Sunshine or Popping Pills? Which One Gives You the Most Vitamin D


Photo by Marley Sutter

For most of us, the sun is the primary means of getting our daily required dose of Vitamin D3. Exactly how much sun we need to produce enough vitamin D depends on many factors. The vitamin D that we obtain from our diet is initially inactive; it must travel through our circulatory system to our epidermis where it undergoes a transformative reaction with UVB light. While this newly activated form of vitamin D is commonly known for its role in calcium absorption, it is also an important regulator of skin cell proliferation, inflammatory response, keratin formation, and wound healing.  Although it is classified as a vitamin, D functions more like a hormone. Its activity affects nearly every system in the body.

How Long Do You Need to Stay in the Sun to Make Vitamin D?

General rule: be modest. All you need is half of the sun exposure required to turn your skin pink. In most places, 5-30 minutes of moderate sun exposure (bare arms and legs), twice weekly is all that is required to produce enough vitamin D. The technical term for this is Minimal Erythemal Dose (MED); this is the minimum amount of the sun needed to produce inflammation or pinkness. The actual results are different for everyone.

Vitamin D dosage is measured in International Units (IU). The daily recommended dosage of 1000 IU can be obtained from spending on average 15 minutes per day in the sun. Taking a vitamin D supplement is another way to get vitamin D, especially if you are living in an area that lacks adequate sunlight. Supplements usually contain 2,000 IU of vitamin D3 while multivitamins typically contain only 400 IU.


The farther north or south of the equator you live determines how much sun you need. If you live in the north you will have less direct sunlight and need to be proactive in getting vitamin D. Living in the south often provides more sunlight, and since you would naturally spend more time in the sun, you will be getting the proper amount.

Melanin is our skin’s natural sunscreen; it absorbs UVB radiation, protecting our skin from sun damage. Those with darker complexions need to spend more time in the sun to absorb enough UVB for producing an adequate amount of vitamin D. This can create a challenge for those with melanin-rich skin living in more northern places such as New York or Boston. Darker skinned individuals need up to 10 times more sunlight to generate an equivalent dose of vitamin D.

Clothing is another type of sunscreen, for example, if you tend to wear long sleeves or pants, you will receive less sunlight. Having more exposed skin decreases the amount of time that you need to spend in the sun since your bare arms and legs will constantly be absorbing sunlight.

img_20160911_141641-1Strong Bones and Healthy Skin

Vitamin D is essential for the metabolism and utilization of calcium. In other words, vitamin D is required for calcium to be absorbed from your diet to satisfy your body’s needs.  Whether it’s maintaining strong bones, beautiful skin, or preventing osteoporosis, vitamin D and calcium work together to keep you healthy.

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