Everyone knows that they should be wearing SPF every day, but in all honesty, I kind of get why it’s such a difficult cause to get behind. With the way that it feels on the skin and formulas that seem to aggravate breakouts, being willing to apply SPF every day when you can’t physically see the damage that the sun is causing is quite an accomplishment. With that being said, I do apply it every day (gold star for me), and I will continue to harp on about the importance of doing so, even if my nagging falls on deaf ears. So yes, avoiding daily SPF application, come rain or shine, is logic I can sort of reason with.
However, I absolutely draw the line at skipping SPF for a day spent sunbathing. And yes, this is far more common than you might think it is. During the recent heatwave, I saw countless comments on social media spreading the message that we should all be frolicking outside in bikinis sans sun cream to get our vitamin D levels back up post-lockdown easing. And this is the sort of reasoning I hear a lot when discussing the importance of SPF to friends. Some common rebuttal from said friends includes: “But just think about how healthy your skin starts looking when you’re on holiday,” and “What about rickets?” and “I’m feeling sad and think I need some more vitamin D, so I’m going to skip sun cream today.”
If there’s anything this recent heatwave has taught me, it’s that a huge amount of people think this way. In fact, so many people think it that I started doubting my own beliefs. In a bid to clear up some confusion, I reached out to a whole bunch of medical experts and skin specialists, and this is what they all had to say.
There is no doubt that maintaining high vitamin D levels in our bodies is absolutely imperative for a number of reasons. “The most well-defined benefit of vitamin D is on bone health. It helps to maintain levels of calcium and phosphate in the blood, as well as helping these minerals incorporate into bones and strengthen bone structure,” says Emma Wedgeworth, consultant dermatologist at Heliocare 360°.
However, although for many years the medical world thought vitamin D was only important for bone formation, more recent breakthroughs show it is more important in other areas than first thought. Jonquille Chantrey, a surgeon at One Aesthetic Studio and an international beauty lecturer, says, “Increasing evidence points to vitamin D’s crucial role in other tissue function [besides bone formation], including brain, heart, muscles, immune system and skin. Many experts regard it as more of a hormone than a vitamin.”
And it’s not just physical benefits that we reap from vitamin D, either. If you have ever wondered why you feel happier in the summer, there’s a high chance it’s linked to increased vitamin D levels from sunlight. “There is increasing research to suggest that vitamin D plays an important role in supporting our mental health. Low vitamin D levels have been linked to seasonal depression and could potentially be associated with lower levels of serotonin,” says Bibi Ghalaie, the eye-contour connoisseur and founder of British Aesthetics.
Yes, you would be right in thinking that, as a nation, our vitamin D levels are a little low. With the majority of our bodies’ vitamin D being produced through sun exposure (more on this to come), our levels are already low due to the UK’s overcast nature. However, considering outdoor activity has been limited over recent months, concerns are that our levels are even lower than usual. “Vitamin D deficiency is a really common problem in the UK, and I see patients in my practice suffering from it every single day,” says Ghalaie.
And just because lots of us are deficient doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the capacity to be really serious. “In terms of overall health, vitamin D deficiency can manifest itself in mild depression, fatigue, loss of bone density and low immunity. When it comes to skin, it can affect already inflammatory skin. For example, eczema or rosacea can become worse in people deficient,” explains Pamela Marshall, clinical aesthetician and co-founder of Mortar & Milk. If the deficiency is more severe, you can also expect to experience muscle weakness, cramps and aches.
Luckily, there are things we can do to up our bodies’ vitamin D production. As briefly mentioned, our main source of vitamin D is, yep you guessed it, sunlight. Chantrey reveals, “There are currently only three known sources of vitamin D: sunlight, diet and supplements. Fish, cod liver oil, milk and eggs are important food sources. Sunlight is a major mechanism, but in the UK, inadequate exposure to sufficient amounts is an issue.”
So yes, UK-wide vitamin D deficiency is a recognised thing, and it is likely because of our limited exposure to the sun. “We can get some vitamin D through foods, but although they are helpful, it’s generally not enough. UV exposure is the best way, but we need to manage how we do this in order to protect ourselves from skin cancers, photodamage and premature ageing. I often recommend a vitamin D supplement,” says Marshall. And actually, general advice is that a vitamin D supplement is the way forward. In fact, Ghalaie reveals that the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE), the body that advises doctors on health, has advised that everyone living in the UK should consider taking a daily vitamin D supplement.
It’s the big question, right? Does SPF really get in the way of our vitamin D intake? Sadly, the answer is, technically, yes. “When skin is exposed to sunlight, it makes vitamin D from cholesterol. The sun’s UVB rays hit cholesterol in the skin cells which provides the energy required for vitamin D synthesis to occur,” says Ghalaie. And because it is through UVB rays that our body starts to create vitamin D (these are the rays responsible for tanning and burning our skin), anything that blocks those rays, like SPF, will also limit how much vitamin D we are able to produce.
But this concept only seems to apply in theory. Chantrey explains, “Broad-spectrum sunscreens can block UVB radiation effectively. However, it remains debatable whether its use directly causes vitamin D deficiency, as some areas of skin are usually exposed without full block.” So while making sure that your skin is exposed to sunlight is important, so too is making sure you apply SPF.
“There is no need to be concerned about vitamin D synthesis while using sun cream. Most people do not wear enough or apply it frequently enough for it to interfere with production. For sun cream to significantly interfere, the entire body’s skin would need to be covered in a thick layer of high-factor SPF and have six teaspoons of cream reapplied every two hours,” says Ghalaie.
It would seem, therefore, that the truth is that going out without SPF is far more likely to cause worse harm. Even if you do want to get your vitamin D from the sun, as opposed to supplements, experts advise that you can do so safely. “You only need 15 to 60 minutes of sun exposure, depending on your skin type. [Darker skin requires longer periods of exposure.] After that, your skin stops producing more active vitamin D, so there really is no benefit at all to lying out in the sun for hours without SPF,” explains Wedgeworth. In summary, I urge you to take away this one key teaching: You do not need to compromise your skin health to ensure you’re getting enough vitamin D.