The People's Perspective on Medicine

Is it Safe to Get Vitamin D From the Sun?

Sunscreens are under a bit of a cloud. They prevent vitamin D formation. Pills may not be all that effective. Can you get vitamin D from the Sun? How much?

Before there were vitamin D pills, humans made this essential nutrient whenever their skin was exposed to sunlight. Nowadays, dermatologists warn us that any sun exposure is bad for our skin. They are absolutely right that ultraviolet rays damage the epidermis. Premature aging and wrinkling, not to mention skin cancer, result from excessive sun exposure. But can vitamin D from the sun be beneficial? How much is enough and how much is too much?

She Wants to Know If You Can Get Vitamin D from the Sun?

Q. I’ve heard that sun exposure might be better than pills for getting vitamin D. How much time do you need in the sun without sunscreen to get a good dose?

A. A lot depends on geography, time of year, time of day and the shade of your skin. Someone with fair skin can get adequate vitamin D from about three weekly sessions of 15 to 20 minutes in the summer time.

If you were in a northern locale, you might need twice that. People with darker skin need more time in the sun to make the same amount of vitamin D.

Dermatologist Discourage Getting Vitamin D from the Sun

We have yet to meet a dermatologist who says vitamin D from the sun is OK. There is almost universal agreement that the only safe way to get vitamin D is from a pill.

Skin doctors love sunscreens. They absolutely prevent sunburn. There is little doubt that burning the skin is bad news. But there is new concern about the safety of some sunscreens. If you have not read our Health Alert from last week, here is a link.

Sunscreen Gets Under Your Skin | Is It Safe?

The Vitamin D Paradox:

Everyone recognizes that vitamin D is absolutely essential for good health. Low levels of this nutrient have been linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, immune system diseases, depression, arthritis, osteoporosis, fractures, chronic liver diseases, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis and chronic kidney disease (Aging and Disease, May, 2017). 

Do vitamin D pills prevent any of these complications? As far as we can tell, the jury is still out. For example, one big study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (online, Nov. 10, 2018) concluded that vitamin D supplements don’t prevent cancer or heart disease. 

Learn more about this research at this link:

Study of Vitamin D Supplements Results in Disappointment

Your dermatologist will not be happy about this concept. Most skin doctors warn that any sun exposure without sunscreen is hazardous.

The Quandary:

There is substantial evidence that low levels of vitamin D have negative consequences. Vitamin D supplements may not be as beneficial as most people would like to believe. We are awaiting further research to know the answer to that question. We understand why people would like to know if it is possible to get enough vitamin D from the sun without doing substantial damage to the skin.

We discuss dosing, signs of low vitamin D and home tests for vitamin D levels in our Guide to Vitamin D Deficiency. We also highly recommend Dr. Tieraona Low Dog’s fabulous book, Fortify Your Life: Your Guide to Vitamins, Minerals and More.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
Vitamin D Deficiency
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I was fascinated to learn that turning mushrooms gill-side-up in a sunny window for 15 minutes or so before cooking or eating them allows the mushrooms to absorb vitamin D that will then be passed on to the consumer.

I take high doses of fish oil (2 capsules of 800dha/600epa twice daily). Since I’ve been doing that, I almost never burn anymore. I just spent a week in the Southern U.S. sun–didn’t wear any sunscreen and I got really tan with no burning. I am extremely fair skinned and never used to be able to tan–only burned badly, and when it went away I got a little golden but it didn’t last long. Fish oil is a great, safe, healthy way to avoid sunburn and skin damage, without having to use cancer causing sunscreens. Even the “natural” or “healthy” sunscreens, like zinc oxide should not be used heavily or for a prolonged period of time due to health risks.

What foods contain Vitamin D?

I admit I have been a sun-worshipper my entire life (I’m nearly 70). I’m careful about it, and never let it get to a burn and always, always keep my face protected with good hats. But there is no question that I feel better, both physically and mentally, after some sun exposure. I also have the bones of a much younger woman without one sign of bone degeneration, and no indications of skin cancers. I realize this is anecdotal, but personally, I think we are seriously hurting our children’s long-term health by not giving them adequate sun exposure.

My doctor is worried about my low Vitamin D level and we have tried many different combinations of Vit D but each time after about 3 weeks on the supplement I develop painful carpal tunnel and joint inflammation. I know at least three other people who have this same reaction. I’ve tried 15 minutes/day in the summer sun for three months with only a slight improvement in levels. I don’t know what else to do.

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