Vitamin D and sun protection

Vitamin D, which is essential for developing and maintaining strong and healthy bones and muscles, is made in the body when skin is exposed to UV radiation.  We now know that, despite our sunny climate, some Australians who spend little time in the sun may have low levels of vitamin D.

Where do you get vitamin D?
In Australia almost all vitamin D comes from the sun’s UV radiation. We can get a small amount of vitamin D from some foods such as milk, margarines, oily fish and eggs, however it is difficult to get enough vitamin D from food alone.

Do you need more sun to get enough vitamin D?
In NSW, people with moderately fair skin (skin type 1, 2, 3) should get enough vitamin D by exposing about 15% of the body (hands and arms or lower legs) to sunlight for the recommend time periods on most days of the week.

How much sun do you need for vitamin D?

October to March**

  • 10 minutes in mid-morning or mid-afternoon.

April, May, August and September**

  • 15 minutes in mid-morning or mid-afternoon.

June and July**

  • Southern NSW (eg Sydney, Batemans Bay, Wagga Wagga): 30 to 40 minutes in the middle of the day.
  • Northern and far western NSW (eg Cape Byron, Armidale, Cobar): 20 to 25 minutes in mid-morning or mid-afternoon.

** Care must be taken by people with very fair skin and/or at high risk of skin cancer. Always check UV levels in your local area at cancercouncil.com.au/sunsmartuvalert and use sun protection when UV levels are 3 and above.

If you have naturally dark skin (skin type 4, 5, 6) you may need 3 to 6 times more exposure time than a person with fair skin for adequate vitamin D. Dark skin contains more melanin, the pigment that gives skin our colour. Melanin also works to protect your skin by absorbing UV radiation before it can reach skin cells, reducing the amount of vitamin D the body can make.

Vitamin D and sun protection

Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world so it’s very important that the time we spend in the sun for vitamin D doesn’t increase our risk of skin damage, melanoma and other skin cancers.

Always protect your skin from the sun when UV levels are 3 and above. The SunSmart UV Alert is a great tool you can use to help plan your time outdoors so you stay safe from the sun and still get enough vitamin D. You can check the SunSmart UV Alert daily at cancercouncil.com.au/sunsmartuvalert in most local newspapers or by googling the free SunSmart App for smartphones. You can also add the UV Alert widget to your website. 

Keep in mind that short periods of exposure to UV radiation are more efficient at producing vitamin D than long or intense periods of exposure. Long periods in the sun do not improve vitamin D levels but increase risk of skin damage and skin cancer.

Who is at risk of not getting enough vitamin D in Australia?

  • The elderly, particularly those who don’t go outside very often (older people don’t produce vitamin D as well as young people)
  • Babies of mothers who have low levels of vitamin D. If you are concerned about your baby’s vitamin D levels do not deliberately expose your baby to sunlight. Talk to your general practitioner (GP) or baby health centre.
  • People with naturally dark skin
  • People who cover most of their body and heads with clothing and veils for cultural or religious reasons (less skin is exposed to UV radiation)
  • People with prolonged illnesses who stay indoors.

If you are in an identified risk group, or if you are concerned about vitamin D talk to your GP.  A GP can order a blood test to check if vitamin D levels are low and can advise you about sun exposure, diet and vitamin D supplements.

It is important to remember that a healthy diet, regular exercise and safe exposure to UV radiation are all required for strong and healthy bones.

For more information see vitamin D information sheet.

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