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Sunscreen or Vitamin D?

Sunscreen protects your skin from aging and skin cancer but interferes with Vitamin D production.  Which is more important?

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,

Q. My mother refuses to wear sunscreen because she says they are all toxic and prevent us from getting vitamin D. What is your stance on this?

A. Does it have to be all or nothing?

Sunscreen does inhibit the skin's ability to convert UV into vitamin D. On the other hand, it also blocks those same UV rays from damaging the collagen in the skin (which leads to wrinkles) and from harming the DNA (which increases the risk of skin cancer). 

See also: What are the Benefits of Vitamin D?

You can get vitamin D from foods and/or supplements, of course. And for people who are sensitive to the sun or at high risk of skin cancer, dietary vitamin D (and plenty of sunscreen) is the only choice. Exposing the skin to sunlight, however, is a much more efficient way to raise vitamin D levels.  

But that doesn't mean that we should all toss the sunscreen in the trash and reconcile ourselves to wrinkles (or worse). If we're judicious about both our sun exposure and our sunscreen use, we can maximize vitamin D and still protect our skin. 

How much sunlight does it take?

How much sunlight it takes to get your daily dose of D varies dramatically based on the time of year, your location on the globe, the color of your skin, and weather conditions,

Here in Baltimore, on a cloudless July day at noon, I'd only need to spend five minutes with my face, hands, and arms exposed to produce 25 mcg (1,000 IU) of vitamin D.  If it were November, I’d need to stay out about half an hour. If it were November, and I were black, it would take an hour and a half. You get the idea.

See also: How much sunshine do you need to get your D?

In the winter, when the sun is weak and I don't have much skin exposed, I back off on the sunscreen. I also take a vitamin D supplement. In the summer, when the sun is stronger and I'm outdoors a lot more, I stop taking vitamin D and start using sunscreen. 

Is sunscreen worse for your skin than the sun?

As for sunscreen being toxic, the dangers of sunscreen have been vastly exaggerated and do not reflect the science. No toxic or other effects have ever been observed in people applying sunscreen to their skin. (Drinking it or injecting into your body, on the other hand, are not recommended.) 

However, your mother's position is not completely off-base. The best way to prevent skin aging and skin cancer when you're older is to be diligent about protecting your skin when you're young. Although those wrinkles or basal cell carcinomas generally don't appear until the second half of life, most of the damage is done in the first half. 

The risk of vitamin D deficiency, on the other hand, is much higher when we're older. So it might make sense to back off the sunscreen a bit more as we age, especially if we live in areas or have lifestyles that don't provide a lot of exposure. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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