The Skinny on Sunscreen and Vitamin D
Since I have been getting a lot of questions about vitamin D, sunscreen and how much and how best to protect against the summer rays, I decided to shoot out my summary of the evidence thus far. Before I begin, remember, the recommendations for vitamin D continue to evolve (as does all of nutrition) and the endless sunscreen products seem to multiply every year. It is no wonder people are second guessing their choices and finding sunscreen shopping even harder than navigating the grocery store. I consider the words I write now as a “work in progress,” rather than the cold hard facts as it is probable that recommendations will continue to change somewhat. My goal is to lighten your burden and give you more information, so you can feel better about your sunshine choices.
Vitamin D has been the trendy vitamin for a few years. We now know it is essential for calcium to be best absorbed and has an important role alongside calcium in bone health. Vitamin D is also super important in immune function and regulating cell growth (cancer prevention), weight control and reducing inflammation. Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin and found in foods such as dairy, fatty fish, cod liver oil, eggs and fortified foods such as orange juice and breakfast cereals. It is also the only vitamin we can make ourselves, from the sun – kind of like human photosynthesis. We don’t have exact recommendations yet, but it is suggested that people get anywhere from 5 – 30 minutes of sun exposure to the face, arms, back or legs two to three times per week. The farer the skin, the less exposure is needed. To make matters somewhat more complicated, the time of the year, cloud coverage and the time of day also impact one’s ability to absorb vitamin D. Sunscreen blocks vitamin D exposure, which makes it even more tricky.
Keeping in mind that we get vitamin D from the sun — but knowing we all are trying to block the sun — where does that leave us? Several of my clients recently have expressed fear of unknown chemicals in their sunscreens. Are the chemicals in Coppertone more dangerous than the risk of vitamin D deficiency and sunburn? Here is the American Academy of Dermatology’s (AAD) most current recommendations.
- Everyone should use sunscreen everyday – one that has UVA and UVB protection with an SPF of 30 or greater, that is water resistant
- Wear protective clothing, seek shade and be extra careful around sand and water – reapply often
- The best sunscreen is the one you will use
While sun and cancer research is still in its infancy, you will not be surprised to hear there is no consensus that sunscreens alone prevent skin cancer. That means that wearing sunscreen alone does not necessarily mean you will not get skin cancer. Genetics, diet and lifestyle also play a key role in skin health. Also, SPF’s are now in the 100’s . . . there is still no evidence that SPF’s higher than 30 do more good, which is why the recommendation by the AAD remains at 30.
Scratching a little bit further, I turned to the Environmental Working Group and found an amazing database of 1841 sunscreens and their ratings on each brand. You can plug in Bain de Soleil, or whatever your personal choice is, and see how your favorite product holds up to their rigorous testing. They even outline the chemicals to be wary of, such as Octocrylene, avobenzone, Aminobenzoic acid, Padimate O and Oxybenzone.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in charge of regulating sunscreens, and to date, they do not have a recommendation for use. They have been trying for 34 years to set a regulation, but research remains elusive and uncertain. I’m interested to see how they’ll come to a conclusive statement, since they have to factor in age, race, where you live . . . .
After sharing all of this information with my clients, they usually ask me what I do, since I am not able to give a definitive answer to their sunshine question. Here’s my recommendation, based on the research and what feels reasonable to me:
- Sunburns hurt. Avoid them. I recommend shade, hats, sunglasses, and umbrellas.
- I try to buy sunscreen for myself and my family that does not contain oxybenzone, vitamin A, retinyl or retinol palmitate and is not a spray or powder.
- It makes sense to me to get some sunshine for 15 minutes a few times a week. I try to get out after the strongest sun.
- My moisturizer always has sunscreen in it – in the summer months, if I know I’m only going out for a few minutes, I do not apply additional sunscreen.
- At the beach, I reapply SPF 30 every time I get out of the water, or after 2 hours.
- I go to the dermatologist for annual body checks.
I hope you are one step closer to enjoying the sun confidently. The smell of suntan lotion alone is like bottled happiness. One whiff conjures up surf, beach and sunshine. Use my research to keep you and your family safe. “Oh, and will you get my back?”