Vitamin D confers important benefits, not the least of which is its role in building and maintaining stronger bones. In fact, calcium—as valuable as it is—without supplemental vitamin D is simply nowhere near as effective. So while you can increase your production of vitamin D by sunbathing, don’t do it! According to a Boston dermatologist, this is like taking up smoking to lose weight. While it actually may help a little, the down side is a greatly increased risk of disease, morbidity, and death. Sunbathing can be deadly too, all the more so if you’re fair skinned.

“You can get all the good stuff with a vitamin pill — you do not have to put yourself at increased risk of skin cancer and photoaging,” says Dr. Barbara A. Gilchrest of Boston University School of Medicine. Dr. Gilcrest is the co-author of a comprehensive review on vitamin D requirements and UV radiation published in the February issue of The Journal of Dermatology.1

The information we receive about the health benefits of the sun is quite confusing, until you consider the source. The advocates of increased UV exposure—e.g., the indoor tanning industry, purveyors of tanning creams, and others—are constantly advocating sunbathing as a means of getting more vitamin D. Scientists, on the other hand, say the exact opposite.

New research shows that some people who get little sun exposure and don't drink much milk are at increased risk of bone fractures, especially if they are frail and elderly. Yet according to Dr. Gilchrest, along with her co-author Dr. Deon Wolpowitz, even these people will benefit from taking supplemental vitamin D. And as you would expect, the greatest benefits are obtained at levels significantly higher than are currently recommended by the US Department of Agriculture.

Those who have very dark skin as well as those who live in northern regions may be deficient in the vitamin D, but such deficiencies can always be handled with oral supplementation, affirmed Gilchrest.

With milk consumption down (which is typically fortified with vitamin D), a lot of people are worrying that they are not getting enough vitamin D (not to mention enough calcium). So if you fall into this category, Gilchrest advises, take a vitamin D supplement, and if that doesn’t seem sufficient, take more. “Vitamin D is very safe to take in the form of oral supplements,” she notes.

You should also consider, particularly if you’ve cut your dairy consumption, that you’ll be better off if you also took added calcium, along with your vitamin D supplement. The most bioavailable form of calcium is citrate—not carbonate!—although the phosphate and ascorbate forms are valuable too.


  1. Wolpowitz D, Gilchrest BA. The vitamin D questions: how much do you need and how should you get it? J Am Acad Dermato. 2006 Feb;54(2):301-17.

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