Vitamin D: How Much Is Just Right?

While there’s nothing better than dusting off the BBQ and soaking up the sunshine with friends and family during the summer months, it’s important to remember to protect your skin from damaging UV rays. Lots of people associate sun exposure with healthy vitamin D, and excitedly look forward to laying out on the beach or in the garden for hours on end. However, while the sun does provide this important vitamin, there are lots of misconceptions around recommended levels.

Sources of Vitamin D

“There’s definitely some confusion when it comes to vitamin D”, says Kevin O’Hagan, Cancer Prevention Manager at the Irish Cancer Society. “Low levels are certainly linked to illness – osteoporosis in adults and rickets in children. But people assume the only way to get vitamin D is from the sun. And while that is the best source, you can also get it from a healthy balanced diet. So, while it’s important to get adequate levels to ensure healthy bones, muscles and teeth, you don’t need to rely totally on sunshine exposure. You’ll find vitamin D in oily fish, cod liver oil and egg yolks, for example. Lots of breakfast cereals and milk have added vitamin D too.”

Recommended Time in the Sun

Of course, since sunshine provides a healthy dose of the vitamin, there’s nothing wrong with carefully soaking up some rays. Vitamin D has lots of functions within the body, including maintaining a healthy immune system, and keeping bones strong. There’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to a time limit in the sun, since we all have different skin tones, but Kevin notes the World Health Organisation’s recommendation in relation to the amount of casual sun we need is about five to fifteen minutes a day. “In general”, he says, “the vast majority of the Irish population are getting adequate levels of vitamin D. Even though the sun in Ireland is a bit sporadic, that’s the amount to maintain a healthy level."

Protection is Key

However, protecting your skin from harmful rays is crucial, says Dr Neil Reddy of Precision Healthcare. “Too much UV light causes skin damage that you’d associate with cancer, but also ageing of the skin, and wrinkles”, he says. “There’s a fine line between getting enough sun exposure to manufacture the vitamin D you need, versus too much, where your skin gets damaged.” Those with lighter skin need to be extra careful, adds Neil. “You don’t need your skin to go pink in any way to get adequate levels of vitamin D. Getting repeatedly sunburned at a young age damages the skin and increases the risk of cancer. We’ve seen a huge increase in skin cancers over the last 20 years, so it’s vital that people prevent themselves from getting UV damaged. It’s important that they follow the SunSmart Code: wear protective clothing, sunscreen, and a hat.”

Vitamin D Supplements

Supplements of the vitamin are available, but Dr Reddy says the jury’s out on whether people with light skin need to take them. The amount we get is more likely to be determined by our often sedentary lifestyles. “If you’re stuck in an office all the time, you’re not going to get much sun”, he notes.” That said, severe deficiency is not that common in Ireland, though certain demographics need to be more careful. “Groups who need more vitamin D”, he says, “like young kids, people over 65, those with very dark skin tone, and those with low immunity or housebound due to illness, would be recommended to take a supplement.” Speak to your doctor if you’re concerned about your intake, and click here to find out more about your skin type.