Vitamin D or skin cancer: should I stop using sun protection?

It’s been instilled in us to wear sunscreen to protect us from skin cancer. Now we’re being told we need sun on the skin if we are to absorb vitamin D. Which is it? Julie Lardner investigates

The sun’s rays give us such a feeling of wellbeing and contentment. Lunchtimes in the park, lazy weekends in the garden, the beach, al fresco dining… it’s all a delightful relief after the cold, harsh months of winter.

Of course, spending time in the sunshine does take preparation: beach bag, sunnies, a flattering swimsuit, and the most important of all summer accoutrements, SPF 50-plus broad spectrum sunscreen.

start quote

Once you hit your fifties there is an increased risk of a deficiency in your vitamin D levels

final quote

But wait, do we really need that much protection? Isn’t it a good idea to get a bit of sunshine on the skin? Isn’t the thinking now that we don’t want to become deficient in vitamin D?

It’s true that once you hit your fifties there is an increased risk of a deficiency in your vitamin D levels. And, as vitamin D is an essential hormone produced primarily through the interaction of ultraviolet B (responsible for sunburn) and your skin, then you probably do need to consider getting a little unprotected sun exposure during the summer months.

Everyone needs vitamin D

Vitamin D is essential for bone health, and sunlight is the best source for it. Some scientists believe (though there is still much research to be done) that a deficiency in vitamin D could be linked to an increased risk of some cancers, dementia, diabetes, heart disease, multiple sclerosis and depression.

With vitamin D being so important for health and wellbeing, it is not surprising that many people worry they may become deficient if they are wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day.

But there is no evidence to suggest that wearing sunscreen and seeking shade causes a direct deficiency in vitamin D. It is far more likely that our indoor lifestyles are to blame for any deficiencies.

So do we abandon all we’ve been told and go out into the sun unprotected? And how much sun exposure is enough to ensure adequate amounts of vitamin D without risking too much sun and the possibility of skin cancer, not to mention photo-ageing damage?

A little bit of sunshine and often

To help unravel these questions, the best advice I’ve seen is in this joint statement from the British Association of Dermatologists, Cancer Research UK, the National Osteoporosis Society and others in which they say little and often is best when it comes to sun on unprotected skin.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to how long this means. For most people with fair complexions, allow your skin to get at least five to ten minutes of mild sun exposure on most days. It must be less than the time it takes for your skin to start turning red (and definitely less than it takes to start getting burnt). This is sufficient time for most people to make enough vitamin D. (Darker skins need longer exposure).

Once you feel you have had your daily dose of the sunshine vitamin, then continue to protect your skin from the sun, especially during the hottest part of a summer day.

In the summer, with more frequent exposure to the sun, our body stores enough vitamin D to see you us through the winter months. This store (along with natural food sources) helps to minimise possible deficiencies during winter.

But there is still a risk of a deficiency in the cold months, so you may want seek the advice of your GP and get a simple blood test once a year to check your levels.

If it’s found to be a bit on the low side, you could supplement your diet with wholefood sources rich in vitamin D such as oily fish, fish oils, liver, meat, cheese, eggs and mushrooms.

If your doctor recommends it, take a single-dose, high-quality vitamin D3 supplements, D3 (cholecalciferol) being the more natural form as it is D3 humans make when exposed to sunshine. It is a more stable option and more effective at raising and maintaining vitamin D levels than D2 (ergocalciferol).

With all this in mind, you can now venture out and enjoy all that is wonderful about summer with adequate sun protection and a little dose of vitamin D every day.