sunscreen vitamin d

Are you
getting enough vitamin D?

A clinical
review in the Journal of the American
Osteopathic Association
shows that nearly 1 billion people around the world aren’t, and it may
be due to chronic disease or lack of exposure to the sun.

“People are spending less time outside and,
when they do go out, they’re typically wearing sunscreen, which essentially
nullifies the body’s ability to produce vitamin D,” Kim Pfotenhauer, DO,
assistant professor at Touro University, and a researcher on the study, said in
a press release.

“While we want people to protect themselves
against skin cancer, there are healthy, moderate levels of unprotected sun
exposure that can be very helpful in boosting vitamin D.”

Read
more: Is vitamin D a wonder supplement? »

Overdoing
it on sunscreen?

Vitamin D is
made by the body when skin is exposed to sunlight.

It can also
be found in foods such as fish and eggs.

A deficiency
in vitamin D can cause brittle bones and weak muscles.

“Studies continuously show that we are amid a vitamin D deficiency
pandemic,” Amber Tovey, program manager at the Vitamin D Council,
told Healthline.

She believes a hypercautious approach to sun safety could be
to blame.

“Sunscreen plays a large role in the vitamin D deficiency
pandemic,” Tovey said. “Due to the danger of skin cancer many people are afraid
of the sun, and they use sunscreen any moment they go outside, neglecting their
bodies of the readily available natural vitamin D from the sun,”

But Tovey emphasizes people should still be sensible about
sun exposure.

“This does not mean that skin cancer is not a real threat to
one’s health. One should take the proper precautions to not receive excessive
amounts of sun exposure. It’s all about moderation,” she said.

So is it possible to get adequate levels of vitamin D while
still avoiding skin cancer?

In an article
for the Skin Cancer Foundation website, Dr. Anne Marie McNeill, PhD, and Erin
Wesner, debunk the myth that using sunscreen will lead to a deficiency in
vitamin D.

“The problem is, too many
people think that using sunscreen and other forms of sun protection leads to
vitamin D deficiency, and that the best way to obtain enough of the vitamin is
through unprotected sun exposure. But that can lead to a whole other set of
serious problems,” they wrote.

“When you add up the pros and cons, letting
the sun beat down on your face and body is not the way to satisfy your D
quotient,” the article authors added.

Simply put, UVB radiation from the sun is
both the best source of vitamin D and the major cause of skin cancer.

Sunscreens with a high SPF filter out the
wavelengths that cause the production of vitamin D in the skin.

But no clinical study has ever found that
everyday sunscreen use leads to vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency.

“One of the explanations for this may be that no matter how
much sunscreen you use or how high the SPF, some of the sun’s UV rays reach
your skin. An SPF 15 sunscreen filters out 93 per cent of UVB rays, SPF 30
keeps out 97 per cent, and SPF 50 filters out 98 per cent. This leaves anywhere
from 2 to 7 per cent of solar UVB reaching your skin, even with high SPF
sunscreens. And that’s if you use them perfectly,” McNeill wrote.

Read
more: Trying to build a better sunscreen »

A sunburnt country

Australia, a country known for its sunshine and beaches, is
often referred to as the skin cancer capital of the world.

Approximately 2 in 3 Australians will be diagnosed with skin
cancer by the time they are 70 years of age.

More than 750,000 people are treated for one or more nonmelanoma
skin cancers every year.

Despite this, vitamin D deficiency is still present.

A recent national health survey found that just under 1 in 4
Australians (23 percent) were vitamin D deficient, though this varied widely by
location and season.

“What was particularly interesting about
this recent survey was that the highest rate of vitamin D deficiency was in the
18 to 34-year age range. This contrasts with our data from 1999-2000 where the
highest rates of deficiency were seen in older adults,” Robin Daly, PhD, chair of exercise and aging within the
Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research at Deakin University in
Melbourne, told Healthline.

Daly says one reason for this change in results was the
finding that the highest proportion of people taking vitamin D supplements were
in the older age group.

However, another factor was the habits of young adults.

“It was a little
alarming that one-third [31 percent] of young adults were deficient — perhaps
because many are working long hours and so obviously getting insufficient sun
exposure, the main source of vitamin D,” he said.

In 1981,
Australia’s Cancer
Council
launched the
Slip, Slop, Slap campaign, to encourage the public to slip on a shirt, slop
on sunscreen, and slap on a hat.

The campaign
quickly became core to sun-safe practices in the country and is credited for
playing a key role in a noticeable shift in public attitudes to sun safety.

Tovey believes
that Australia’s rates of vitamin D deficiency could be in part due to the
campaign, which she believes may have caused some in Australia to fear the sun.

“I
believe this [vitamin D deficiency in Australia] is likely a result of
heliophobia, which was encouraged by the Slip, Slop, Slap campaign,” she said. “Slipping
on long-sleeved clothing, slopping on sunscreen, and slapping on a hat … All of
these methods do block the sun, but in doing so, also block the synthesis of
vitamin D.”

Dr. Rebecca
Mason, PhD, is the head of physiology at the University of Sydney and has
experience in the study of vitamin D. She says the Slip, Slop, Slap campaign is
essential in the tropical and subtropical climate of Australia.

“The sun safety
campaigns may contribute to some people avoiding the sun or too much sun, but
are entirely necessary in Australia, correctly described as the skin cancer
capital of the world, where we have people with mostly Caucasian or whitish
skin in a tropical and subtropical climate. Somewhat surprisingly, though,
there is not much evidence, in practice, that the use of sunscreens makes much difference
to vitamin D status,” she told Healthline.

“Surprisingly,
when vitamin D levels are measured in groups of people, often the people who
say they wear sunscreen a fair bit have higher vitamin D levels. This is completely accounted for when you also factor in
their sun exposure, which is usually much higher than the rest of the group,” she said.

Read more: Vitamin D may help
prevent, treat multiple sclerosis »

Easy ways to obtain vitamin D

Those who are most at risk for vitamin D deficiency include older adults
and people with disabilities, along with people who are housebound, have dark
skin, have a chronic disease like multiple sclerosis, are obese, and those who
work night shifts or are in enclosed environments like offices.

For most people, adequate vitamin D levels can be reached through
regular, short intervals of exposure to sunlight.

McNeill and Wesner write that if done correctly, getting vitamin D from
the sun should come easily and without the risk of skin cancer.

“The truth is, it doesn’t take much sun exposure for the body to produce
vitamin D. Even committed proponents of unprotected sun exposure recommend no
more than 10 to 15 minutes of exposure to arms, legs, abdomen, and back, two to
three times per week, followed by good sun protection,” they wrote.

“That minor amount of exposure produces all
the vitamin D your body can muster. After that, your body automatically starts
to dispose of vitamin D to avoid an overload of the vitamin, at which point
your sun exposure is giving you nothing but sun damage without any of the
presumed benefit.”