that some of the sun's UV rays still reach your skin no matter how much sunscreen you use or how high the SPF. Sunscreen with an SPF of 15 blocks 93 percent of UVB rays. Sunscreen with an SPF of 30 blocks 97 percent, and sunscreen with an SPF of 50 blocks 98 percent. Even with high-SPF sunscreens, this means that between 2% and 7% of the sun's UVB can still reach your skin. And that's if you know how to use them well.


Damage Before You realize It

The truth is, it doesn’t take much sun exposure for the body to produce vitamin D. Even people who are very pro-unprotected sun exposure say that you shouldn't be out in the sun for more than 10 to 15 minutes, two to three times a week, on your arms, legs, stomach, and back. After that, you should wear good sun protection or anti uv clothing ;). Your body gets all the vitamin D it needs from that small amount of exposure. After that, your body automatically starts to get rid of vitamin D so you don't get too much of it. At that point, being in the sun does nothing but damage your skin without giving you any of the supposed benefits.
The problem is that even those 10 or 15 minutes without protection are more than enough to damage your DNA, and every bit of damage adds up over your lifetime, causing more and more genetic mutations that keep raising your risk of skin cancer. Unfortunately, the very same UVB wavelengths that make the body synthesize vitamin D are also the wavelengths that produce sunburn and genetic mutations that can lead to skin cancer.

Not to mention the damage done by the sun's longer-wave UVA radiation, which is one of the main reasons why skin ages faster than it should and can cause skin cancer. In 2015, Science published the results of a study that showed UVA damage can start in less than a minute. The damage to the pigment cells (melanocytes) of the skin keeps getting worse for hours after sun exposure stops. Melanocyte damage can cause melanoma, which is the most dangerous type of skin cancer.


Most dermatologists say we should wear more sun protection, not less, because DNA damage happens quickly and the harmful effects of UVA and UVB exposure add up over time. 


Dermatologists recommend avoiding tanning beds as a vitamin D source, since it’s pointless as well as dangerous. Tanning beds provide UVA but it is UVB that helps the skin produce vitamin D. The results are the increase of skin cancer without receiving any benefit.


Better Options

How else can you get enough vitamin D if not from being in the sun?


You can acquire vitamin D from a combination of diet and supplements. Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna are especially good sources. Egg yolks, beef liver, and cheese also have small amounts. Vitamin D is also added to many everyday foods, like milk and orange juice. (Read the labels, because food is only fortified if it says it is.) It is possible, but not easy, to mix and match these foods to get the daily allowance of 600 International Units (IU) that the Institute of Medicine and The Skin Cancer Foundation recommend for the average person between the ages of 1 and 70. (400 IU is recommended for infants under age 1 and 800 IU is recommended for everyone over age 70.) In fact, if you want to be a throwback to the past, all you have to do is hold your nose and eat a tablespoon of cod liver oil. With 1,360 IU, it has more than twice the amount of vitamin D that is recommended for a day.



If you don't like cod liver oil and don't want to do the math and juggling needed to get all your vitamin D from food, you can just mix in supplements. (Most nutritionists think that food should always be your first choice, and supplements should be used as extras.)


Some people need more vitamin D than 800 to 2,000 IU, and some health groups recommend higher doses. With supplements, it's easy to take in these larger amounts. As of now, 2,000 IU is generally thought to be the most you can have in a day, but some experts recommend even higher levels. It's important to remember, though, that doses of vitamin D higher than 2,000 IU might make you sick (with potential side effects including excess calcium in the blood and kidneys and symptoms ranging from nausea and vomiting to changes in mental functioning). Before you start taking vitamin D supplements, you might want to talk to your doctor to make sure you're taking the right amount for you.


Bottom line: You can get all the vitamin D you need from food, supplements, and occasional safe sun exposure. This way, you don't have to worry about the many risks of unprotected sun exposure.