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Fact or fiction: Does sunscreen block Vitamin D?

Dermatology experts set the record straight.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Aug 23, 2023 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
Use Sunscreen Everyday to Block UV Rays
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Aug 23, 2023 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is an essential nutrient for our bodies. Soaking in the sun is one way to replenish our bodies with this vitamin. Yet, the very rays that grant us vitamin D also have the potential to harm our skin, making the use of sunscreen a non-negotiable. Sunscreen serves a critical purpose—helping safeguard our skin from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. 

But does it also block our access to vitamin D?

Here, our experts will discuss the science behind sunscreen and its potential impact on the absorption of vitamin D from sunlight, so you can learn how to protect your skin while also getting all the vitamin D you need.

What does sunscreen do? 

Sunscreen works as a shield, helping protect your skin against harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation that comes from the sun. These UV rays can cause skin damage leading to premature skin aging, sunburns, and even skin cancer. Sunscreen is categorized in two different ways, depending on how it protects your skin:

Chemical Sunscreens: These work by absorbing UV radiation. Their molecules contain a special chemical structure that allows them to take in the high-energy UV rays, enter an excited state, and then release that energy at a lower level as they return to their normal state. This process effectively transforms harmful UV radiation into heat.

Physical Sunscreens: Commonly known as mineral sunscreens, these types of sunscreen contain active mineral ingredients, such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Unlike chemical sunscreens, they work by sitting on top of your skin to deflect damaging UV rays away from your skin.

In addition to these primary protection mechanisms, many sunscreens also include secondary protection elements like antioxidants, which can help neutralize any harmful effects of UV radiation on a cellular level.¹ And while UV light might sound scary, it’s important to remember that it isn’t all bad—it also helps our body produce vitamin D.²

The role of Vitamin D

Our bodies produce vitamin D when we’re exposed to sunlight.³ Let’s take a closer look at what it does for our body.

What is Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is a nutrient that plays an instrumental role in maintaining the well-being of our bones, teeth, and muscles. It performs this function by effectively regulating calcium and phosphate levels within our bodies.⁴ Despite its importance, over half the global population is at risk of vitamin D deficiency.⁵

This widespread deficiency is dangerous because a lack of vitamin D can lead to potential health consequences. In children, it may result in a bone deformity condition known as rickets, while adults might experience a painful condition called osteomalacia, marked by softening of the bones. To guard against vitamin D deficiency, experts recommend incorporating a daily supplement into your routine, particularly during autumn and winter, when sun’s rays are more dispersed and less intense.⁶

Introducing any dietary supplement into your daily routine should be guided by personalized professional advice. Consult with a healthcare provider who can offer tailored recommendations based on your unique medical history and current health status. This precaution ensures that your approach to maintaining optimum vitamin D levels is safe and tailored to your needs.

How does sunlight give us Vitamin D?

Sunlight helps our body make vitamin D. Here’s how: When sunlight touches our skin, it turns a type of fat in our skin into a substance called pre-vitamin D3. Our body then changes this substance into vitamin D3, a form of vitamin D that our body can use.

But there are a few things that can affect how much vitamin D your body can make from sunlight such as the color of your skin, sunscreen usage, your age, and even your geographical location.⁷

Sunscreen and vitamin D: Does sunscreen block vitamin D?

Studies show that sunscreen, specifically with an SPF of 50+, can significantly reduce your skin’s ability to produce Vitamin D. However, the impact of this on the overall vitamin D levels in your body appears to be minimal. When your skin’s capacity to produce vitamin D is hampered due to sunscreen use, the body uses other stored sources of vitamin D building blocks to compensate. These findings suggest that short-term sunscreen use doesn’t adversely impact the overall amount of vitamin D in your body, but the effects of long-term sunscreen use require further research.⁸

Reviews of observational studies suggest that everyday sunscreen use doesn’t typically lead to vitamin D deficiency. In light of evidence from these studies and field trials, the risk of vitamin D deficiency due to sunscreen use seems low.⁹

Balancing sun protection and Vitamin D exposure

Striking the right balance between sun protection and vitamin D exposure can seem challenging, but it’s achievable with some planning. The first step is being uncompromising about your sun protection: Always use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more to shield your skin from harmful UV rays.¹⁰

Since sunscreen may reduce your skin’s capacity to produce vitamin D, be sure that you’re acquiring this critical nutrient from other sources. These can include various foods, fortified dietary items, and potentially supplements, depending on your needs.

Natural food sources of vitamin D are relatively limited. The frontrunners in this category are fatty fish like trout, salmon, tuna, and mackerel, as well as fish liver oils. The diet of an animal also impacts its vitamin D content, so smaller amounts can be found in beef liver, egg yolks, and cheese. Certain mushrooms, especially those exposed to UV light, are another source of vitamin D.¹¹

In the American diet, the primary source of vitamin D comes from fortified foods. Milk, for instance, is voluntarily fortified with vitamin D3 in the U.S. In Canada, the fortification of milk and margarine with specific amounts of vitamin D is mandatory.¹²

It’s important to note that dairy products made from milk, such as ice cream, are typically not fortified with Vitamin D in the U.S. or Canada. However, plant-based milk substitutes, along with certain brands of breakfast cereals, orange juice, yogurt, and margarine, are often fortified with added vitamin D.¹³

Further, both the U.S. and Canada have regulations requiring infant formula to be fortified with specific amounts of vitamin D to ensure adequate intake for growing infants.¹⁴

While sunscreen is essential for skin protection, its potential impact on vitamin D synthesis can be mitigated through a combination of dietary sources and fortified foods. As always, it’s important to discuss your vitamin D intake with a healthcare professional to ensure it meets your individual needs.

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FAQs

What blocks vitamin D absorption?

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means that its absorption in our body is intrinsically linked to your gut’s ability to absorb dietary fat. Therefore, anything that hinders fat absorption can indirectly affect vitamin D absorption as well. Certain medical conditions are known to impair your body’s ability to absorb fat, which can lead to a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency. These conditions include liver diseases, cystic fibrosis, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.¹⁵

Does vitamin D from the sun go through clothes?

Sunlight, particularly its UV rays responsible for vitamin D synthesis, can penetrate clothing to a certain degree. Even fabrics designed with a high Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) are somewhat impervious to these rays. However, whether UV light is sufficient to trigger pre-vitamin D3 production isn’t just about the fabric you wear; it’s also about the duration of your exposure to these UV rays. Longer exposure times can lead to increased vitamin D synthesis, even when wearing clothing.¹⁶

As always, it’s important to balance your need for vitamin D synthesis with the need to protect your skin from excessive UV radiation, which can cause skin damage and increase the risk of skin cancer. Consult a healthcare professional for advice tailored to your needs and circumstances.

How can I maximize vitamin D absorption from the sun?

Maximizing vitamin D absorption involves safe sun exposure. Spend time outdoors, but remember to always wear sunscreen to protect yourself from harmful rays. Balance is key: Too much sun exposure can lead to skin damage and increase the risk of developing skin cancer.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Gabros, S., et al. Sunscreens and Photoprotection. StatPearls. (2023, March 7).

  2. Sivamani, R.K., et al. The benefits and risks of ultraviolet (UV) tanning and its alternatives: the role of prudent sun exposure. Dermatol Clin. (April 2009).

  3. Holick, M.F. Sunlight, ultraviolet radiation, vitamin D and skin cancer: how much sunlight do we need? Adv Exp Med Biol. (2014, n.d.).

  4. National Health Service (NHS). Vitamin D. (2020, August 3).

  5. Holick, M.F. Sunlight, ultraviolet radiation, vitamin D and skin cancer: how much sunlight do we need? Adv Exp Med Biol. Ibid.

  6. National Health Service (NHS). Vitamin D. Ibid.

  7. Holick, M.F. Sunlight, ultraviolet radiation, vitamin D and skin cancer: how much sunlight do we need? Adv Exp Med Biol. Ibid.

  8. Libon F., et al. Sunscreens block cutaneous vitamin D production with only a minimal effect on circulating 25-hydroxyvitamin D. Arch Osteoporos. (December 2017).

  9. Neale, R.E., et al. The effect of sunscreen on vitamin D: a review. Br J Dermatol. (November 2019).

  10. Sander, M., et al. The efficacy and safety of sunscreen use for the prevention of skin cancer. CMAJ. (2020, December 14).

  11. Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS). Vitamin D. National Institutes of Health. (2022, August 12).

  12. Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS). Vitamin D. National Institutes of Health. Ibid.

  13. Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS). Vitamin D. National Institutes of Health. Ibid.

  14. Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS). Vitamin D. National Institutes of Health. Ibid.

  15. Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS). Vitamin D. National Institutes of Health. Ibid.

  16. Parisi, A.V. and Wilson, C.A. Pre-vitamin D effective ultraviolet transmission through clothing during simulated wear. Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed. (December 2005).

Erin Pate is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our thoughts on sun protection: *Sunscreen is only one part of UV protection—cute sun hats and shades are also recommended.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Erin Pate Nurse Practitioner, NP-C

Erin Pate, NP-C

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