Question: Am I getting enough Vitamin D when I wear sunscreen?


Vitamin D and sunscreen

There is usually a trade off between wearing sunscreen and getting enough vitamin D. When you wear sunscreen, you protect yourself against UV damage, but you also prevent your skin from getting direct sunlight, which is what allows your body to manufacture vitamin D.

The choice is usually not as drastic as wearing sunscreen and getting rickets or not wearing sunscreen and getting skin cancer. Nevertheless, it is still extremely important to protect yourself from the sun while maintaining adequate levels of vitamin D.

So, do you actually get enough vitamin D when you wear sunscreen? The short answer is no. However, even if you didn’t wear sunscreen, you still probably wouldn’t get enough vitamin D (more on that below). Keep reading to understand why vitamin D is so important, symptoms of vitamin D deficiency, and how you can get enough vitamin D without getting sun damage.

Why is Vitamin D important?

Vitamin D not only regulates the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, it also helps boost your immune system along with other bodily functions. It is important for strong bones, normal cell growth, hormonal balance, and overall good health.

Vitamin D is synthesized from our skin when it is in contact with direct sunlight. But because direct sunlight is also harmful (i.e. causes cancer, premature aging, etc.), most people will wear sunscreen. This protected sun exposure impedes vitamin D synthesis. Most people also tend to stay indoors (for work/school) for the majority of the day. Coupled with the fact that our regular diets tend to not supply enough vitamin D, all of these factors can contribute to a vitamin D deficiency.

Symptoms of Vitamin D Deficiency

Vitamin D deficiency can encourage osteoporosis (called rickets in children) and cause your bones to soften. It is also linked to liver disease as well as colon cancer, though more studies must be done.

Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency vary across individuals, but people with low levels of vitamin D may experience the following:

  • Muscle pain
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Getting sick more easily
  • Hair shedding more than normal
  • Peeling nails

Note: Some people also find that their acne clears up after taking vitamin D supplements. Although vitamin D deficiency has not been scientifically linked to causing acne, vitamin D can mimic the effects of doxycycline, which is an antibiotic used to treat acne.

The only way to tell for sure if you have a vitamin D deficiency is to get your vitamin D levels tested by your doctor.

How to Get Vitamin D without UV damage

To get enough vitamin D, you could stay out in the sun and not wear sunscreen. However, the risks (sun damage, photoaging, skin cancer) far outweigh the benefits. If you did stay out in the sun all day long, you may not even manufacture enough vitamin D.

People say that 15 minutes of sun is all it takes to get all the vitamin D you need for the day. However, this is incorrect. The amount of vitamin D your skin produces from sunlight depends on the latitude you’re at, the time of day, your skin color (darker skinned people tend to produce less vitamin D), how clothed you are, etc. Fifteen minutes of unprotected sun exposure may be enough for some people, but not for everyone.

Additionally, this study found that high amounts of sun exposure does not guarantee adequate amounts of vitamin D synthesis. Therefore, while you can synthesize vitamin D from the sun, it isn't worth not wearing sunscreen because: 1) you get sun damage (which is very difficult repair) and 2) you don’t make enough vitamin D anyway. If you are out in the sun every, single hour, you are not guaranteed to make enough vitamin D but you are pretty much guaranteed enough photodamage to last you a lifetime.

You can practice healthy sun bathing (unprotected sun exposure during non-peak hours), but the only real solution is to take vitamin D supplements (preferably vitamin D3), that way you get enough vitamin D without having to tan in the sun. Most people will need around 2000 IU a day. Vitamin D3 supplements are also cheap and easy to find.

Another way to prevent vitamin D deficiency while wearing daily sunscreen is to make sure you eat a lot of vitamin D rich food. Foods with vitamin D include dairy products, egg yolks, fatty fish, and liver. However, few foods, even fortified milk and orange juice, have enough vitamin D to meet your daily requirements, so it's best to take a vitamin D supplement. For adequate intake values, check here.

Generally, when you wear sunscreen and aren't outside a whole lot, you probably aren't getting enough vitamin D. It's recommended that everyone take a vitamin D supplement because most everyone could use a boost in their vitamin D levels.

Last updated: September 27, 2012

Next »

FAQ: How do I minimize the "white cast" from sunscreen?

Back « Skin FAQ