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Vitamin D, sunlight and cancer

This page tells you about vitamin D, sunlight and skin cancer. There is information on this page about

 

Why people are concerned about vitamin D

There has been some uncertainty about how to get enough sunlight to make vitamin D while at the same time protecting ourselves from developing skin cancer. We need vitamin D to absorb calcium, which keeps our bones healthy. If we don’t have enough our bones may soften. Low levels of vitamin D may lead to conditions such as rickets in children and osteoporosis in adults.

There is increasing evidence that vitamin D may help to reduce the risk of bowel cancer, and possibly also breast cancer. We need more research to confirm that it does reduce the risk of these cancers. We also need to find out how it does that. There isn’t enough evidence to say that Vitamin D protects against any other types of cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (the IARC) have a working group report on vitamin D and cancer risk. You may find this useful, but as it is a scientific paper the language used may not always be easy to follow.

 

How do we get vitamin D

We get most of the vitamin D we need from a reaction to sunlight on our skin. But we can also get some from what we eat.

Foods that contain vitamin D include

  • Oily fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel
  • Cod liver oil

The following foods contain small amounts of vitamin D

  • Egg yolk
  • Beef
  • Some breakfast cereals (the ingredients label should say how much vitamin D there is)
  • Margarine
  • Butter

Through a combination of the food we eat and some exposure to the sun we can get the vitamin D we need. We don't need it every day because our bodies can store it for use in the future. We build up a normal level of vitamin D during the summer. So, as well as having vitamin D in our diets, this is usually enough for winter months when there is less sunlight.

 

The sun, vitamin D and skin cancer

People can be bit uncertain about how to get enough sun without increasing their risk of skin cancer. The good news is that you can enjoy the sun safely and not burn while getting enough vitamin D. The amount of time you need to be out in the sun varies depending on

  • Your skin type and colour
  • The time of day
  • The time of year
  • Where you are in the world

But generally only a few minutes in the summer sun in the middle of the day without sun protection ensures you make enough vitamin D. But don't allow your skin to redden or burn. 

It is important to continue to wear sun protection when you are out in the sun. You can find information about how to protect yourself in the sun on Cancer Research UK’s SunSmart website.

 

Who is at risk of not having enough vitamin D

Most people in the UK get enough vitamin D in their diet and through sunlight. Those that may be at risk of not having enough include

  • People with naturally brown or black skin
  • People who wear full body coverings
  • Pregnant women
  • Breast feeding babies whose mother is lacking in vitamin D
  • People over the age of 65 years
 

Vitamin D supplements

Most people don’t need to take supplements. You should not take too much vitamin D because there is evidence that too much can be harmful. If you are concerned that you are at risk and may be low in vitamin D, speak to your GP.

If you have been advised to stay out of the sun because you are at increased risk of skin cancer, for example you have Gorlin's syndrome or have had a transplant, your doctor may prescribe a vitamin D supplement.

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Updated: 24 January 2014