Will Using Sunscreen Give Me a Vitamin D Deficiency?

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Photo: Julia Wheeler and Veronika Laws/Getty Images

Let's take a quiz, shall we?

How much do you know about vitamin D?

Vitamin D is only important for bone health.

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How much do you know about vitamin D?

How many ways are there to get vitamin D?

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How much do you know about vitamin D?

Which of these foods is not considered a good source of vitamin D? (Check all that apply.)






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How much do you know about vitamin D?

Should I spend time in the sun each day so my body makes enough vitamin D?

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How much do you know about vitamin D?

Are tanning beds a safer way to get vitamin D than the sun?

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  • Your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium and thereby keep your bones strong, but it also plays a role in the health of your muscles, nerves, and immune system.
  • You can get it three ways: from your diet or supplements and through your skin. Nutrition experts say it’s pretty difficult to get enough vitamin D from food alone — that’s why doctors may recommend popping a supplement. Just FYI: The upper limit is 4,000 international units (IUs) per day.
  • While kale is great for vitamins A and C, it’s got basically no D. Vitamin D is found in fatty fish (salmon, tuna, and mackerel), dairy products (milk, yogurt, and cheese; full-fat versions have more), and fortified cereals and juices.
  • You may have heard that 10 or 20 minutes in the sun unprotected can boost your vitamin D levels. While your body does make vitamin D when your skin is exposed to UV light without sunscreen, doctors don’t recommend it because it can increase your risk of skin cancer — and premature aging. A supplement is a safer choice.
  • Some people think tanning beds are safer than the sun since the UV radiation is a “controlled dose,” but it can actually be stronger than what you’d get outside. You shouldn’t use them at all, let alone as a way for your body to make vitamin D.

If you’re like a lot of people, you probably didn’t do so well on that quiz. Vitamin D is important for our bones and other body functions, but some health gurus continue to call it “the sunshine vitamin” and suggest that people get ten to 30 minutes of unprotected sun exposure daily. They argue that the sun is “the most natural way” to get vitamin D and since sunscreen prevents vitamin D synthesis, using it could lower your D levels. But that advice goes against the whole sunscreen-preventing-skin-cancer thing. So we looked into it: Will wearing SPF give you a vitamin D deficiency?

While it’s true that your body does make vitamin D when your skin is directly exposed to UV light, the sun wouldn’t give you enough without raising your risk for skin cancer (and speeding skin aging) in the process, says Debra Jaliman, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. You could get more D if you live at the equator where the sun is stronger, but “in that case you’ll definitely get skin cancer,” she says.

Using sunscreen in and of itself won’t make you deficient, either. “This is evidenced by the fact that I have plenty of patients who don’t wear sunscreen and they go get their vitamin D levels checked and they’re below normal,” Dr. Jaliman says.

Neither doctors nor the National Institutes of Health recommend skipping SPF for the sake of vitamin D production, but Dr. Jaliman says the idea persists. “I have patients who’ve had melanomas and [other] skin cancers and they’re still telling me they want to go out for 30 minutes first thing in the morning to get their vitamin D,” she says. “It’s so frustrating. I wrote a book called Skin Rules, and there’s an entire chapter about this concept of vitamin D and sunscreen.”

Talk about vitamin D may be a front for some, Dr. Jaliman says. “There are a lot of people who are addicted to the sun and use any excuse,” she says. “People always need something to hang their hat on.” If you want to look tan — and Jaliman recognizes that people really do love a glow — she recommends self-tanning products or spray tans.

If you’re legitimately concerned about how much vitamin D you’re getting, you should know that nutrition experts say it’s difficult to get enough from food alone. Some studies say most Americans are deficient, while others say we’re getting plenty. Helpful. If you’re worried about your vitamin D levels, get a blood test, or you can take 1,000 IUs daily since that amount won't hurt you, Dr. Jaliman says. But the upper limit is 4,000 IUs per day, so just be wary of snacking on gummy vitamins like candy.