Vitamin D and sun protection – what you need to know

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Often when sunscreen use is recommended to patients a common excuse for non-use is given – that being the need for vitamin D. So, one might ask what is more important, sun protection or vitamin D? And the answer is actually both!

Vitamin D has been getting a lot of press over the past few years and especially now with the fear of inadequate immune systems. We all need vitamin D. It is responsible for bone growth and without it we are at higher risk for conditions such as osteoporosis. Vitamin D also gives us an important boost to our immune system and many of the medical community believe that it can in fact protect us from a number of diseases – including possibly cancers.

You can get Vitamin D in two ways. The first way is that the body manufactures it when the skin is exposed to sunlight. The second way is getting it in a digestible form like in vitamin D rich foods or in supplementation or added into our food and drink products (“fortified with vitamin D”). The best and most natural way is to allow your body to produce the vitamin D on its own. The sun’s ultraviolet B rays interact with a protein called 7–DHC in the skin, converting it to vitamin D3, the active form of vitamin D. And the amazing thing is that your body can never overdose on the vitamin D it naturally produces as it will dispose of what your body does not require on its own.

Now the problem is that too many people think that using sunscreen and other forms of sun protection leads to vitamin D deficiency and therefore don’t opt for any type of sun protection! And that school of thinking can be dangerous and detrimental to those who follow it. The truth is, it literally takes no more than 10 to 15 minutes of exposure to arms, legs, abdomen and back, 2 to 3 times a week on unprotected skin to make an adequate level of vitamin D. The flipside to that coin is that in that brief period of time the rapid onset of DNA damage from the cumulative effects of UVA and UVB exposure start the clock ticking towards a lifetime of damage and genetic mutations which contribute directly to a higher risk of skin cancer. And not to forget the damage the UVA rays do and how they are responsible for the premature aging of the skin.

It is recommended that high SPF sunscreen be used to protect a person’s skin since UVB rays are responsible for sunburn and can lead to skin cancer. In reality no matter how much sunscreen you use or how high the SPF, some of the sun’s rays will affect your skin. An SPF 15 sunscreen filters out approximately 93% of UVB rays and an SPF 30 filters out approximately 97%. Keep in mind though that is only if you use the sunscreens perfectly – which we all know in fact none of us do. So, no matter how much sunscreen you use or how high the SPF, some of the sun’s UV rays reach your skin. We feel this is enough for your body to produce the amount of Vitamin D that you need. 

An interesting thing to note – clinical studies have NEVER found that everyday sunscreen use leads to vitamin D insufficiency. Numerous studies show that people who use sunscreen daily can in fact maintain their vitamin D levels. The big question one might have is “what is my vitamin D level?” That can easily be answered by taking a trip to the lab. If you’re having blood drawn for your annual check-up, ask your doctor about ordering a test to measure your current vitamin D level. When the results are back you can then see if any adjustments need to be made in order to get you into a healthy vitamin D range.

The take-home message is when you add up the pros and the cons, unprotected sun exposure is NOT the way to go in regards to vitamin D – unless you prefer to live dangerously.

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