The Importance of Vitamin D - Yes, You Do Still Need Sunscreen

By Dr. Tasleem Kassam, B.Sc., N.D and Rachel Lamont, Medical Esthetician

 What is Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is actually thought to be more of a pro-hormone than a vitamin.  Originally credited with helping the body with calcium and bone metabolism, more recent studies show that vitamin D has many other influences on keeping the body healthy, which is why it is thought of more as a hormone than just a simple vitamin.  

Since we make vitamin D from exposure to the sun, it is almost impossible for the average Canadian to maintain optimal vitamin D levels from sunshine alone, especially from October through March. A person's ability to make the vitamin is influenced by many factors, including age, weight and skin pigmentation.  People also need a certain amount of dietary fat as well as cholesterol in order to make adequate vitamin D.  This means people suffering from Crohn's disease, cystic fibrosis or liver disease, on low fat diets, or on cholesterol lowering medications often have low vitamin D levels.  

To tan or not to tan?

Does this mean that tanning is good for you?  Like many things, it is important to have sun exposure in moderation.  It is absolutely imperative not to overexpose your skin and to avoid getting sunburned at all times.  UVA rays (found in sunlight and in tanning beds) are still the primary causative agent of skin cancer.  Tanning beds have recently been classified as a class one carcinogen!  If it is that glow you seek, another option would be to use a self-tanning lotion.  These types of products allow you to add a natural glow to your skin in a non-toxic way.  When looking for a self tanning product that is safe and natural for your skin you should hunt for the ingredient DHA (dihydroxyacetone) which is derived from sugar beets and sugar cane and reacts with the top layer of your skin to turn brown.  There are other substances that will do the same thing but are synthetic and irritating and toxic to the body.  Remember you can get your vitamin D from the sun but as an esthetician I must advise you to be aware of how much sun exposure your face gets.  70-80% of skin aging is due to UV exposure or what is called photoaging and therefore could be avoided and prevented.  So wear your hats, sun glasses and SPF on your face.  A healthy tan may look good now but you could be paying your dues in wrinkles later.  The American Cancer Society has predicted that in the year 2001, approximately one million new cases of non-melanoma type skin cancers will be diagnosed, along with an additional 51,400 melanoma cases. It is also predicted that in this same year, 7,800 people will die from melanoma, and 2,000 people will die from other skin cancers (i.e. squamous and basal cell carcinoma). What is the significance of this? Skin cancer rates have been on the rise in the United States since the 1970’s, with melanoma incidences increasing at a rate of 6% a year until 1981. Since then, the melanoma incidence rate has increased steadily at a 3% increase a year. Melanoma is the second most common cancer in women aged 20-29.  Therefore know that there is a moderation to everything.  Especially UV exposure!  So be realistic and don’t lay out for hours at peak mid-day sun and allow your skin to burn to later become your golden tan after a few layers of skin dry and flake off due to the severe damage that was caused.

Statistics Canada released a survey in March of this year stating that 2 out of 3 Canadians have less vitamin D than  considered necessary for optimal health.  About ten percent of Canadians fall below the minimum needed for good bone health.   Men were more likely than women to have inadequate levels of vitamin D in their blood — especially between the ages of 20 and 39.

This is staggering news considering that vitamin D is involved in maintaining optimal cellular, digestive, cardiovascular, immune, musculoskeletal and nervous system health (basically, all of your body systems).  Low levels of vitamin D is definitely linked to the incidence of cancer, autoimmune disease and mood disorders, just to name a few. 

For lighter skinned people, you need at least twenty minutes of exposure to direct sunlight every day to produce the vitamin D you need – that means no windows, no clothing, no sunblock. 

Some interesting things to note:

  • all cells and tissues in your body have vitamin D receptors -- and further concludes that every cell and tissueneeds vitamin D for its well-being
  • vitamin D is responsible for the regulation of over 2,000 genes in your body (out of a total of 30,000)
  • a recent study in Science shows that vitamin D may be a potent antibiotic by increasing the body's natural production of antimicrobial peptides (I do use it in high doses for flu and colds – 10 000 IU/day for 2-3 days)

Promising research: 

  • American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, published in June 2007 cited a 60 to 77 per cent decrease in cancer rates in postmenopausal women who took a daily dose of 1,100 IU of vitamin D combined with calcium over women who were given a placebo or calcium alone.
  • American Journal of Preventive Medicine  revealed in the March 2007 issue that taking 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily along with 10 to 15 minutes in the sun and a healthy diet could reduce the incidence of colorectal cancer by two-thirds. The same authors found that breast cancer rates were 50 per cent lower in people with high levels of vitamin D in their blood, and suggested that the average person could maintain those levels by taking 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily and spending 10 to 15 minutes in the sun.
  • A December 2006 study of more than seven million Caucasian people in the U.S. Military with high serum vitamin D were 62 per cent less likely to develop multiple sclerosis than those with the lowest levels of the vitamin. 
  • Archives of Internal Medicine published on May 28, 2007 women who consume higher amounts of calcium and vitamin D may have a lower risk of developing breast cancer before menopause. The study followed more than 31,000 women aged 45 and older for 10 years. It found that intake of calcium and vitamin D was moderately associated with a lower risk of breast cancer before — but not after — menopause.
  • Another study, published on on May 15, 2008 stated that women with low levels of vitamin D may have a poorer prognosis than those with sufficient vitamin D. The study by Toronto researchers also found that women with too little of the vitamin had a greater chance of recurrence and lower overall survival rates than those with healthier amounts.

What is the best way to get vitamin D?

Ideally, we could all go outside year round and make vitamin D naturally.  Our bodies are well equipped to know when enough is enough, and when we make vitamin D naturally, it is impossible to get too much.  Unfortunately, this option is impractical for Canadians, where the amount and angle of sunlight is inadequate for a minimum of six months of the year.  We have no choice but to somehow boost our  levels of vitamin D through other means.

There are safe tanning beds available that are designed to help vitamin D production without the harm of a conventional tanning bed.  Since UVB rays are the wavelength used by the skin to produce vitamin D, these systems optimize exposure to this wavelength.   There are systems available on the market ranging from $1500 to $3000 USD.

More commonly, people are choosing to supplement vitamin D.  There is some concern when supplementing since vitamin D is oil soluble, which means it accumulates in your system (unlike water soluble vitamins like B complex and C).  Therefore, there are two things to bear in mind with regards to supplementation – firstly, choose vitamin D3 over synthetic vitamin D2,  as it is the naturally occurring form.  Secondly, you need to have your blood levels regularly checked to ensure that you are not overdoing it.  The reality is, however, that vast majority of us, as the recent Statistics Canada report shows, are deficient in this precious vitamin, not in excess. 

Posted on May 17, 2014 .