Our bodies need vitamin D to function properly, and the most available source is sunlight. However, sunlight can also damage our skin. The FDA has just put out a warning against certain sunscreen ingredients. So how can we get our much-needed vitamin D while keeping our bodies safe?
Summer is officially here! Kids are out of school, the sun is shining, and weekend trips are planned. As I gear up for my favorite season, I can still hear my mother’s words echoing in my head, “Don’t forget to put on your sunscreen!,” and “Kids, get outside and get some Vitamin D!”. Hmm, these seem like contradictory statements? So where is the intersection of sun protection and getting our much-needed vitamin D?
The Benefits of Vitamin D
Did you know our kidneys can produce 90% of our daily dose of vitamin D? Our bodies are able to process vitamin D through receptors in our skin cells. We are able to process up to 90% of that vitamin D we need through this exposure to the sun. However, there are limited foods that are high naturally in vitamin D to make up that 10% that we are unable to process through the sun. Most dermatologist and endocrinologist alike will recommend vitamin D be taken as a supplement to ensure that your daily dose is reached.
Vitamin D controls our blood calcium levels and helps strengthen our immune system. It promotes healthy bones, muscle function, cardiovascular function, brain development, and support for our respiratory system. Despite its name, vitamin D is actually a prohormone, not a vitamin. When the body receives vitamin D, it turns it into a hormone, sometimes called “activated vitamin D”, or “calcitriol”.
Though vitamin D is also found in several foods, the prohormone is most readily available through direct exposure to UV rays. Through a series of chemical processes, the skin turns sunlight into cholecalciferol, which the liver then converts into vitamin D. In short, we can synthesize vitamin D through sunlight hitting our skin, making us more like plants than we thought!
Surprisingly, vitamin D can actually serve as a protectant for the skin from UVB rays. As Dr. Gominak explains, based on her extensive studies:
“Vitamin D…goes into the cells nucleus to repair the DNA damage caused by the UVB light, thus preventing skin cancer. This means that there was already a natural process that protected us from skin cancer caused by sun exposure.”
So I can get my recommended dosage of vitamin D from the sun in a healthy way that can actually benefit my body? Sounds like I’ll be getting a tan this summer!
Don’t Forget the Sunscreen
But about that tan…what about the motherly warnings against sunspots, wrinkly skin and increased chances of cancer development? Not to worry, I am fully equipped to combat those with my army of sunscreen. I have my convenient spray for quick re-applications, my face stick to make sure my nose and ears are fully concealed, and my lightly-tinted body lotion to give me that extra glow. Very responsible of me…my mom would be proud! Or would she?
The FDA recently addressed the lack of regulatory safety testing and efficacy in sunscreens. Until now, they had not tested sunscreens for how they absorb into the bloodstream, as the formulations were designed to sit on the skin as a topical shield from UVB rays.
Studies published in The Journal of the American Medical Association evaluated the systemic absorption of active ingredients in four commercially available sunscreens. In this pilot study, all four active ingredients tested were absorbed into the bloodstream! And while not all ingredients absorbed through the skin are hazardous and our bodies are able to process most toxicants, the study calls for further research and testing to determine the safety of ingredients for repeated use.
While the testing continues, the FDA has proposed a rule that requires sunscreens to be regulated in the same way as drugs. This was put in place to bring all over-the-counter sunscreens up to date with the latest scientific standards, and ensure they are generally recognized as safe and effective (GRASE).
Here are the proposed regulations outside of just ingredient-testing for sunscreens — this includes SPF levels, label requirements and dosage recommendations.
Which Sunscreens are Best?
So what sunscreens can I use, and what should I look for? Two active ingredients already considered GRASE are zinc-oxide and titanium dioxide; if you see these on your label, you can rest assured you are in the clear. On the other hand, PABA and trolamine salicylate have been deemed unsafe for use, so avoid sunscreens containing these ingredients. Most other chemicals are still under investigation by the FDA and have insufficient data to make a conclusive safety determination, here is a chart that illustrates how to best read your sunscreen label:
Some of our favorite brands are Supergoop Everyday Sunscreen SPF 50, Beautycounter Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Mist SPF 30, Bare Republic Clearscreen SPF 50, and Sun Bum Original Moisturizing Sunscreen.
If you’re curious about other ways to protect your skin from sun damage and pollutants, check out our post on Skin: Your Body’s Largest Organ here. And if you’re wondering more about vitamin D and its effect on our health, stay tuned for more from Dirt to Dinner on this topic!
The Bottom Line:
Be sure to protect your skin with sunscreen, but stay informed by reading the ingredient labels to understand what you’re putting on your skin. Talk to your doctor about your recommended sunlight exposure to optimize your vitamin D levels and supplement with foods rich in vitamin D. Have a happy and safe summer!