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Sunbathing and vitamin D

Illustration of a man sunbathing

As cheesy as it sounds, there really is nothing quite like a ray of sunshine to brighten your day. Getting outdoors and active in the sun is excellent for your physical and mental health. And it’s not just about getting your blood pumping: Sunlight is also your body's main source of vitamin D.1

Vitamin D – or ‘the sunshine vitamin’ – is vital for your health. But just as important as getting enough vitamin D is protecting yourself from the harmful effects of the sun. Thankfully, it's possible to enjoy the sun safely and still get enough vitamin D to stay healthy.

Let’s take a closer look at the sunshine vitamin, how you can stay safe while topping up, and what to do if you aren't getting enough.

The sunshine vitamin

When the UVB rays in sunlight strike your skin, an early form of vitamin D is made. This chemical travels to your kidneys via the liver, where it’s processed into active vitamin D. It’s now ready for your body to use.2

Vitamin D captures calcium from food so your bones can grow and stay healthy. It has several other important roles, too, like supporting healthy immune function and cell growth.3

If you don’t get enough vitamin D, you could become unwell. Common symptoms of vitamin D deficiency are tiredness, aches and pains, and not feeling great in general. In more severe cases, weakness and pain become worse. Eventually, vitamin D deficiency can lead to weak bones in adults and rickets in children, increasing the risk of fractures and other serious health problems.4

Vitamin D is present in small amounts in certain foods, including certain fish, egg yolks, and liver.5 But it’s hard to get enough from your diet, particularly if you don’t eat animal products. With vitamin D deficiency becoming more common worldwide, you must make sure you’re getting enough sunshine without slacking on safety. Let’s take a look at how you can top up on vitamin D safely.

Topping up on vitamin D safely

It’s difficult to say exactly how much sun you need to get enough vitamin D because it’s different for everyone. It depends on several factors: where you live, the color and sensitivity of your skin, and the time of year, to name a few. But before you start unfolding your deck chair, don’t overestimate how much sun you need.

Just being out and about in the summer with your skin exposed to the sun for short periods should be enough for most people.

Don’t forget, the sun’s UV rays are dangerous. If you aren’t careful, you risk burning, premature skin aging, and skin cancer. If your skin starts to go red or burn, you’ve had too much. It’s important to take precautions to make sure this doesn’t happen.

If you have sensitive skin or live in a sunny country, be extra cautious. Limit your exposure to the sun, especially around midday. Wear sun cream, and don’t forget to reapply, especially after swimming. Your face and eyes can be particularly sensitive, so wear a hat and sunglasses.

Bear in mind that it doesn’t need to be hot outside for the sun to burn your skin. Keep an eye on UV indexes online to give you an idea of which days to take extra precautions.

Taking vitamin D supplements

Sunshine is our best source of vitamin D. But sometimes it’s necessary to take supplements to make sure you're getting enough. People at the greatest risk of vitamin D deficiency are:3

  • Older adults
  • People with a dark complexion
  • People who have limited sun exposure.

If you’re in one of these groups, you should consider taking a vitamin D supplement. And even if you’re not, you might get some benefit too, especially during the winter months. Speak to your doctor about vitamin D supplements to find out if you should start taking them.

So get outside and enjoy a healthy dose of vitamin D if you can. Just make sure you’re doing it safely.

  1. Holick, M. F. “Vitamin D Deficiency.” The New England Journal of Medicine 357, 266–281 (2007).

  2. Endotext. “Vitamin D: Production, Metabolism, and Mechanisms of Action.” Accessed October 14, 2020.

  3. National Institutes of Health. “Vitamin D: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals.” Accessed October 14, 2020.

  4. Patient. “Vitamin D Deficiency.” Accessed October 14, 2020.

  5. NHS. “Vitamin D.” Accessed October 14, 2020.