Vitamin D is also known as the sunshine vitamin, as it is mainly made under the skin when is exposed to sunlight during the summer months. Only a small proportion of vitamin D -less than 10%- comes from food, such as fish and eggs. A healthy and balanced diet alone is not enough to obtain sufficient amounts of Vitamin D, hence getting enough exposure to sunlight or having a vitamin D supplement is important.
Vitamin D keeps our muscles, teeth and bones healthy, by helping the body to absorb and use calcium and phospohorus so these essential minerals can be used by our cells. Low amounts of vitamin D can lead to health problems, such as softening of the bones causing medical conditions known as rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults,
The sun’s ultraviolet radiations make vitamin D but it’s also these rays which cause sunburn and can lead to skin cancer. Non-melanoma skin cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, with an estimated 131,000 new cases diagnosed each year, according to statistics by Cancer Research UK. A large proportion of skin cancers, almost 80%, are preventable, as they are mainly caused by overexposure to the sun.
The NHS current guidance is to spend “a short period of time” in the sun daily between the end of March and by exposing different parts of the body such as forearms and lower legs to sunlight, without using sunscreen. The NHS also advises protecting the skin with sunscreen before it starts burning or getting red.
Specifying a precise amount of safe sun exposure to make an optimum level of vitamin D, without causing skin damage is very difficult. This depends on each individual, as there is a combination of factors, such as skin type, how much skin is exposed, time of the day and geographical location, which mean that a safe level of sun exposure is different from one person to the other.
It is important to balance sun safety with the need to make sufficient levels of vitamin D. Applying sunscreen does not preclude the skin from making vitamin D. A sunscreen of SPF15 does not filter all of UVB, leaving about 7% to get through the skin to make some Vitamin D. Casual exposure to the sun, whilst going about our day to day activities can also boost vitamin D levels. There is so much evidence to support the role of sun exposure to skin cancer, that it would be difficult to back the NHS advice and recommend deliberate sun exposure as a mean of getting vitamin D from sunlight.
So enjoy the sun safely and wear a sunscreen of at least SPF15 when out in the sun.