We all know that Vitamin D is essential to good health, but how does one reconcile the need for Vitamin D, which humans can synthesize through sun exposure, with the need to protect your skin from skin cancer and, if we can be vain for a moment, unnecessary aging? I’ve written about this subject in the past (see my previous post), but armed with some new information on the subject I thought it was time to revisit this controversy.
Why Our Bodies Need Vitamin D and How to Get Enough
Our bodies need Vitamin D in order to maintain normal calcium metabolism and to support our bone health. Further, Vitamin D helps form strong, healthy nails, plays a role in cellular metabolism and the growth of new skin cells, and helps stop the effects of skin diseases like psoriasis.
According to Dr. Jessica Wu, in her book Feed Your Face (pages 149-150), Vitamin D plays a vital role in our health for many reasons:
Vitamin D is essential for good health. It helps the body absorb calcium for strong bones and muscles, and recent research suggests that vitamin D also plays a role in preventing colon, prostate, and breast cancer as well as diabetes (types 1 and 2), hypertension, and multiple sclerosis. Since a number of cells (including the skin cells) contain vitamin D receptors, it’s possible that there are additional uses and benefits of vitamin D that we don’t yet know about. And here’s another thing: Many of my patients tell me they feel healthier when they’ve had a little sun – and so do I. Perhaps that’s our body’s way of telling us that it needs vitamin D, just as you might crave red meat during your period since your body loses a lot of iron when it’s that time of the month.
There is a lot of debate in medical community about what the optimal levels of Vitamin D are. Different doctors recommend a very wide range of doses for certain age groups so it hard to know what the correct dosage is. Certain groups are a risk for Vitamin D deficiencies: the obese, people with darker skin tones, the elderly, and skin cancer patients/survivors.
You can obtain the necessary amount of Vitamin D through diets and supplements like a multivitamin or a calcium supplement with Vitamin D in it. In terms of diet, foods that are rich in Vitamin D include some fish (like salmon, mackerel, and tuna), some varieties of mushrooms, fortified breakfast cereals, and dairy products that are also fortified with Vitamin D. Vitamin D is also found in small amounts in egg yolks, beef liver, and cheese.
Despite the fact that your diet alone or combined with supplements can provide you with enough Vitamin D many people persist in claiming that the only true way to get enough Vitamin D is to get it through sun exposure. Some people even say that they won’t wear sunscreen for this reason. Personally, I completely disagree with this idea since going without sunscreen can expose you to a whole host of other problems like skin cancer.
But if you insist on getting your needed Vitamin D from the sun – just how much sun exposure is necessary to do that? Not much.
Let me quote from Dr. Wu again (pages 150- 151):
How much vitamin D your body makes depends largely on where you live. For example, if you live above 40 degrees north latitude (that’s like drawing a line from the northern border of California across to Boston), then the sunlight isn’t strong enough to make vitamin D in the winter, from November through February. On the other hand, if you live below 34 degrees north latitude (a line from Los Angeles to Columbia, South Carolina), then spending just a few minutes a day outdoors will give you all the vitamin D you need, regardless of the season.
Another indicator of vitamin D production is the UV Index, which measures the strength of ultraviolet radiation on any given day. (You can look up the UV Index in any basic weather report.) One recent study showed that when the UV Index is 3, a fair-skinned individual will produce an adequate amount of vitamin D by exposing hands and face (without sunscreen) for just 10 minutes a day (it would take an hour to burn). In the summer, when the UV Index might be 7 to 8, you might need only three to four minutes outside.
A little sunlight can be good for you, but that’s not an excuse to get a rotisserie tan or to visit the tanning salon every other week. You can get enough UVB to make vitamin D well before developing a sunburn. If you do burn, you’ve overdone it. The body will break down the excess vitamin D (so it won’t even be stored for use later), and you’ll have increased your risk of skin cancer and premature aging. After no more than a few minutes in strong sunlight, you’ll want to apply a sunscreen with UVA and UVB protection. (I recommend a minimum SPF of 30) And if you have a lot of sun damage, a previous skin cancer, or a family history of melanoma, get your vitamin D from food or a supplement, not the sun.
Keep something else in mind – most people don’t apply enough sunscreen anyhow so they are still getting their Vitamin D from sun exposure even though they are using sunscreen. People routinely forget to apply sunscreen to every area of their exposed skin like their hands, necks, chests, and tips of their ears. Your body can produce Vitamin D when any part of your skin is exposed.
One last thing to keep in mind – your body cannot recognize if the Vitamin D in your body came from the sun or from your diet. No matter what the source, once it’s in your body the Vitamin C is all the same.
The Newest Ways to Get Your Vitamin D
It turns out that there are a number of new products on the market that protect your skin from sun damage while helping your body produce Vitamin D. There are a few things to keep in mind before running out to purchase the first product that says it will help your body get enough Vitamin D.
In order for a product that claims to provide Vitamin D to the body to work properly and topically the Vitamin D has to be active. The ingredient ergocalciferol is the active form of Vitamin D, but the application of Vitamin D topically will only deliver the vitamin to the area where you applied the product, unlike a supplement which enters the blood stream.
There is a new sunscreen ingredient being developed, Uniprotect PT-3, which is said to protect against oxidative and UV damage at the same level as spf 20, but it still allows the body to product Vitamin D at the same time. Currently this ingredient is found in Supergoop! Save Face Serum SPF 30+, but keep your eyes open for it in more products in the future.
In the meantime you can look for the following products that claim to help the skin produce or at least boost the amount of Vitamin D in the skin:
Source and Further Reading:
Vitamin D: Fact Vs. Fiction – New Beauty Fall-Winter 2011, pages 56-62
Feed Your Face by Jessica Wu, MD – pages 19, 149-151
Image from hopkins-arthritis.org