Can we get enough vitamin D without risk of ageing and skin cancer? Yes.

The sun is our main source of vitamin D in the human body. Vitamin D is crucial for health and energy and to protect us from inflammatory diseases and cancers.

At the same time, we know that the sun poses health risks at well, especially for our skin, making us vulnerable to skin cancer and premature ageing.

So it is crucial that individuals know how to protect themselves from skin cancer, how to avoid sunscreens which may, themselves, cause cancer, and yet get enough vitamin D to be maximally healthy.

The deficiency paradox

We are all caught within a confusing paradox of health risks regarding the dangers of the sun, vitamin D deficiency, and synthetic sunscreens, our most convenient ways of blocking out UV rays.

The problem is that if we don’t get enough quality sunlight, we risk vitamin D deficiency, which can lead to an increased risk of all kinds of cancers, insulin resistance, depression, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and other health problems.

On the other hand, the sun can give us deadly skin cancers that can spread externally and internally and age the skin, causing premature wrinkling, spotting, and sagging.

For a time, we looked to sunscreens and sun blocks that we slathered on in thick coatings. In fact, the higher the SPF the better, we thought. But now, we’re learning about the dangers of toxic chemicals in these so-called “cancer preventatives” and that sunscreens may cause cancer themselves.

OTC sunscreens of all kinds, in fact, are full of harmful toxins and allergens that pose dangers to health in all kinds of ways, which actually make us more vulnerable to skin cancer and which act as endocrine and hormone disruptors, which can interfere with thyroid function, cause sleep disturbances, and cause weight gain.1

Among many other toxins found in sunscreens, one of the worst ones is oxybenzone, which the Environmental Working Groups warns us is dangerous for pregnant and breastfeeding women because it is so toxic.2

At the same time, too much sun protection via clothing and sunscreen places us at risk of Vitamin D deficiency.

It boils down to this:

  • the sun is dangerous and can cause ageing, wrinkling, tearing, and other kinds of skin damage in addition to placing us at risk for several types of skin cancer, which are deadly and can spread internally to other organs and cause internal malignancies.
  • most sunscreens contain dangerous, toxic chemicals that can cause deadly diseases themselves.
  • vitamin D deficiency causes dangerous diseases as well.

No wonder we feel so confused about all this!

Today, we’re going to discuss what vitamin D really is and why it is so essential for our health, the risks of vitamin D deficiency, and what to do to get enough vitamin D safely.

Vitamin D is crucial, and many of us are deficient in it 

Vitamin D deficiency is on the rise, especially in the US, Australia and the UK In fact, in the UK 1 in 5 people are vitamin D deficient, including a quarter of all toddlers. In the US, the problem is just as bad, with 40% of the entire population deficient in this important vitamin.3. In Australia, it is estimated that over 30% of adults having a mild, moderate or even severe deficiency of Vitamin D.

The real problem is that while we used to believe vitamin D was chiefly responsible for the health and protection of our bones, we have now learned that vitamin D deficiency causes many deadly problems.  Researchers believe this is because vitamin D is so crucial for all kinds of cellular functions in the body.

Indeed, vitamin D deficiency is now believed to be linked to a wide range of health problems, including:

  • Increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease4
  • Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome5
  • Multiple sclerosis6
  • Inflammatory diseases
  • Increased risk of kidney and liver disease7
  • Prostate cancer, breast cancer, and other cancers8
  • Cognitive impairment in older adults and increased risk of dementia9
  • Severe asthma in children10

What is the cause of such widespread vitamin D deficiency?

Researchers believe that in our haste to shun the sun and avoid its ageing and cancerous effects, we are no longer getting adequate sunshine. Plus, vitamin D is difficult to get in food and many individuals have not yet learned that vitamin D3 supplements are crucial if one wants to absorb their vitamin D, not just any vitamin D supplement. We have to make sure the D3 is present in a complex or take D3 alone.11

So, what exactly is vitamin D?

Although it’s called a vitamin, vitamin D is really a hormone called calcitriol that is made in the bodies of animals (including the human animal).

Calcitriol is a steroid hormone that has long been known for its important role in regulating levels of calcium and phosphorus in the body and in mineralization of bone. As researchers for Harvard Health note,

“Without enough vitamin D, the body can only absorb 10% to 15% of dietary calcium, but 30% to 40% absorption is the rule when vitamin reserves are normal. A lack of vitamin D in children causes rickets; in adults, it causes osteomalacia. Both bone diseases are now rare in the United States, but another is on the rise — osteoporosis, the “thin bone” disease that leads to fractures and spinal deformities.”12

More recently, as researchers at Colorado State University noted, “it has become clear that receptors for vitamin D are present in a wide variety of cells, and that this hormone has biologic effects which extend far beyond the control of mineral metabolism.”13

Vitamin D’s other crucial role in the body is to manufacture proteins and enzymes, both of which are crucial to prevent disease and keep the body healthy. In this way, vitamin D enhances muscle strength and builds bone.

Vitamin D also has anti-inflammatory effects upon the body, which is why vitamin D deficiency is linked with inflammatory diseases of all kinds.

Vitamin D is also crucial for the immune system, to manage insulin, and to exert anti-cancer effects in the body. Given these roles vitamin D plays in the body, it’s easy to see why deficiency is linked with cancer, inflammation, and type II diabetes. 14

Where do I get vitamin D from?

Vitamin D is not plentiful in a normal diet. It’s found chiefly in foods such as sockeye salmon and swordfish, two fish most individuals don’t eat monthly or weekly, let alone daily.  Without sunshine or supplementation, then, we see a widespread deficiency.

If you want to assure you’re getting enough D, as Mark Sisson reminds us, because of the way we synthesise vitamin D in the body, food sources, supplements, and the sun can be considered equally beneficial sources of vitamin D, with supplements and food being the least risky of the three.15

In fact, with just 20 minutes of sun exposure, our bodies make approx. 20,000 units of vitamin D without sunblock or clothing. This is 100 times our recommended RDA for vitamin D. The recommended RDA for adults, male or female, 19 to 69 years old, is 600 IUs daily and for adults 70 and older, 800 IUS.16

However, we know what the sun does to the skin.

Sun through windows: posing newfound risks for humans

Something that’s important to know is that we cannot absorb vitamin D behind glass windows. In fact, new research is suggesting that windows actually bend UV rays in such a way that our risk of skin cancer is increased.

The reason this happens is that glass blocks one type of ray, UVA, while letting in only the most harmful UVB rays. While we’re in direct sunlight, we absorb both UVA and UVB rays, and one works to counter the more damaging effects of the other.

In fact, many researchers suggest we only get the sun outside, and to make sure to block light from penetrating glass windows and hitting our skin.17

What are the food sources of vitamin D?

Only about 10% of your vitamin D comes from diet, so it is nearly impossible to get adequate amounts of vitamin D from your food.

Cod liver oil contains a ton of vitamin D, as you can see below; however, most scientists believe we should not take cod liver oil as a supplement due to studies that suggest that much vitamin A in the form of preformed retinol, as is found in cod liver oil, may cause toxicity and even death.18 Selected Food Sources of Vitamin D [11]

Food IUs per serving* Percent DV**
Cod liver oil, 1 tablespoon 1,360 340
Swordfish, cooked, 3 ounces 566 142
Salmon (sockeye), cooked, 3 ounces 447 112
Tuna fish, canned in water, drained, 3 ounces 154 39
Orange juice fortified with vitamin D, 1 cup 134 137
Milk, vitamin D-fortified, 1 cup 115-124 29-31
Yoghurt, fortified with 20% of the DV for vitamin D, 170 grams 80 20
Margarine, fortified, 1 tablespoon 60 15
Sardines, canned in oil, drained, 2 sardines 46 12
Liver, beef, cooked, 85 grams 42 11
Egg, 1 large (vitamin D is found in yolk) 41 10
Cheese, Swiss, 28 grams 6 2
–Courtesy of NIH

What are the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency?

Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency are vague. With widespread deficiency today, it is recommended that everyone get their levels of vitamin D tested by a doctor, especially if you don’t eat a diet rich in fatty fish, dairy fortified foods, or get adequate sunlight.

Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency include

  • Fatigue
  • General muscle pain and weakness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Joint pain
  • Chronic pain
  • Weight gain
  • High blood pressure
  • Restless sleep
  • Poor concentration
  • Headaches
  • Bladder problems
  • Constipation or diarrhoea19

Who is at risk for vitamin D deficiency?

Although all sun-shunning individuals, the elderly, and those who don’t supplement with vitamin D3 are at the most risk for D deficiency, the following types of individuals are especially at risk.

  • Vegans and vegetarians who don’t eat enough fatty fish and shun dairy won’t get enough vitamin D in the diet.
  • Housebound people who don’t go out in the sun
  • Second and third-shift workers who don’t get enough sunshine in their off hours.
  • Individuals with dark skin.The pigment called melanin reduces the skin’s ability to make vitamin D from sunlight. Older adults who have darker skin are especially at risk for vitamin D deficiency. 20

Although a mere 20 minutes of full on sun can give us some 100 times the amount of D we need daily, the sun is also linked to skin cancer and premature ageing.

So let’s look at the dangers of looking to the sun as opposed to food and supplements for our vitamin D supply.

The sun: damaging, deadly, and very ageing upon the skin

Without protection from the sun in the form of clothing, sunglasses, and some type of healthy sunscreen, we are at risk to the cancer-causing and premature ageing powers of the sun through its damaging UV rays.

There are three types of UV rays. Let’s look at which ones are “somewhat” safe and those that are deadly.

The three types of UV rays

UVA rays – stands for Ultraviolet A rays or more easily remembered as “UV Ageing rays”- they are the cause of long-term skin damage and photo-ageing. In other words, they cause premature ageing, wrinkles and sun spots.

UVB rays – stands for Ultraviolet B rays. These rays are often referred to as “UV-burning rays” and they are the cause of sunburn. Unlike UVA rays, they have different strengths year round. UVB rays are the common cause of most skin cancers.

UVC rays – stands for Ultraviolet C rays. These are the strongest and most deadly of solar rays. Again, the ozone layer absorbs these.21

First, how does the sun age skin?

Many people love the sun and some adore sun sports such as surfing, tanning, and walking the beach to collect sea shells. The sun certainly makes us feel good as well. The Sunshine helps with depression and gives us a healthy glow.

But we are now only too aware of the sun’s more damaging effects to the skin to enjoy the sun as innocently as we used to.

Because of the negative impacts of the sun upon our skin, today, we want to look to natural bronzers to give us colour and glow rather than the sun. There is no sense in looking to the sun for a “healthy” glow if it’s really damaging your skin.

In fact, it is sun exposure alone that causes most of the skin changes that we think of as a normal part of ageing. Over time, the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) light damages all the components of the skin such as collagen, elastin, free radical damage, and all kinds of damage to the inner and outer layers of the skin.

Some of the many negative impacts sunshine has upon the skin include:

  • decreased immune function in the skin, which causes either pre-cancerous (actinic keratosis) or cancerous (basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma) skin lesions.
  • benign tumours on the skin.
  • lines and wrinkles
  • freckles
  • discoloured areas of the skin, mottled pigmentation
  • yellow discoloration of the skin
  • telangiectasia, the dilation of small blood vessels under the skin
  • the destruction of the elastic and collagen tissue, medically called “elastosis,’ which causes lines, wrinkles, and sagging skin.22

The sun’s impact on collagen and elastin

UV rays break down collagen and elastin, mutating these tender strands and accelerating the ageing process.

Sunlight destroys collagen strands, in fact, and causes abnormal formation of elastin strands as well. When this malformed elastin accumulates in the dermis, we see wrinkling and sagging, caused by an accumulation of enzymes called metalloproteinases.

Although these enzymes repair collagen and elastin in healthy skin, sun damage causes them to pull an about-face of their normal roles, and they begin breaking down skin due to what is called “solar scars” which disorganise collagen fibres, making reparation impossible.

As researchers at the Cleveland Clinic for Dermatology note, “When the skin repeats this “imperfect” rebuilding process over and over wrinkles develop.”

Other ageing effects of the sun upon skin

Free radical damage

UV radiation is one of the major creators of free radicals, and free radical damage causes wrinkles by activating the metalloproteinases that break down collagen.

Texture Changes Caused by the Sun

UV exposure also causes thickening of the skin which causes thick folds and wrinkles, especially on the neck. An additional impact of UV rays is thinning of the skin causing fine wrinkles, especially on the face, as well as easy bruising and skin tearing.

What Causes Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is the most prevalent form of all cancers in the U.S. and the U.K., and the numbers of people diagnosed with skin cancer every year are progressing rapidly.

Skin cancer is caused by the rapid growth of abnormal skin cells within the skin. This rapid cellular growth results in tumours, which are either benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

There are three main types of skin cancer:

  • basal cell carcinoma (BCC)
  • squamous cell carcinoma (SCC),
  • and melanoma.

Of these three, melanoma is the most deadly, while basal cell and squamous cell cancers are less serious.

BCC and SCC, which are also called “non-melanoma skin cancer”, comprise 95% of all skin cancers.23

Melanoma, which is made up of accumulations of abnormal skin pigment cells called melanocytes, is the most serious form of skin cancer and causes 75% of all skin cancer deaths.24

Left untreated, it can spread internally to other organs. If this happens, cancer can spread to the brain, lungs, and all the internal organs where it becomes a deadly, pervasive, metastasizing form of cancer that is virtually untreatable.

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the number-one cause of skin cancer, but UV light from tanning beds is just as dangerous and is the second highest cause of skin cancer.

People most at risk for skin cancer have typically had episodes of severe sunburn in their youth, before the age of 18. So, people who know about this risk should watch out for any abnormal looking moles and lesions on the skin.25

Cumulative sun exposure over years typically results in the basal cell and squamous cell forms of skin cancer. Other less common causes are repeated X-ray exposure and occupational exposure to certain chemicals.

75% of all sunscreens are toxic

What about sunscreen? The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently reviewed over 2,000 types of sunscreen and 257 different brands of sunscreen. They found more than 75% of the sunscreens contained toxic chemicals that can increase your risk of cancer and other health issues.26 The dangers of conventional sunscreens

According to the Environmental Working Group, in fact, research has proven that:

some sunscreen ingredients absorb into the blood, and some have toxic effects. Some release skin-damaging free radicals in sunlight, some act like estrogen and disrupt hormones, and several can cause allergic reactions and skin irritation. The FDA has not established rigorous safety standards for sunscreen ingredients. Sunscreens haven’t been regulated since 1978 in the USA, and the SPF factor only tells you how effective a sunscreen is against UVB rays which cause sunburn.

The most unsafe, toxic chemicals in sunscreen

  • Para amino benzoic acid
  • Octyl salicylate
  • Oxybenzone
  • Cinoxate
  • Dioxybenzone
  • Phenylbenzimidazole
  • Homosalate
  • Menthyl anthranilate
  • Octocrylene
  • Methoxycinnamate
  • Parabens

To stay healthy, you should avoid sunscreens containing these deadly ingredients. At the end of the article, we’ll discuss safer options for sunscreen.

There are three types of sunscreens

There are basically three types of sunscreens that are sold today:

  • Non-mineral sunscreens.
  • Mineral sunscreens
  • And those that are both

Non-mineral sunscreens: The worst choice.

These are the most toxic sun block/sunscreen choices. These penetrate deep into the skin, are severe hormone disruptors (and are, therefore, carcinogenic), contain allergens, and release free radicals when they break down in the body. Again, oxybenzone is the most common and harmful ingredients in non-mineral sunscreens (and is the one doctors warn expectant mothers and mothers of children to avoid like the plague—which is, of course, a warning for all of us of their disruptive and potentially hazardous effects in the body).

Mineral sunscreens

These are safer choices and contain minerals like zinc or titanium. What’s positive about these sunscreens are that they do not break down in the sun, are not usually absorbed, and are not known carcinogens or hormonal disruptors in the body.

They are also more effective for blocking harmful UVA (UV ageing) rays. According to the EWG, mineral sunscreens have the best safety profiles of choices sold in the UK and USA today.27

But, just remember, sunburns increase your risk of developing skin cancer by some 20% and people who shun the sun look 10 years younger than those that do not.

So, ask yourself what’s more important? Avoiding ageing and cancer, or looking to safe ways to get your vitamin D?

The griffin+row recommendation for getting adequate vitamin D without risk

To ensure that you get enough vitamin D without risk and protect your skin from premature ageing and skin cancer we recommend the following protocol.

If you are looking to the sun for your vitamin D:

  • Check the EWG’s safe sunscreen page (however, the best sunscreen is clothing: hats, pants, etcetera.28
  • Look into effective natural, mineral sunscreens that are on the EWG’s list.
  • Wear hats to shield your face from the sun, clothing to protect yourself from harmful UVA rays, and long sleeve shirts in the hottest summer months that block the sun’s rays. There are all kinds of choices of sun-blocking clothing sold online and at stores today.
  • Immediately follow sun exposure with natural skin-hydrating sprays and moisturisers that contain collagen repairers and strengtheners and free radical destroyers such as ingredients targeting free radicals damage such as centipede cunninghamil, agonis fragrans, and santalum spicatum.

For vitamin D supplementation (recommended):

  • Get your vitamin D from a good, quality D3 supplements. Look to oils and gel capsules from reputed sources with a USP verification seal, which indicates the supplement went through voluntary independent quality testing. These pills list their amounts most accurately.
  • Do not take too much D3: too much can be toxic – and one way to tell that a vitamin is not of quality is it will have hundreds to thousands more IUs that are recommended per day.

Even better: Look to food PLUS vitamin D supplements.

Work lots of foods rich in vitamin D into your diet and eat fatty fish four to five times weekly at different meals (lunch, dinner—even a smoked salmon on a bagel with cream cheese for breakfast is a great choice.

Lastly, look to herbs and supplements that naturally protect the skin from cancers. Some of the best ones are

  • Reservatrol (found in blueberries, red grapes, and red wine)
  • Quality vitamin E sources or supplements (pumpkin seeds, asparagus, almonds.
  • Astaxanthin (fish oil and fatty fish)
  • Quality Omega 3 oils
  • Catechins in green and white teas
  • Beta carotene from peppers and carrots.29

Sun worshipping is now a thing of the past and in order to save our lives and the life of our skin, it should be.

Protect yourself from the sun’s ageing effects in every way you can. Later on, when you look 31 instead of 51, you’ll thank you!

  1. EWG. The trouble with sunscreen chemicals.
  2. Ibid.
  3. The Telegraph. Vitamin D deficiency in the UK is a “major risk.”
  4. Judd, S. (2010). Vitamin D deficiency and risk for cardiovascular disease. American Journal of Medical Science.
  5. Zsofia, S. (2012) Vitamin D deficiency is associated with type 2 diabetes mellitus in hiv infection. AIDS, 25(4): 525–529. rel=”nofollow”>
  6. Alharbi, F. M. (2015). Update in vitamin D and multiple sclerosis. Neurosciences, 20(4): 329–335. rel=”nofollow”>
  7. Yin, K. and D. Agrawal. (2014). Vitamin D and inflammatory diseases, Journal of Inflammatory Research. 7: 69–87.
  8. Grant, W. B. (2009). A critical review of Vitamin D and cancer. Dermatoendocrinology, 1(1): 25–33.
  9. Vitamin D council. Cognitive impairment.
  10. Litonjua, A. (2010. Childhood asthma may be a consequence of vitamin D deficiency. Current opinion in allergy and clinical immunology. 9(3): 202–207.
  11. Dr. Mercola. Are you taking the right type of vitamin D?
  12. Harvard T. Chan health. Vitamin D and health.
  13. Colorado State. Edu.
  14. NIH. Vitamin D. Vitamin D: Calcitrol.
  15. Sisson, M. Vitamin D, sun exposure, supplementation and doses.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Sisson, M. Dear Mark: Sun exposure and glass.
  18. Mercola. Important: Cod liver oil update.
  19. Web M.D. Vitamin D deficiency.
  20. Harvard T. Chan. Vitmain D deficiency: What increases the risk?
  21. Skin and UVB.
  22. Clevland clinic. The sun and skin cancer.
  23. Wellspring oncology. The facts about skin cancer.
  24. Cancer network. Melanoma and other skin cancers.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Dr. Axe. Sunscreens are toxic: What to do instead.
  27. EWG. EWG’s sunscreen guide.
  28. ibid
  29. Dr. Axe. Fighting skin cancer with food.

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