Experts agree that a little sun can go a long way. A typical recommendation is to get between five and 20 minutes of midday sun depending on skin type, season, and other variables, but renowned vitamin D researcher and integrative physician Gregory Plotnikoff, MD, Plotnikoff disagrees with the recommendation and emphasizes that there is no “one size fits all” prescription.
The critical factor is to avoid burning (even a little) at all costs. “If your skin is white and starts to pink up,” he advises, “take cover.” Plotnikoff notes that while darker skin generally has more built-in protection, it can still burn, so it’s important to be cautious.
Here are more tips for getting the sunshine you need — without exposing yourself to unnecessary risks.
1. Know Your Skin Type
The fairer you are, the less unprotected sun exposure you’ll need to produce adequate vitamin D, since lighter skin synthesizes it more quickly. Darker skin requires more exposure for adequate vitamin D production.
“In general, a range of about five minutes for those with very fair skin to about 20 minutes for those with darker complexions is adequate,” says Holly Lucille, ND, RN, a naturopathic doctor in Los Angeles.
There are a few caveats, notes Treloar: “If you’ve had multiple skin cancers, a history of malignant melanoma, or a genetic disease that prohibits sun exposure, the benefits of steering clear of the sun far outweigh those of getting even a little unprotected exposure,” she says. “If you fall in one of these categories, vitamin D supplements become crucial.”
2. Expose Strategically
For both your health and beauty’s sake, you might want to expose skin that’s less vulnerable to dark spots and wrinkles. While it’s often easiest to get some midday sun on your face, chest, and arms, those are also the very areas that tend to get overexposed, says Valori Treloar, MD, an integrative dermatologist in Newton, Mass. “If your face, chest, and arms are already showing the signs of sun damage, those are areas you should always keep protected.”
Cathy Wong, ND, a naturopathic physician in Boston, adds that “the more of you that’s exposed, the less time in the sun you’ll need to make vitamin D.” So, consider covering up your face and exposing just your legs, for example.
3. Aim for Midday Sun
We’ve all been taught to avoid the sun at midday, but this is when UVB rays (which are required to synthesize vitamin D) are at their strongest. In other words, this is when you can make maximum vitamin D with minimum sun exposure.
4. Check the UV Index
Check the UV index in your area to see if UVB rays are strong enough to trigger vitamin D synthesis.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency offers a free UV Index forecast that can clue you in to the UV Index in your area (available via the EPA’s SunWise UV Index app or at EPA UV Index). If it’s less than 3, it’s likely you’re not getting enough UVB rays to produce vitamin D — even from midday sun.
In northern regions where the sun sits low in the sky during winter months, “you could be stark naked at high noon in the middle of the town square and still not make enough vitamin D,” Plotnikoff says.
He recommends this rule of thumb: “If you’re outside and your shadow is shorter than you are tall, you can make vitamin D.”
5. Fill Your Vitamin D Gaps
Depending on your geographic location and lifestyle, you might not be able to meet your vitamin D needs by relying exclusively on sun exposure, even if you are outdoors a fair bit.
“Last summer, I played tennis regularly outdoors and was getting the recommended 10 to 15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure on my medium-toned skin,” says Wong. “And my vitamin D levels were still low when I was tested in October.”
We all synthesize vitamin D differently, Plotnikoff notes, so many people will need higher doses to keep levels optimal. For example, athletes and slender women who are at risk for osteoporosis because of their low body mass generally need more vitamin D. Even our genes can affect how rapidly we metabolize vitamin D; in fast metabolizers, levels drop more quickly.
The bottom line: For optimal levels of vitamin D, most of us will need to supplement. While the recommended daily allowance for adults is 600 IUs, Wong says many experts recommend 1,000 IUs or higher, so talk to your practitioner about getting your levels checked and finding the dosage that’s right for you.
This originally appeared in “Here Comes the Sun” in the June 2015 issue of Experience Life.