We need the sun. Of course, too much and we risk skin cancer, but too little and we can end up low in essential vitamin D.
Unlike other vitamins, vitamin D is made when your skin is exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet B rays. It’s best known for keeping your bones healthy by increasing the absorption of calcium, and low levels may lead to the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis. There is also evidence that insufficient vitamin D may play a role in other diseases, including multiple sclerosis and some cancers.
In a sunny country like Australia you’d think most of us would get plenty of vitamin D. But that’s not the case.
Studies suggest between one third and one half of Australians are low in vitamin D, thanks largely to long hours of office-based work, a decline in outdoor activities and the rise in popularity of video games and computers. We can’t blame sunscreen. Research shows that regular sunscreen users do not have lower vitamin D levels than people who don’t use sunscreen.
Vitamin D deficiency is very common. It’s estimated that about 1 billion people worldwide have low levels of the vitamin in their blood.
You don’t need much summer sun to get your vitamin D fix. Just six to seven minutes of exposing your forearms in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon will do the trick.
When winter arrives, however, it’s a different story. We tend to bundle up against the cold, so less skin is exposed to the sun. And depending on where you live, the winter sun may be too weak to make vitamin D, or be only able to make it at certain times of the day.
How to get enough winter D
In winter, the early morning and late afternoon UV levels are often too low to make vitamin D. As a general rule try to get out at noon and expose your arms or lower legs for between seven and 40 minutes. The darker your skin or the further south you live, the more exposure you will need.
In mid-winter many of us won’t need sunscreen, but any time the UV index gets above 3, the Cancer Council recommends using sun protection. Check the UV levels in your area at cancercouncil.com.au/sunsmartuvalert, or download the free SunSmart app.
This article was previously published in the Well at Work Newsletter