A bottle of sunscreen next to a bowl of cereal, fish, and carton of milk.

Osteoporosis, Vitamin D, and Skin Care

“I don’t want to have vitamin D deficiency so I just skip sunscreen altogether.” I wish that I had a nickel for every time I have heard this. I could buy a gallon of gas with it.

Vitamin D deficiency and skin cancer

It is the “go-to” reasoning for a lot of people who decide to expose themselves to direct sunlight without consideration for protecting their skin in any way. Now, don’t get me wrong, being vitamin D deficient is no fun. I have had that condition and had to take supplements. I spent the past fourteen years in Upstate New York and it was fairly common to find people who were deficient in vitamin D. Frankly, I didn’t see any sun for weeks at a time and I probably was not eating foods rich in that important nutrient.

Osteoporosis or skin cancer: is this the choice we have to make?

I am on the nearer side of 60 and one of the issues that many older people face is osteoporosis. This is a condition where we lose bone density resulting in weakened bones. People with osteoporosis are more susceptible to bone fractures and other ailments. Having sufficient vitamin D is important for strong, healthy bones. This begs the question, “Could avoiding the sun actually lead to osteoporosis and bone weakening? Could protecting our skin hurt our bones? Are we trading one bad thing for another?”

Let's turn to the research

Opinions and anecdotes are interesting, but I am always looking for research to give me answers and help me with my decision-making. A recent study from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, made things clearer1. The study attempted to determine whether sun-protective behaviors increased the risk of osteoporosis and weakened bone fractures. The cross-sectional study involving over 3,400 American adults found that sun-protective behaviors (i.e. staying out of the sun, covering up, and wearing sunscreen) were not associated with lessened bone density or a higher prevalence of osteoporosis.

Link or no link?

According to the study, these findings support sun-protective behaviors and found no link to the negative consequences associated with osteoporotic fractures. Will this make a difference in skincare practices, though? Dr. Megha Tollefson, a dermatologist from the Clinic who led the research, warns that patients may still be reluctant to protect their skin fearing vitamin D deficiency2. Her research team hopes that these findings will continue the conversation about the importance of sun protection, leaning on research and not “myths”.

What can we do about vitamin D deficiency?

Ok, that is great, Scott, but what about vitamin D deficiency? One thing that I have learned is the importance of a healthy diet, which I wrote about a couple of years back. Vitamin D can be found in fish, eggs, and in fortified foods, such as milk, yogurt, and cereal. It seems like almost every breakfast food that I ate as a child was a good source of vitamin D. As always, talk to your physician about your personal needs.

There's a happy medium

I do not advocate staying inside all of the time by any means. I am an outdoor enthusiast, and I am outside every day. I do realize that some sun exposure is a good source of Vitamin D3. Being smart about sun exposure means understanding that the choices I make have consequences and I choose to protect my skin rather than expose it. I believe in balance and moderation in how I treat my body.

What tips do you have for getting vitamin D while avoiding harmful sun damage?

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