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Vitamin D Vs. Sunscreen: One Dermatologist Weighs In On The Debate

Spoiler alert: you're getting enough even while wearing SPF.

Earlier this year, Outside magazine ran a story that went viral, thanks in part to its clickbait-y title “Is sunscreen the new margarine?” The writer argued that, based on nascent and controversial research that challenges North America’s current sun exposure guidelines, the sun’s mood-boosting power, and physical health benefits like reducing blood pressure, outweigh its dangers. With approximately one out of seven Canadians affected by skin cancer, the story’s premise conflicts with what we’ve long been told by the medical community, making it feel reminiscent of another public health issue. “It read like an anti-vax article,” says Dr. Jennifer Beecker, national chair and spokesperson for the Canadian Dermatology Association (CDA) sun awareness program. “There were a lot of factual errors, while some things were a strange interpretation of the data.” The data in question spotlights vitamin D, the nutrient and hormone that can be made by the body after exposure to UV rays from sunlight. Because sunscreens shield our skin from those very same UV rays, some have worried that slathering on SPF is negatively affecting our vitamin D levels, though the results of an Australian study suggested otherwise. There’s also the argument that many of us are pretty poor at properly applying sunscreen let alone using the required amount, so we’re getting vitamin D regardless.

The concern around vitamin D makes sense, as it’s long been considered a panacea for all manner of diseases and ailments. “It’s like the fish oil of the nineties,” says Dr. Beecker of the supplements that have been held up as a magic bullet. But recent studies are finding they may not make a significant difference to our overall health, she says. Studies like a recent one published in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), which found that significant doses of vitamin D supplements given to more than 25,000 participants didn’t lower the incidence of cardiovascular disease or certain cancers. (In light of the NEJM study, the CDA updated its position on vitamin D and sun exposure this spring, claiming “It is unsafe and unnecessary to increase sun exposure in order to maintain vitamin D levels.”) Or another study published in medical journal The Lancet that found that vitamin D supplementation doesn’t “prevent fractures or falls, or have clinically meaningful effects on bone mineral density.”

Meanwhile there’s no shortage of stats and evidence to support that wearing sunscreen can significantly reduce our chances of getting melanoma. Dr. Beecker says that even with sunscreen, people are getting way too much sun, which could be one reason Canada’s skin cancer stats are high despite how little sunlight we get per year. It’s also because at this time of year, it’s pretty hard not to get excited about feeling the sun on your skin after a winter of going from couch to cubicle— and back. “As soon as the sun comes out, everybody kind of runs outside,” she says. But with a little chill and a few adjustments (think: avoiding sun during peak hours, wearing sun-protective clothing, hats and sunglasses), we can have the best of both worlds. “We want people to be outdoors, but have common sense and be responsible.”