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Does sunscreen make you Vitamin D deficient?

Angela asks…My husband recently read an article (from Australia, but I can’t remember the source now) claiming that we shouldn’t be using sunscreens. I think the basis of the article was that many people are vitamin D deficient, and that applying sunscreen prevents the production of vitamin D. It suggested that the risk of skin cancer was low compared to the vast benefits of vitamin D. In all your experience/ readings, is there any truth to that or can I continue preaching the virtues of sunscreen to my outdoor loving hubbie? And if I were to stop using all sunscreen, wouldn’t I look like an old leather shoe as I age?

The Beauty Brains respond:

Hi Angela. Please tell your husband that you should NOT stop using sunscreens. The idea that sunscreens cause vitamin D deficiency is a myth.

What’s the deal with vitamin D?

There are several “D” vitamins. The two most important are vitamin D2 (cholecalciferol) and Vitamin D3 (ergocalciferol). These control absorption of important minerals (such as iron, magnesium and zinc) in our intestines. Without sufficient Vitamin D our bodies don’t process these minerals properly which decreases the hardness of our bones (a condition called rickets or osteomalacia.) Vitamin D deficiency can also lead to a compromised immune system. Some cancers, such as prostate, colon and breast, have even been linked to a lack of vitamin D.

Vitamin D can be obtained through diet or it can be produced by our bodies, with exposure to adequate sunlight. Since sunscreens prevent sunlight from interacting with our skin, it’s not surprising that this notion that they can impair our ability to product Vitamin D has been raised. Let’s review the key points of this controversy.

Myth: People who live in sunny climates experience fewer deaths from prostate, colon and breast cancers. 

Fact: Two doctors from the Department of Dermatology at Boston University School of Medicine have analyzed the studies which claim to link these cancers with sun exposure. Their analysis shows these studies to be of “variable quality” because they may be confounded by other factors including additional climatic factors variations in population genetics, diet and lifestyle. They concluded that these studies “cannot establish that solar exposure decreases incidence or mortality from these cancers.” Here’s a link if you’d like to read all the details: http://www.skincancer.org/healthy-lifestyle/vitamin-d/the-d-dilemma

Myth: The risk of vitamin D deficiency is greater than the risk of skin cancer

Fact: Over-exposure to UV radiation is strongly linked to skin cancer through a combination of animal and human population studies (as well as DNA research). There are than 1.3 million new annual cases diagnosed in the U.S., most of which can be attributed to sun exposure. In addition, UV radiation is a major cause of photo-aging and contributes to wrinkles, saggy skin, brown spots, and the “old leather shoe” look that Angela is rightfully worried about. The dangers of sun exposure outweigh the concerns about vitamin D deficiency.

Myth: The best way to prevent vitamin D deficiency is to get 5-10 minutes of unprotected sun exposure

Fact: The authors of the above mentioned study point out alternative ways to boost vitamin D levels that do not require sun exposure. For example, you can eat more foods that are naturally rich in vitamin D (like salmon); you can drink beverages that are fortified with vitamin D (like milk or orange juice); or you can take multivitamins which contain 600 units of vitamin D. These alternatives are easy and much safer for your skin.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

The scientific consensus is that it’s important to wear sunscreen to reduce your risk of skin cancer. It’s also important to eat a healthy diet to ensure an adequate supply of vitamin D. Those two health goals are NOT mutually exclusive.  So tell your outdoor-loving hubby to suit up (with sunscreen) before he goes outside.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Eileen August 20, 2014, 10:44 am

    Thank you for addressing the ridiculous notion that people should not wear sunscreen because of Vit. D deficiencies. Even without your science backed response, pure logic would reduce that myth to so much balderdash. Unless you’re covering every exposed part of your body with a heavy duty sun screen at least every two hours or more and you’re completely encased in “sun proof” clothing 24/7, you’re going to get quite a bit of sun exposure just going about your normal day’s activities. When you also take into consideration all the excellent dietary sources of Vit. D and the supplements that are readily available, it’s absurd to think that wearing sunscreen–especially given the lackadaisical manner in which most people apply it–is going to make any difference. The bottom line is that the vast majority of people–whether they were sunscreen or not–have no problem getting enough Vit. D.

    Except vampires! Now that’s a group that might have a legitimate problem getting enough Vit. D, but then they have other issues, too, like being undead! LOL All kidding aside, I do realize that there are people who have problems caused or exacerbated by Vit. D deficiency, but those problems are not the result of wearing sunscreen. Sheesh!

    • Randy Schueller August 20, 2014, 10:50 am

      It’s recommended that vampires only bite people with vitamin D rich blood.

  • Shailja @BeABrideEveryday August 21, 2014, 1:21 am

    Hi Perry, As we cannot just stop wearing sunscreen so we to counter balance its deficinecy via food. Can you please suggest a couple of foods that are enrich in Vitamin D ?

  • Professional Skin care August 22, 2014, 12:33 am

    We can’t stop applying sunscreen but to balance that out we should eat food which are rich in Vitamin D like milk, cereal,egg and mushrooms.

  • Sandy September 1, 2014, 10:53 am

    It’s not just about skin cancer. As a 60 year old former sun worshiper I get to make 2 dermatologist visits a year to remove sun damage spots. Now I wear 100 SPF rain or shine. Those laser treatments are more annoying than tattoos.

    • Randy Schueller September 1, 2014, 12:18 pm

      Good for you Sandy. Although SPF 100 may be over doing it. Good application is more important than a super-high SPF.

  • Heyman October 19, 2014, 3:12 am

    I don’t want to sound harsh but I would like to reply with some constructive criticism:

    The article doesn’t answer the question in the title. The question is: Does sunscreen make you vitamin D deficient?

    >Myth: People who live in sunny climates experience fewer deaths from prostate, colon and breast cancers.

    Wheter or not people in sunny climates get more of certain cancers is not answering the question ‘does sunscreen make you Vitamin D deficient’ but ‘does Vitamin D help against these 3 cancers’?… Picking a study on 3 cancers does not help much either since it only makes a small portion of the benefits that some would claim.

    >Myth: The risk of vitamin D deficiency is greater than the risk of skin cancer

    Again, this tells us nothing about whether sunscreen causes vitamin D deficiency. I don’t believe you conducted or looked at research comparing the health outcomes of both conditions, at least you did not quote it. So how can you make that comparison by just looking at one side? UV radiation is the main issue behind premature skin aging but this does not answer the question that was asked.

    >Myth: The best way to prevent vitamin D deficiency is to get 5-10 minutes of unprotected sun exposure

    Spending some time (without burning) in the sun creates up 10000 IU of vitamin D. Eating salmon or drinking milk? Really? Eating two pounds of salmon every day or drinking ten litres of milk sounds good? Do you think anyone actually does that, eating decent quantities of salmon every day? Why would you take a multivitamin if you are worried about vitamin D and not take vitamin D itself?

    Food is a bad source for vitamin D. Sun exposure might produce benefits other than through vitamin D (e.g. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-01/uos-hct011714.php). This article did not make an attempt to answer the question that is asked in the title. Some research if sunscreen prevents the skin from producing vitamin D would answer that.

    This article could have made an attempt to show that most benefits of vitamin D can not be replicated when doing experimental research as an example which would be a strong argument.

    I’m not advocating against sunscreen. I’m not sure how important vitamin D actually is as researchers are debating this. I’m not convinced exposing e.g. your back to the sun for 5 minutes without burning will significantly increase skin-cancer risk either.

  • Randy Schueller October 19, 2014, 11:26 am

    Hi Heyman. Thanks for your constructive comments. We always welcome feedback when it’s framed this way.

    I see what you mean when you say that the article doesn’t really answer the question in the title. I think our choice of title was a bit inexact. The question that Angela asked, that we tried to answer, was (and I’m paraphrasing here) is which is the bigger risk: Getting skin cancer or suffering from Vitamin D deficiency? We’re cosmetic chemists, not dermatologists, but after reviewing the literature our assessment was that it’s better to use sunscreen.

    If you, or any of our other readers, find technical references that support a different point of view (or that expands on the discussion) we’d be happy to share them.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

    • Heyman October 19, 2014, 12:12 pm

      Hi, thanks for the response! I’m happy to provide some input:

      Regarding the original question: Research on sunscreen and vitamin D is mixed. Usually research in a laboratory will show that sunscreen prevents vitamin D production, while research in normal living conditions over a long period shows it does not.

      The possible reason: Vitamin D production is maxed out after a short amount of time. Only a few minutes of sun-exposure will increase it significantly, afterwards it does not increase further. If you go to the beach for 5 hours and use an SPF 15 sunscreen, that is likely still plenty of UVB reaching the skin to increase vitamin D production.

      If you have someone who is avoiding the sun for anti-aging and anti-skin-cancer purposes as much as possible and who also uses SPF 50 on any bodypart that is exposed, this might over time result in low vitamin D levels. Most people however are not that religious about it.

      As vitamin D is already produced before a sunburn is reached it does not make sense to get a sunburn obviously. So really we are comparing the risks of skin cancer that result from 5-15 minutes of (non-burning) sun-exposure a few times a week versus the benefits of vitamin D. I would never try to get that sun-exposure through exposing the parts that I don’t want to look older though.

      This risk-benefit analysis is very difficult. Vitamin D is very promising in observational studies but randomized controlled trials are a different issue. I added a few links here to support what I wrote.

      Sunscreen sure will help a lot with anti-aging and getting a sunburn is never a good idea. Likely the risks of exposing your back for 5 minutes are not huge, but the benefits of vitamin D are also not that clear under any circumstance… If it were just for myself, I have the opinion it probably would not hurt to expose some parts of your body that aren’t your face, neck or arms for 5 minutes in the summer every week or so (without sunscreen).