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Vitamin D for different skin types and ages

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Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that helps maintain good bone health. Our bodies can generate it through exposure to sunlight, and we can also get it in smaller amounts by eating certain foods rich in vitamin D, like oily fish and egg yolks.

In the spring and summer, Brits should be able to get plenty of vitamin D simply by spending time outside in the sun. During the autumn and winter, the NHS recommends taking 10 micrograms of vitamin D supplements every day. For some people, however, vitamin D supplements may be necessary year-round. Read on to find out why.

How do we get vitamin D from sun exposure?

When the UVB rays in sunlight hit our skin, our bodies generate vitamin D. For this to happen, there needs to be enough UVB in the sunlight.

We know that UVB rays are strongest during the spring and summer, and in the middle of the day. The optimal time for getting your vitamin D, therefore, is between 11am and 3pm, between early April and the end of September. In the winter, sunlight doesn’t contain enough UVB radiation – even on the sunniest of days.

What’s important to bear in mind is that UVB rays are also responsible for sunburn and skin cancer. Being outside with skin exposed and wearing no sunscreen isn’t safe for long periods. The general rule is to get out of the sun and apply sunscreen before there’s any risk of the skin getting red or burning.

For more guidance, read staying safe in the sun and after-sun care.

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How much sun exposure do we need?

There’s no exact guidance for how much sun we need each day to maintain healthy vitamin D. This is partly because different people have different needs.

Some people may need more sun exposure because they have darker skin, which takes longer to generate vitamin D. Other people may need to be careful about spending time in the sun because their skin is more sensitive to burning. Babies under six months, for instance, shouldn’t spend any time in strong, direct sunlight.

According to the British Skin Foundation, between April and September, people with lighter skin should be able to get enough vitamin D after 10-15 minutes in the sun. People with darker skin may need longer – between 25 and 40 minutes.

Do darker skin tones need more vitamin D?

People with darker skin don’t need more vitamin D, but their bodies will usually take longer to generate it through sun exposure. This means that people with dark skin (e.g. those of African and South Asian descent) can be at risk of a vitamin D deficiency

If you live in the UK and you’re dark-skinned, you might benefit from taking vitamin D supplements year-round, even during the summer.

Do lighter skin tones need less vitamin D?

People with lighter skin don’t need less vitamin D, but because their skin can generate vitamin D more quickly, they need less sun exposure. This means that light-skinned people should find it easier to get vitamin D from sunlight between April and September.

However, people with lighter skin are also more likely to burn and are at more risk of developing skin cancer, which is why it’s important to practise sun safety.

Does age affect vitamin D absorption?

Yes, it does. As we get older, our ability to generate vitamin D through sun exposure declines. Older people may also be more prone to low vitamin D if they’re housebound or living in a care home. This is why older people may benefit from taking vitamin D supplements year-round.

It may even be beneficial for older adults to take more than the recommended daily dose of 10 micrograms – this guide from the British Association of Dermatologists suggests a dose of 600 IU (International Units) for people over 71. This equates to 15 micrograms. But you might want to talk to your doctor or pharmacist first.

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What are vitamin D supplements?

Vitamin D supplements are capsules, tablets, chews, or drops taken daily to boost your levels of vitamin D. They’re widely available from pharmacies, supermarkets, and health food shops.

The recommended daily dose of vitamin D supplements is for adults and most children 10 micrograms during the winter and early spring, but this will vary depending on your age, skin tone, and lifestyle.

To learn more, consult the table below, or read about the benefits of taking vitamin D supplements.

How much vitamin D do I need each day?

Age Daily dose of vitamin D supplements:
Winter (October - March)
Daily dose of vitamin D supplements:
 Summer (April - September)
Maximum dose
0-1 8.5-10 mcg* 8.5-10 mcg* 25 mcg
1-4 10 mcg 10 mcg 50 mcg
4-10 10 mcg  0-10 mcg** 50 mcg
10-70+ 10 mcg 0-10 mcg** 100 mcg

 

*Babies who are formula-fed and have at least 500ml of formula milk a day don’t need an additional vitamin D supplement. Formula milk is already fortified with vitamin D. Learn more by reading our guide to vitamin D for babies.

**People who spend most of their time indoors, live in a care home, or cover most of their skin when they go outside should take the recommended 10 mcg year-round. People with darker skin tones might also consider taking supplements year-round

Can teenagers take vitamin D supplements?

Yes, teenagers can take vitamin D supplements – and it’s recommended that they do so during the winter when they’re not getting much sun exposure. The recommended daily dosage for children and teenagers over the age of 10 is the same as adults – 10 micrograms per day (and no more than 100 micrograms).

Teenagers who have darker skin, cover their skin when they go outside, or spend a lot of time inside may need to take supplements year-round.

What age should you stop taking vitamin D supplements?

Vitamin D supplements remain beneficial as we age, and in fact some people may need to increase their daily dose as they get older – particularly over the age of 70.

Regardless of your age, it’s important not to take too much vitamin D. “Overdosing” on vitamin D by regularly taking more than the recommended daily dose can lead to a build up of calcium in the body. This can cause problems with the bones, heart, and kidneys.

The NHS recommends taking no more than 100 micrograms of vitamin D each day.

What happens if I don’t get enough vitamin D?

In children, a lack of vitamin D can lead to a condition called rickets that can cause bone deformities and growth problems. In adults it can cause a similar condition called osteomalacia, which causes bone pain.

How common are vitamin D deficiencies?

Vitamin D deficiencies are surprisingly common in the UK – in fact, it’s thought that about one in five children, and one in five adults have low vitamin D. You’re more likely to have a deficiency if you spend a lot of time inside or always have your skin covered.

Find out more by reading vitamin D deficiency and low vitamin D symptoms.

References

www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-d
www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/how-to-get-vitamin-d-from-sunlight
www.bad.org.uk/skin-cancer/vitamin-d
www.britishskinfoundation.org.uk/sunlight-and-vitamin-d
https://patient.info/bones-joints-muscles/osteoporosis-leaflet/vitamin-d-deficiency