Sunlight: D or Danger?
It’s confusing, don’t you think?
Vitamin D is important for so many reasons. It strengthens our bones and teeth, boosts our immune, brain and nervous systems, and supports lung and heart function, among many other benefits. But it’s difficult to obtain enough vitamin D from food sources, since few foods naturally contain this essential vitamin.
So where do we get it from? The sun, of course. When the sun's rays hit the skin, a reaction takes place that enables skin cells to manufacture vitamin D. So, sunlight’s great for you! It gives you all that vitamin D, and you get to sunbathe while you do it. What could be better?
But, wait! What about all the dangers you hear about sun exposure? Sunburn, skin damage, even cancer. Watch this short video to see why sunburn is much more damaging than any other kind of burn:
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like something I want to stay really far away from. So how does this work? How can I get my vitamin D without hurting myself (aside from popping pills from a bottle, that is)?
Enter the miracle cure called… sunscreen. Spritz or smear over your exposed skin, and magic! Enjoy the benefits without the burn. Sounds almost too good to be true.
Just one moment there. Won’t the sunscreen block vitamin D absorption as well?
First, a little basic science. The dangers of sun exposure come from both UVA and UVB rays. Vitamin D is stimulated in our bodies by UVB rays, which is what sunscreen protects us from. So, theoretically, sunscreen should block vitamin D absorption, along with the harmful rays. But in real life, is that what actually happens?
Somewhat. But not completely.
The fact is that most people don’t put on anywhere near the recommended amount of sunscreen. Therefore, the protection they’re getting is a fraction of the SPF it says on the bottle. It takes approximately seven teaspoons of the stuff to properly cover up head to toe. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), the majority of sunscreen-users only apply 25-75% of the amount they need, reducing its effectiveness accordingly. (Read this to see how much sunscreen you really need.)
Since we’re not applying sunscreen as much as we think we are, we may be blocking some vitamin D absorption, but definitely not all of it. And even those who do apply sunscreen correctly show some increase in vitamin D levels. Read about one such study here.
With children, however, the story looks a little different. Over the last few years, there has been a rise in rickets, a bone condition in children that generally comes from Vitamin D deficiency. There are a number of factors for this phenomenon (including the fact that kids today are addicted to their screens and spend far less time outside than in the past), but one contributing cause is the overuse of sunscreen. So what’s a parent to do? Read this article for some solutions.
The AAD shares your dilemma. It states on their website that “There is no scientifically proven safe amount of ultraviolet exposure to increase your vitamin D without increasing your skin cancer risk,” and recommend using dietary supplements and enriched foods to ensure enough vitamin D intake instead of sun exposure.
But there are others who promote natural or homemade sunscreens, which will still allow complete vitamin D absorption the natural way – from the sun. There are also some foods you can eat to boost your body’s sun tolerance, so if you sunburn very easily, you might want to try some of these:
Antioxidants – red, orange, and green vegetables, such as tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and broccoli
Omega 3 – cold-water fish, like salmon, herring, and sardines
Vegetable oils – coconut oil, either swallowed or smeared on your skin
Dark chocolate (but not milk chocolate - that doesn’t work!)
Basically, like everything in life, you have to be smart about sun exposure. You may not have to slather on SPF 90 when you’re going out for just a few minutes, but don’t avoid sunscreen when you’re out at the beach because you want the vitamin D.
Enjoy the sun!