Time to Make vitamin D: Should You Get Some Unprotected Sun?
Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD
Call me a sunscreen fanatic.
I slather the stuff on myself and my children, and I silently curse when I discover that I’ve missed a spot. At the beach, I hide out under a large umbrella to minimize sun exposure, and encourage my kids to do the same.
Yet, as much as I know that going outside during the summer is risky for your skin, I also realize that some “unprotected sun” is good for your overall health.
Your body makes vitamin D, which supports strong bones and teeth and may help to reduce the risk for certain cancers (http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/TreatmentsandSideEffects/Complementaryan...). Summer sunlight supplies strong Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays that initiate vitamin D production in skin. Your liver and kidneys complete the process, and your body stores vitamin D for future use.
I live in the northeast, where the sun is too weak to trigger vitamin D production for about half the year. In theory, I could get make all the vitamin D I need with more unprotected sun. Believe me, I’d like to try.
Here’s the problem: UVB rays also cause sunburn and skin cancer. And the Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays that are also present in sunlight are responsible for wrinkles, and possibly more serious skin damage.
According to the American Cancer Society, (http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/CancerCauses/SunandUVExposure/
SkinCancerPreventionandEarlyDetection/skin-cancer-prevention-and-early-detection-u-v-protection) it’s better to get vitamin D from your diet or vitamin supplements rather than from sun exposure. Foods and supplements with vitamin D won’t increase the risk for skin damage, and food and supplements are more reliable sources.
So, while I’m sure I get some unprotected sun from May to October that helps my body make vitamin D, I don’t rely completely on sunshine. I take 25 mcg of vitamin D every day, year-round, and include foods rich in vitamin D, such as salmon, tuna, fortified milk and orange juice, and eggs as part of a balanced diet. My children take vitamin D supplements, too.
When I’m chasing my kids around with a bottle of broad spectrum, high SPF sunscreen, I could be accused of sucking the fun out of summer. Maybe I am, in the short run. But I’m sure they’ll thank me for their healthy skin, years down the road.