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Does Wearing Sunscreen Lower Your Vitamin D Level?

Does Wearing Sunscreen Lower Your Vitamin D Level?

A new report in the British Journal of Dermatology finds that sunscreen use has no effect on Vitamin D levels.

Does sunscreen lower your vitamin D level? This is a real-life study of beach-going Poles, not a laboratory study using simulated light and skin samples! It proves that sunscreen use does not cause lower vitamin D production. This is good news just in time for your beach vacation. Anyone telling your to forgo sunscreen to protect your vitamin D levels is clearly wrong - and there’s now proof!!

Yes, you can confidently do what’s best for you skin. Use sunscreen knowing that the benefits it provides in reducing sun damage and skin cancer will not put you at risk of low vitamin D. Those concerns were raised by laboratory studies using simulated light sources. This real life study is much more relevant.

Here are the fun details: Researchers invited 62 fair-skinned study participants from Poland to enjoy a sunny beach vacation in Tenerife Spain, located on the sunny, Canary Islands. In exchange for their vacation, volunteers agreed to use sunscreen and have blood samples taken to measure vitamin D levels (where do we sign up for this?!). Researchers compared vitamin D levels to those of another 17 study participants who were left back home in Poland (very sad to draw that straw!).

In this study, participants were divided into 3 groups:

1. Those who used an SPF 15 product. Remember that SPF is primarily a measure of UVB protection, and UVB is the UV ray responsible for vitamin D synthesis in your skin. They applied the sunscreen in the correct amount. They also reapplied it correctly during the day (this means each bathing suit wearing Pole used 1 ounce per application and reapplied it again every 2 hours).

2. Those given a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB applied their sunscreen correctly as in group 1.

3. The third group used their own sunscreen and were given no application instructions – this is real "real life." We know that most people put too little sunscreen on and don’t always reapply as necessary for full protection.

Vitamin D blood levels were measured a day before sun exposure, and at 24 and 48 hours after the vacation began.

This scientific real life study found that the use of sunscreen did not lower vitamin D levels.

Interestingly, the vacationers who used their own sunscreen without proper application instructions had more sunburn, which means more sun damage.

The conclusion is that using broad spectrum sunscreen (my recommendation) applied correctly will not result in lower vitamin D levels.

The benefit of using broad spectrum sunscreen is undisputed. It will help to protect your skin from sun damage (the inevitable development of wrinkles, thinning, crepey skin, sun spots) and skin cancer.

As always, I recommend mineral zinc oxide sunscreens (not chemical products), combined with the use of sun protective clothing, hats and seeking the shade. These latter recommendations were not studied and may well result in lower vitamin D levels. Thus, I also recommend vitamin D supplements for people who are rigorous about sun protection. If this is you (it most definitely is me), talk to your doctor about the proper dosage.

As a dermatologist, I’ve had this conversation with my patients for years. For those patients of mine who feel strongly about getting some sun for their vitamin D levels, I have always recommended they expose only their tummy at noon for 5 to 10 minutes - no more. I even recommended this on my blog back in 2010! because,

  • This little trick uses UVB at its most intense on a part of the skin that is typically not subjected to chronic sun damage.
  • The tummy is not as cosmetically important as face, neck, chest, arms, and hands.
  • It is also loose and has lots of extra skin should we need to excise a skin cancer.

I will always remember a charming elderly patient who suffered from severe osteoporosis. His endocrinologist wanted him to sun bathe in addition to taking vitamin D supplements because they were worried about vitamin D absorption. We decided to have our patient use his tummy as his skin’s vitamin D factory. He had a history of skin cancer and we had already nipped off parts of his ear and face treating them. His tummy had never seen the sun - until now. Gradually, he developed a tan tummy with pale streaks in the folds of skin that he could not stretch out because his hunched osteoporotic spine did not allow him to sit up straight.

Every six months, I had the pleasure of chatting with him, his happy and optimistic eyes twinkling as we examined his skin and chuckled about his tan tummy, his midday sun bathing and striping of his tummy as he went from septuagenarian to octogenarian to nonagenarian. We controlled his skin cancers with sun protection of the precious head, neck and arm/hand skin while his tummy performed sun induced vitamin D factory work for him. Whenever I give this advice, I think fondly of him.

Accompanying the real-life scientific study in the BJD, a second vitamin D and sunscreen use report was also published in the journal. It is an opinion piece resulting from convening a panel of 13 international experts who reviewed the scientific literature on sun protection and vitamin D status. They found that there is no solid scientific evidence that sunscreen inhibits vitamin D synthesis in healthy people. The panel was composed of experts in endocrinology, dermatology, photobiology, epidemiology and biological anthropology. This review is confounded by some conflict-of-interest in the panel experts, but literature reviews done by experts have benefit in assessing the body of scientific information that has come before.

The bottom line from my vantage is that sun protection keeps our skin strong, healthy and attractive. I recommend vitamin D supplements as our reliable source of vitamin D.

For more information on sun protection that I use and recommend for my patients, click here.