Some people are confused about whether they should get more sun to make sure they get enough vitamin D. This information sheet explains that you need to protect yourself from over-exposure of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation (UVR) because it puts people at risk of developing skin cancer. The sun’s UVR also helps your body to produce vitamin D, however you only need a little exposure to get the benefits.
Some people are confused about whether they need more sun for vitamin D. This information sheet explains that you need to protect yourself from over-exposure of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation (UVR) when levels reach 3 and above because it puts people at risk of developing skin cancer, including melanoma. However the sun’s UVB also helps your body to produce Vitamin D, but you only need a little exposure most days of the week to get the health benefits.
Recommendations for the general adult population
When UV Index 3 or above
During summer in Australia, all states experience long periods during the day when the UV Index is 3 or above (see Table 1 below)6. During these periods, a combination of sun protection measures (broad brimmed hat, covering clothing, sunscreen, sunglasses and shade) is recommended when outdoors for more than a few minutes. In summer, most Australian adults will maintain adequate vitamin D levels from sun exposure during typical day to day outdoor activities.
In those parts of Australia where the UV Index is 3 or above in the middle of the day in autumn, winter and spring, a combination of sun protection measures is recommended when outdoors for more than a few minutes at those times. In these locations, most Australian adults produce sufficient vitamin D from UV exposure during typical outdoor day to day activities.
When UV Index below 3
In late autumn and winter in those parts of Australia where the UV Index falls below 3, sun protection is not recommended. During these times, to support vitamin D production it is recommended that people are outdoors in the middle of the day with some skin uncovered on most days of the week. Being physically active while outdoors during this period will further assist with vitamin D production.
Recommendations for groups at risk of vitamin D deficiency
Some people in Australia may be at risk of vitamin D deficiency (see Box 1)6. It is recommended that people who may be at risk of vitamin D deficiency discuss their vitamin D requirements with their medical practitioner to determine if vitamin D supplementation rather than sun exposure is appropriate for them.
These people generally receive little exposure to the sun, especially during winter if they live in the southern half of Australia. This is usually why they may experience lower levels of Vitamin D.
Low vitamin D may have no obvious symptoms, but without treatment, it can have significant health effects. Low vitamin D and vitamin D defeciency causes bone and muscle pain and poor mineralisation (softer bones) causing rickets (bone deformity) in children and osteomalacia in adults. Low vitamin D is a contributer to osteoporisis.
More recently, there have been claims that vitamin D deficiency has been linked to various types of cancer, heart disease, stroke, altered immunity and auto immune diseases, although the current evidence is not conclusive and more research is still needed in this these areas.
People with a diagnosed lack of vitamin D may need to add vitamin D to their diet rather than seek more exposure to the sun. Your vitamin D level can be checked by your GP.
The sun and our health
The link between over-exposure to the sun’s UV radiation and skin cancer is proven. Australians have been advised to protect themselves from the sun’s UV for over two decades.
Vitamin D is also needed for strong and healthy bones and muscles. People mostly produce vitamin D through exposure to the sun’s UVB radiation. Recent studies have found that some groups of people who have limited exposure to the sun have lower vitamin D levels. So does this mean that everyone should ignore sun protection messages and go out and get more sun? If not, how do you get enough vitamin D without increasing your long term risk of skin cancer?
Australians are at high risk of skin cancer!
Australia has high levels of UV radiation, mainly because the country is close to the equator. Australians are also at high risk of skin cancer because they are mostly fairskinned and enjoy an outdoor lifestyle.1
UV radiation levels vary through the day and the year. This can depend on:
- the height of the sun (the higher the sun is in the sky, the higher the UV radiation level)
- whether you’re in the north or south of the country
- the amount of cloud cover
- the altitude
- ozone levels
- UV reflective surfaces (e.g. light coloured concrete, water or snow).
The higher the UV levels, the less time it takes for skin damage to occur. UV radiation levels are strongest around the middle hours of the day, outoor activities should be minimised if possible during the daylight saving/summer period of the year between 11am and 3pm when UV levels in Canberra are at their strongest.
Always protect yourself against skin cancer when UV levels reach 3 (moderate) or above by:
- using shade wherever possible
- wearing clothing that covers your skin
- wearing a hat that protect the face, ears and neck
- wearing close fitting, wrap-around sunglasses that meet the Australian Standard 1067
- applying a broad spectrum, water resistant SPF 30+ sunscreen, reapply it at least every two hours.
- minimise outdoor activities and events between 11am and 3pm during the summer/daylight saving period.
When in alpine regions, working or spending extended time outdoors or near highly reflective surfaces like snow or water, then sun protection behaviour is still recommended.
Are Australians vitamin D deficient?
No, not really! In the 2011-12 Australian Health Survey 23% of Australian adults were vitamin D deficient (ie <50nmol/L). This included 17% who were mildly deficient (30-49 nmol/L), 6% who were moderately deficient (13-29 nmol/L) and less than just 1% who were severely deficient (<13nmol/L). Vitamin D levels varied considerably by season with deficiency less common in summer (14%) than in winter (36%). While there was little variation between the states and territories in summer, in winter vitamin D deficiency was more common in Victoria (49%), ACT (49%) and Tasmania (43%), but remained low in Queensland (15%) and the Northern Territory (17%). Vitamin D deficiency was more common among those living in major cities (27%) compared with those living in regional (16%) and remote areas (9%). 9
Do you need more sun to get enough vitamin D?
The short answer is No! Most people should receive enough vitamin D simply by going about their day-to-day lives. So whilst the general public shouldn’t need to make a "special effort" to increase vitamin D "dose'' it is important to recognise that some people will be at a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency, these people should discuss their vitamin D requirement with their GP and not prescribe themselves more sun (UV) exposure, increasing their risk of skin cancer.
For example in Summer, just a few minutes of mid-morning or mid-afternoon sun exposure to the arms and hands (or equivalent area) on most days of the week should be sufficient to maintain adequate vitamin D levels. Increasing physical activity will also assist in the production of vitamin D.
Will sunscreen stop you from getting enough vitamin D?
No, not really. Sunscreen filters out most but not all UV radiation. Regular use of sunscreen when UV levels reach 3 (moderate) or above does not significantly decrease vitamin D levels over time. 2,3,4 Although sunscreens could almost entirely block the solar-induced production of cutaneous pre-vitamin D3 on theoretical grounds or if administered under strictly controlled conditions (ie in a laboratory), however in practice (ie in real life settings) they have not been shown to do so. This is mainly due to inadequacies in their application to the skin and because people using sunscreens may also expose themselves to more sun than non-sunscreen users.5
Naturally very dark skinned people
All skin types can be damaged by too much UV radiation. However, naturally very dark-skinned people are at less risk of skin cancer and may require more sun exposure time to maintain their vitamin D levels, supplimentation may also be required depending on their vitamin D levels and lifestyle behaviour. Those who need this additional level of exposure usually have skin type 5 or 6.7
People with this skin type still need to take care in the sun, whilst skin cancer is less common in such skin types they can still occur and are often diagnosed at a later and more dangerous stage. People with this skin type should still apply sunscreen if spending longer periods outdoors when UV levels are 3 and above, especially in summer when UV levels are strongest. Sensible clothing, hats and sunnies are also recommended.
Families with children who have naturally very dark skin who rarely/never burn are encouraged to discuss their sun protection and vitamin D requirements with their GP.
Further information and resources
View Cancer Council Australia’s current (Jan 2016) Position Statement- Risks and Benefits of Sun Exposure or contact Cancer Council 13 11 20.
This information can be photocopied for distribution.
1. Gies P et al. Global Solar UV Index: Australian measurements, forecasts and comparison with the UK. Photochem Photobiol 2004;79(1):32–9.
2. Marks R, Foley PA, Jolley D, Knight KR, Harrison J, Thompson SC. The effect of regular sunscreen use on vitamin D levels in an Australian population. Results of a randomised controlled trial. Arch Dermatol 1995 Apr;131(4):415–21.
3. Farrerons J, Barnadas M, Rodriguez J, Renau A, Yoldi B, Lopez- Navidad A, Moragas J. Clinically prescribed sunscreen (sun protection factor 15) does not decrease serum vitamin D concentration sufficiently either to induce changes in parathyroid function or in metabolic markers. Br J Dermatol 1998 Sep;139(3):422–7.
4. Farrerons J, Barnadas M, Lopez-Navidad A, Renau A, Rodriguez J, Yoldi B, Alomar A. Sunscreen and risk of osteoporosis in the elderly: a two-year follow-up. Dermatology 2001; 202(1):27–30.
5. Norval M, Wulf HC. Does chronic sunscreen use reduce vitamin D production to insufficient levels? Br J Dermatol 2009 Oct;161(4):732-6 [Abstract available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19663879].
6. Australian and New Zealand Bone and Mineral Society, Osteoporosis Australia, Australasian College of Dermatologists and the Cancer Council Australia: Risks and benefits of sun exposure. Position Statement. January 2016
7. Fitzpatrick TB. The validity and practicality of sun-reactive skin types1 through 6. Archives of Dermatology 1988;124 (6): 869-71.
8. WHO. The known health effects of UV: I am dark-skinned- do i still need to be careful? 2008
9. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Australian Health Survey: Nutrition First Results - Foods and Nutrients, 2011-12. Canberra: ABS; 2014 [Available from: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/4364.0.55.007?OpenDocument].
Cancer Council ACT acknowledges Cancer Council Victoria for the original preparation of this information sheet.