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When the Sun Isn’t So Sunny

Vitamin D & Sunscreen: How to Ensure Sufficient Absorption, While Protecting Against 
Skin Cancer

If you are someone concerned about protecting your health, spending time in the sun to get a little Vitamin D can feel like you’re in the midst of a championship boxing match! 

In this corner, wearing golden robes emblazoned with the letter D, is THE SUN which works with our bodies to produce glorious Vitamin D which we all need to be healthy. In the opposite corner, enrobed head-to-toe in white, smelling vaguely of coconut-pineapple and wearing aviator shades is SUNSCREEN whose mission is to protect us from harmful UVB rays that can cause skin cancer (but is said to block some of the beneficial effects of Vitamin D). 

In the battle for our health and wellbeing, which will win? Which should win?

As the pandemic starts to abate a bit here in the U.S., many of us are basking in a freer summer – beaches and parks have reopened; outdoor concerts and festivals have resumed; we can travel. As we prepare to have fun in the sun, we may struggle to know, should we slather up and risk Vitamin D deficiency or skip the screen and risk skin cancer?

Meet D

Vitamin D is essential for our bodies’ optimal functioning. It aids in bone growth and strength by regulating calcium levels. When we don’t get enough of this vitamin, we may experience osteoporosis, muscle aches and weakness. We may also be prone to fractures and breaks. Vitamin D also is said to boost our immunity.

How Do We Get Vitamin D from the Sun?

Vitamin D synthesis works like this: When our bodies are exposed to sunlight, a protein in our skin called 7-DHC converts the sun’s ultraviolet B rays (UVB) into Vitamin D.

The amount of Vitamin D you can create from the sun depends a lot on where you live, how much of your skin is directly exposed to the sun, the color of your skin (people with darker skin need to spend longer in the sun to produce the same amount of the vitamin), and how much time you spend outdoors.

As an example, a fair-skinned person in the Northern Hemisphere can get the necessary dosage of Vitamin D in the summer by spending 13 minutes in the midday sun, three times per week. However, darker skin is less able to absorb UVB rays. Olive-skinned individuals may need 15-20 minutes; and black skin may require as much as 75 minutes to make the same amount of Vitamin D. 

Are You Getting Enough Vitamin D?

If you are like many, the answer is nope. A study in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association reveals that nearly 1 billion around the world lack sufficient Vitamin D.

The recommended daily allowance is 600 IU or 20 mcg for adults; 800 IU for those of us over age 70. 

Want to try to get your Vitamin D from food? The sources highest in Vitamin D are fish (a 3.5 oz. serving of salmon has 526 IU of Vitamin D) and egg yolks (a typical yolk contains about 37 IU, not a whole lot, but some). Not practical for those of us who are plant based. For us, the only sources are mushrooms (a 3.5 oz. serving has a whopping 2,300 IU, but the mushrooms must be grown in sunlight—many are grown in the dark and have no Vitamin D, and they are a source of vitamin D2, not D3 – more about that later), certain types of algae and fortified foods like cereals and orange juice. (fortified OJ has about 100 IU per serving).

So, for plant-based people, supplementing or spending time in the sun may be key. But, even supplementing can be tricky! Many D supplements are not vegan-friendly. You may want to check the label. Or, easier and tastier, grab a bottle of creamy, delicious Perennial in your favorite chocolate or vanilla flavor. Each serving contains 5 mcg or 25% of your daily value of D3.

Some folks are more at risk for Vitamin D insufficiency than others, for example people who:

  • Are over the age of 70
  • Have darker skin
  • Have chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis
  • Are housebound
  • Work night shifts
  • Spend daylight in enclosed environments like offices

Will Wearing Sunscreen Cause Me to Become Vitamin D Deficient?

The short answer is no. It’s a bummer that UVB radiation from sun exposure is the best source of Vitamin D and also the worst cause of skin cancer. While there is anecdotal buzz out there that sunscreen causes vitamin D insufficiency, no clinical study has ever found that to be the case. However, studies have shown that regular use of an SPF 15 or more reduces UV radiation and the risk of squamous cell cancers by 40%, melanoma by half. 

But, while sunscreen does help block UVB radiation, it can’t block all. So, the trick is to get outside (we spend too much time indoors, and that’s part of the reason we aren’t getting enough Vitamin D) and put our bodies in the sun, armed with adequate SPF protection for our skin type.

Oh, and if you happen to be thinking that tanning beds are a solution, please think again! The medical community strongly urges against using tanning beds as a Vitamin D source. Not only does it expose our skin to damage and potential cancer risk, but tanning beds primarily use UVA, not UVB rays. It’s the UVB that helps our bodies produce Vitamin D.

For most people, adequate Vitamin D levels can be reached through regular, short intervals of exposure to sunlight, while wearing sunscreen. But, if you are in a group more at risk of Vitamin D deficiency, it may be a good idea to seek more of the nutrient in foods or supplements.

Should I Get My Vitamin D Levels Checked?

If you are in a higher risk group for Vitamin D deficiency or bone health issues, getting your levels checked by a health care professional could be a good idea! Levels can easily be assessed during a typical blood draw. Trust your healthcare provider's interpretation, but a general guide to your numbers:

  • Below 30 means you are likely deficient and need to take measures to increase your intake.
  • 30-50 – you are in the good zone for overall health.

Vitamin D is not a more is more proposition. Over 50 points is fine, but not better, and over 125 can actually cause problems such as nausea, bone pain, and calcium stones such as kidney stones.

What’s the Difference Between Vitamin D2 and D3?

Earlier, we said that wild or sun-grown mushrooms are a good way for plant-based folks to get Vitamin D, but that it is Vitamin D2, not D3. 

Both D2 and D3 are converted by our bodies into the active form of Vitamin D. It’s just that D3 is a little better at it. Until recently, it was thought that fungi were the only plant-based source of Vitamin D – the only way for vegans relying on their diet to get this vitamin. But, certain types of algae have also been found to be rich in D, and not D2, but D3! Those algae are the source for the Vitamin D in Perennial.

Nutritionists urge that we shouldn’t quibble about whether D2 or D3 is better. If you are plant-based, it’s better to get enough Vitamin D, and D2 is just fine if you are unable to get enough D3.

Happy, Healthy, Summer!

Vitamin D is important for strong bones, immunity, and array of possible other health benefits. And the sun is a great source for your body to create this vitamin.

As you head out this summer, remember that fun in the sun is beneficial for body and soul, but sunscreen is your friend. Even protected, you’ll get what you need to create Vitamin D from the sun. And, for times when you can’t be outdoors, adding some Perennial, sun-grown mushrooms, or plant-based supplements are great options!