Children's Hospital Colorado

Vitamin D vs. Sunscreen: What is the Healthy Balance?

A woman puts sunscreen on a young girl with light brown hair and wearing a pink tank top at a park.

Lately there has been a great deal of attention from the media and medical community on vitamin D and its possible health benefits.

What you should know about vitamin D is that it serves as a crucial role in aiding the absorption of calcium and promoting strong bones. Adequate levels of calcium are critical for other important processes in our bodies, such as hormone levels, nerve conduction and muscle contraction.

One of the ways we produce vitamin D naturally is through exposure to sunlight. Ultraviolet B (UVB) sunlight rays go into exposed skin and create vitamin D. The problem, however, is that sunscreen and many clothing items block the absorption of UVB sunlight into the skin, hence blocking natural vitamin D production.

So should kids play outdoors without sunscreen in order to maintain healthy levels of vitamin D?

At the present time, our best answer is for kids to always use sunscreen when playing outdoors, no matter how short the duration of exposure to the sun. The risk of skin cancer is too great to skip the sunblock. Specifically, the American Academy of Dermatology officially recommends using sunscreen and other sun protective measures at all times when playing outdoors, such as hats, sunglasses, skin-protective clothing (with SPF in it) and limiting outdoor activity to early morning or late afternoon.

Although these measures block vitamin D synthesis in the skin, they dramatically reduce the risk of skin cancer. Thus, there is never a time when young athletes should be outside playing recreationally or in an organized sport without sunscreen and other sun-protective measures. The American Academy of Dermatology’s position statement explains that “Vitamin D should not be obtained from unprotected exposure to UV radiation.” In other words, due to the risk of skin cancer, it is never recommended to be outside without sunscreen intentionally to gain exposure to the sunlight in order to produce vitamin D.

Other healthy ways to obtain vitamin D

We recommend obtaining vitamin D from naturally occurring food sources, such as salmon, tuna, swordfish and eggs, as well as fortified food sources like milk, orange juice and yogurt. If these food options don’t interest your children, vitamin D supplements are sold over the counter in many different kid-friendly forms, such as chewable candies or gummies, liquid drops and pills. There are many acceptable, safe ways to get your daily recommended level of vitamin D (kids age 4 and over: 600 IU daily, kids less than 4 years: 400 IU daily).

To learn more, read our Calcium and Vitamin D Deficiency post or schedule an appointment at 720-777-6600. We are happy to consult with parents or referring providers before a patient is seen at Children’s Colorado.

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