Should You Get Vitamin D From Sun Exposure?

Vitamin D: You need it to keep your bones, teeth, and muscles healthy, and for other vital functions.

But vitamin D deficiency is very common. In the U.S., about 40% of adults are thought to have inadequate levels of this vitamin.

There are three ways to get your vitamin D. One of those sources—ultraviolet B (UVB) rays in sunlight—has its own set of risks. Here you can learn how to minimize those risks while safely getting enough of this essential vitamin.

Woman sitting on park bench outside
Michela Ravasio / Stocksy United

Why You Need Vitamin D

Vitamin D is more akin to a hormone than a vitamin; vitamin D receptors are found on nearly every cell in the body. Vitamin D has many roles, including the following:

  • Bone metabolism
  • Immune function
  • Inflammation reduction
  • Cell growth
  • Nerve and muscle function
  • Glucose metabolism

Of note, vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium in the gut and maintain adequate concentrations of calcium and phosphate in the blood to keep bones healthy. Without adequate amounts of vitamin D, bones can become brittle, thin, and misshapen.

Vitamin D deficiency results in rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults. In older people, vitamin D along with calcium protects against osteoporosis.

How Can I Get Enough Vitamin D?

The three sources of vitamin D are:

  • Diet
  • Nutritional supplements
  • Exposure to sunlight

Vitamin D is naturally found in only a few foods that we eat, including the following:

  • Cod liver oil
  • Fatty fish (e.g., salmon, tuna, swordfish, sardines, trout, and mackerel)
  • Raw, white mushrooms
  • Beef liver
  • Egg yolks

Vitamin D is also added to many (fortified) foods, such as:

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Cereal
  • Infant formula
  • Orange juice

Nutritional supplements, available in chewable and liquid forms, can also help bolster vitamin D levels.

If you think your vitamin D levels may be low, your healthcare provider can offer a blood test that measures the level of this vitamin in your blood. Levels of 50 nmol/L (20 ng/mL) and above are considered healthy. The vitamin D blood test can also help determine how much vitamin D supplement, if any, would be healthy for you.

The sun is a natural source of vitamin D. Called the "sunshine vitamin," vitamin D is produced when the sun is exposed to the sun's UVB radiation. But because there is a significant downside to sun exposure—most significantly in the form of skin cancers, including potentially deadly melanomas—sunning yourself to shore up your vitamin D levels, even for very short periods, is no longer considered a safe way to go.

The Dark Side of the Sun

Some sunshine proponents have advocated brief periods of unprotected sun exposure as a natural means of increasing vitamin levels. The concept was that up to 30 minutes of mid-day sun exposure without sunscreen at least twice a week and/or some use of commercial tanning beds without sunscreen led to enough vitamin D synthesis.

Expert commentaries still appear in leading medical journals citing the use of sunscreen and protective clothing as causes of vitamin D deficiency.

But leading medical groups such as the American Cancer Society and American Academy of Dermatology say that no unprotected sun is safe. There is no safe way to increase vitamin D levels via the sun without simultaneously increasing the risk of skin cancers.

UV radiation from the sun is a cancer-causing agent (i.e., carcinogen) that is directly responsible for the majority of the 1.5 million skin cancer cases that occur in the United States each year. Moreover, ultraviolet radiation also is the major contributor to the 8,000 deaths due to metastatic melanoma that occur each year.

In addition to causing skin cancer, the ultraviolet radiation in sunlight can lead to skin damage, premature aging, and dryness.

Another reason not to rely on the sun to get your vitamin D is that your skin can produce only so much vitamin D at any one time. Prolonging your time in the sun won't help the skin to make more vitamin D if its limit has already been reached.

That is why getting your vitamin D from the sun or from tanning beds is no longer recommended. It is also why it is now recommended that when you do go out in the sun, you should protect your skin by covering all exposed parts with a broad-spectrum waterproof sunscreen that has a sun protection factor of 30 or greater.

A Word From Verywell

Protect yourself by steering clear of unprotected exposure to natural and artificial ultraviolet radiation in sunlight, and practice "safe sunning" by applying sunscreen, wearing protective clothing, and keeping to the shade when possible.

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Article Sources
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  1. Lui X, Baylin A, Levy PD. Vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency among US adults: Prevalence, predictors, and clinical implications. Brit J Nutr. 2018;1198):928-936. doi:10.1017/S0007114518000491

  2. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin D: Fact sheet for health professionals. Updated October 9, 2020.

  3. Baggerly CA, Cuomo RE, French CB, et al. Sunlight and vitamin D: Necessary for public healthJ Am Coll Nutr. 2015;34(4):359-365. doi:10.1080/07315724.2015.1039866

  4. American Cancer Society. How do I protect myself from ultraviolet (UV) rays? Updated July 23, 2019.

  5. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Vitamin D stats and facts.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Are there benefits to spending time outdoors? Reviewed April 9, 2020.

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