Vitamin D and the sun

Vitamin D: Why we need it

Vitamin D is important for the development of healthy bone, muscles and teeth and low levels are linked to illnesses including rickets in children and osteoporosis in adults.  

Evidence is also emerging that vitamin D may help reduce the risk of bowel cancer and other cancers and may be linked to a number of other diseases.

With this in mind it is important to make sure your vitamin D level is sufficient for good health.   

Vitamin D: How we get it

There are three ways to get vitamin D:

1 - Sun exposure

Older couple laying in the sun

Sun exposure is the best natural source of vitamin D. When ultra violet (UV) radiation touches the skin vitamin D is made. However, a number of things affect this process including age, skin type, where you are in the world and the time of year.  

During the summer months in Ireland spending a few minutes in the sun is the best way for your body to produce vitamin D. It is unlikely that your skin will make vitamin D in the winter months. But, the body can store enough to last between 30 - 60 days.

Because UV exposure is also linked to skin cancer getting a balance between safe sun exposure and vitamin D production is important. You don’t need to spend hours in the sun to produce enough vitamin D. Extra time outdoors doesn’t equal more vitamin D, but it does increase skin cancer risk.

The World Health Organisation advice is to get 5 to 15 minutes of casual sun exposure to hands, face and arms two to three times a week during the summer months. In this way sun exposure as you go about your daily life really makes a difference.

Walking outdoors for a few minutes to get your lunch, to pick up the children or hang out the clothes all counts.  

But, remember:

  • Never let your skin redden or burn to get vitamin D.

  • Take extra care if you have fair skin because you are more at risk of sunburn.

  • Never use a sunbed to increase your vitamin D levels.

  • It is important to protect your skin with the SunSmart code to reduce skin cancer risk.

  • Use a ‘broad-spectrum’ sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB; – SPF minimum 30 and look for these signs (UVA protection icon or UVA protection icon) for UVA protection.

2- Eating a healthy balanced diet

Cooked tuna rich in vitamin D

Choosing foods that contain vitamin D is an important part of maintaining a health vitamin D level. The best foods to help with this are: 

  • Cod liver oil.

  • Oily fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel and fresh tuna.

Other foods with small amounts of vitamin D include:

  • Egg yolks.

  • Beef.

  • Breakfast cereals that have added vitamin D  - look the ingredients to check the level.

  • Milk with added vitamin D.

  • Margarines and butter.

3 - Taking a daily vitamin D supplement

Box of vitamin D tablets

According to the HSE, taking a daily vitamin D supplement is another way to meet your vitamin D needs. They suggest taking a supplement that provides 5 micrograms of vitamin D3 per day. However, it is always a good idea to talk to your doctor before taking a supplement.  

The HSE also recommend that all babies from birth to 12 months are given a vitamin D supplement. To find out more about this speak with your GP.

In summary

With sun exposure and eating a healthy diet you can get much of the vitamin D your body needs. But, make sure that you do not increase your risk of skin cancer through over exposure to UV radiation.  

Following the SunSmart code helps to prevent this. If you are worried or at risk of having a low vitamin D level talk to your family doctor about taking a vitamin D supplement.

Vitamin D: who is at risk of deficiency?

There are a number of people who are at risk of having a low vitamin D level. They include:

  • People with darker skin.

  • People who cover up their bodies completely when going outside.

  • Older people who don’t get outdoors much.

  • People who avoid the sun.

  • Women who are pregnant.

  • Babies who are being breast feed and whose mums have low levels of vitamin D.

  • People with certain conditions which affect vitamin D metabolism.

If you are concerned about your vitamin D level, speak with your doctor.

Read next: Sunbed use and skin cancer.

You may also like: Information on diet and cancer prevention.

Date Last Reviewed: 
Monday, April 30, 2018