health news
June 28, 2011 posted by

Vitamin D, Sunscreen, and Healthy Skin

Since it’s finally looking like summer outside it seems like a good time to discuss the topic of sunlight and what you should be doing about it. Two popular subjects in the health world are vitamin D and sunscreen, neither of which is very well understood by the general public. After reading today’s post you can stop reading those headlines because the solutions are very simple.

Vitamin D.
Not really a vitamin, exactly, it’s actually a hormone and is produced by your body. Its effects are so important it’s not even worth mentioning all the pluses. Just know that if you lack vitamin D life is going to get unpleasant very quickly. The good news is that our bodies make it when our skin is exposed to sunlight. You don’t even need very much sun exposure, and your body stores it so it will hang around when the weather turns gray, even for months. Yet numerous studies show many people are drastically low in vitamin D. So what’s the deal?

We’re obviously not getting outside enough but that’s not the entire story because we might be. We’re just using too much sunscreen when we do. Vitamin D is present in very few foods. We can supplement it but we don’t want too much of it because our bodies store it, and too much can be stored (when it can become toxic). Natural exposure is both the safest and most effective way to get it.

It seems that almost everyone now knows that overexposure to sunlight can cause skin cancer and that sunscreen can help prevent it. Unfortunately health officials—and marketing divisions—find it’s easier to sell the public on black and white rather than bother with subtleties like, oh, the fact our bodies needs some sunlight for health and skin cancer, while a very real threat, takes a lot of sun exposure to get. So the powers that inform have been telling us to slather on sunscreen anytime we step out of the house and, apparently, we’ve chosen this one piece of advice (as opposed to “exercise more”, “eat fruits and veggies”, “drink plain water”, “watch less TV” etc) to take to heart, resulting in a widespread problem with vitamin D deficiency.

In fact, so disinterested have these powers been with subtleties that sunscreens have been blocking the wrong rays for years. We’re finally starting for hear about the difference in UVA and UVB rays. Until recently sunscreens only targeted the latter, which incidentally are also the rays we use to make vitamin D. Now it turns out the UVA rays we’ve been letting through can cause skin cancer too, so all our protective measures have not only been leaving us exposed to possible skin cancer but lowering our immune system at the same time. Oops.

Many of the sunscreen companies are now choosing to block UVA rays and inform you about this on their label, but they’re still not too forthcoming about the importance of getting some UVB because, well, it probably doesn’t seem like good business (even though a new study shows vitamin D helps stave off skin cancer). They also don’t tell you that unless you get an awful lot of sun exposure you’re not very likely at all to develop skin cancer or have any damaging effects from the sun at all. The fact is that we not only don’t need, but should not have, sunscreen covering our exposed skin areas all the time.

The simple solution
The media makes this subject appear complicated but the solution simply is not. We should get outside during the middle of the day on sunny days whenever we can. Not for long; a stroll through the park at lunch on a sunny day is likely plenty of exposure as long as you’re not completely covered up (the AMA recommends 15 minutes of exposure a “few times” per week). You don’t need to be in a bathing suit but wearing shorts and jogging around the park on occasion wouldn’t hurt. We just shouldn’t live like vampires, no matter how cool their lives seem on True Blood.

On the flip side no one needs to lie out at the beach. Fake tanning is still seems like the safest way to mimic an 80s sex symbol. Once you feel your skin get warm you’ve had more exposure than you need. For those of you that do spend a lot of time outdoors, make sure your sunscreen blocks both UVA and UVB rays. And if you’re addicted to sunlight wear a hat. The skin on your face and neck, especially around your eyes, is very susceptible to the raisin effect.

Supplementing vitamin D has been shown to be effective but, unless you never get outside, a base amount is sufficient. Whatever is in your multivitamin is likely fine (The RDAs 400IU is “100%” but not really 100% so don’t worry about it–subject for another day). Also, make sure to try and eat plenty of non-cooked omega 3 and 6s in your diet. These fatty acids protect your skin from sun damage and keep it looking young.

Trying to get too involved in the numbers of this subject will just confuse you. “Nobody really knows how much sunlight you need for optimal vitamin D synthesis versus too much sunlight,” say Jean Tang, dermatologist and lead author of a government study that followed 36,000 women ages 50 to 79 for an average of seven years. And if someone like Tang doesn’t know the math, there’s no reason for you bother with it either.

Further reading and opinions:


  • Very helpful. Well written and intelligent. Thanks!

  • Very great read I enjoyed it. What do you think is the perfect SPF for sunblock? I have heard that the 100 ones are actually too high.

  • Steve,FDA (a questionable source) has finally weighed in on SPF, UVA and B, etc.Also, there is a direct link between vitamin D and cholesterol – but I'm too dumb to remember what it is. Something along the lines of you need cholesterol to make VIT D, or you need VIT D to make cholesterol.Bottom line: super complicated. In 100 years people will look at our understanding of the human body the same way we look at flat earthers.Now, where are my cigarettes?J

  • Cholesterol, too, is an issue that solves itself with a sensible lifestyle. You need some. Not much. A balanced diet with plenty of plants and sunlight and movement regulates it perfectly. It's only an issue when we eat a bunch of crap, eating nothing natural, and sit inside all day like someone with psycotic problems.

  • I believe my brother means psychotic problems.

  • Wow, so too much of anything is bad for you… everything in moderation….doctors aren't God…Hmmm, seems my grandparents were smarted than us!!

  • I know you mean well but what you're doing here in encroaching on the American businessman's ideals. People can look out for themselves just fine. The world doesn't need any more of your misplaced guidance trying to forcing learning down their throats because they don't want it in the first place. How much money does this little blog make anyway? Whattaya say you come on over and work for me?

  • My doctor did a routine blood work on me a few years ago, and my Vitamin D was 6 or 7. I don't remember if it was ng/Ml or mmol/L. I'm active and outdoors a lot, but always have sunscreen on. Now I take 6,000 IUs of Vitamin D3 per day, and my Vitamin D is around 60. Sometimes I'll get out of the habit of taking Vitamin D3 for a week or two, and I notice that I don't recover from workouts as quickly when I'm off of the D3. After checking out the .gov link, I really need to find out if my measurements were ng/Ml, because if they were then my Vitamin D is now a little too high.Anyways, I'm really glad that my doctor checked my Vitamin D and told me to start taking D3 supplements. I could just quit wearing sunblock, but my mom raised me to lather SPF on everyday.Jimmy

  • I notice that one of your references is to an article by Dr. Mercola. This is a doctor that is against vaccinations for children, as well as being a proponent of other medical strategies that are demonstrably wrong. Please tell me that you do not support his views. Perhaps his information on sun exposure is accurate, but his other work is so anti-science that I would be very unlikely to trust anything by him.

  • Haha on Mercola. Yeah, I know what you mean. That's why I said opinions.I honestly like that Mercola is out there because he's always challenging the mainstream but I also totally agree that he's way over the top. Most of his views come from a baseline of merit, which he often takes to absurd measures. I've cited him here before, and always with a sense of measure. Vaccinations certainly have their issues, that is for certain, but to be 100% against every one of them is based more on principle than science, which is totally Mercola.

  • Very informative, thanks.

  • Plus Mercola is from Illinois, and we all know that nothing can be trusted coming out of there. I mean, does Mercola have a birth certificate proving he's one of us and not one of them?

  • Missing from the discussion is the issue of the toxicity of the mainstream sunscreens that are out there. I've actually had dermatologists tell me not to use them on my kids because skin absorbs the toxins directly into the bloodstream. Apparently mineral zinc oxide is the safest screen out there, and, yes, it makes you look like a reflective ghost. Nano-ized zinc (i.e. transparent) also goes into the bloodstream with toxic results.

  • and Mercola lives in Hawaii now! Something is rotten in the state of Denmark!

  • Wait, Aaron's docs recommend not using sunscreen? Is his doc Mercola? Did he vaccinate them?As your doctor, I advise pouring more beer on your body to facilitate the tanning process. No point in mentioning those bats, the poor bastard will see them soon enough.

  • What alcohol percentage is optimal for the sun-beer? Is dark beer better? Or something with more hops? This is a very appealing prescription, though I may end up smelling like a frat house on Sunday morning. Do you think I can absorb the beer through my skin?

  • I was wondering where a questionable fact that a family member has told me about Vitamin D. So here it is I was told that in order for your body to create Vitamin D you have not shower for at least 48 hours after sun exposer(sp). With this being said they also told me that I need to start taking a Vitamin D supplement daily because there is no way I get enough sun. I do live in Washington so its kinda believable but I make a good attempted to get outside each day for a walk.

  • I'm not sure about showering but I doubt that's true, especially the 48 hour part, and I'm certain it's possible to get enough sun in Washington. However, I'm not sure how much extra time in the sun is needed in your climate. It's pretty simple to get your levels checked, which is probably worth it since getting outside sounds somewhat difficult.

  • It's not always that simple. My doctor informed me some of us just plain lack the ability to metabolise Vitamin D from sunlight properly.And even without that, over here in Australia, the ozone depletion worsens things. Higher levels of UV getting through and all. Plus location and a few other factors that mean when the sunlight comes knocking in Australian skies, it virtually busts down the door.From the Australian Government Bureau of Microbiology site:"The incidence of skin cancer, per head of population, in Australia is ten times higher than America and more than twenty times higher than in the U.K. More than 60% of our population will be treated for skin cancer in one form or another in their lifetime."And over a thousand Australians die a year of skin cancer.So yes. I'd far rather take supplements. Especially given in my personal case, my burn time begins before the recommended time most suggest for exposure to get Vitamin D; five minutes direct sunlight and I'm sunburned.

  • You do seem to have the perfect storm for vit D deficiency. Oz is indeed a curious case so far as sun exposure goes and I wonder how long it will be before more of the world has the same ozone issues. Regardless, it does seem wise for someone who lives somewhere where sun exposure is more dangerous than normal and is sensitive to sun exposure in the first place should look for help on the issue. We all live with personal issues where we need to assess situations differently than the norm. "My doctor informed me some of us just plain lack the ability to metabolise Vitamin D from sunlight properly"I'm pretty sure this statement is hyperbole. Certainly situations can make it more challenging, like your case, or a disease that affects kidney or liver function could hinder or stop it, but the process of metabolizing vitamin d from sunlight is a standard human function. It varies per individual absolutely but "just plain lack" cannot be true unless we're talking about a disease but in such cases every subject becomes situational.

  • google…


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