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The sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation is both the major cause of skin cancer and the best source of vitamin D. In Australia, we need to balance the risk of skin cancer from too much sun exposure with maintaining adequate vitamin D levels. Sensible sun protection does not put people at risk of vitamin D deficiency.
What is vitamin D?
Vitamin D forms in the skin when it is exposed to UV from sunlight. It can also be obtained from some foods. We need vitamin D to maintain good health and to keep bones and muscles strong and healthy.
How much sun do we need for healthy bones?
The best source of vitamin D is UV-B radiation from the sun. UV radiation levels vary depending on location, time of year, time of day, cloud coverage and the environment.
For most people, adequate vitamin D levels are reached through regular daily activity and incidental exposure to the sun. During summer, the majority of people can maintain adequate vitamin D levels from a few minutes of exposure to sunlight on their face, arms and hands or the equivalent area of skin on either side of the peak UV periods (the middle of the day when UV levels are most intense) on most days of the week.
In winter in the southern parts of Australia, where UV radiation levels are less intense, people may need about two to three hours of sunlight to the face, arms and hands, or equivalent area of skin, spread over a week to maintain adequate vitamin D levels. In winter in northern parts of Australia, people will continue to maintain adequate vitamin D levels going about their day-to-day activities, so it is not necessary to deliberately seek UV radiation exposure.
Most Australians need sun protection when the UV Index is 3 or above. UV radiation levels in northern states are higher than southern states, so in some parts of Australia, sun protection is needed all year around at certain times of the day. In these areas, it is safe to go outside without sun protection in the early morning and late afternoon when the UV Index is below 3.
However in southern states, there are times of the year when sun protection may not be necessary. People in southern states may not need sun protection from May to August when the UV Index is likely to be below 3. The only exception is if they are at high altitudes or near highly reflective surfaces like snow or water.
For further information about the UV Index click here.
To check UV levels and the times sun protection is required, look at the SunSmart UV Alert in the weather section of your daily newspaper or on the Bureau of Meteorology website at www.bom.gov.au (search for UV alert). When UV levels are below 3 ‘NO UV Alert' is issued.
Who is at risk of vitamin D deficiency?
Some people may not be able to access the sun exposure required to help them maintain their vitamin D levels. These groups may be at risk of vitamin D deficiency. They include:
- naturally dark skinned people - who need more UV exposure to produce adequate levels of vitamin D as the pigment in their skin reduces UV penetration
- people who cover their skin for religious or cultural reasons
- the elderly and people who are housebound or in institutional care
- babies and infants of vitamin D deficient mothers, especially breastfed babies
- patients with osteoporosis.
People in these groups should consult their doctor for advice on whether they need to take a vitamin D supplement.
For further information
This page was last updated on: Tuesday, October 7, 2014