Ask Dr. Carter | Sunscreen & Vitamin D for Skin of Color

Dermatologist Dorenchia Carter answers your skin questions.
Q: Does Sunscreen Decrease Vitamin D Absorption?
Hey Dr. Carter! Hope all is well! I have a question that may be silly but it def peeked my interest. I’ve been reading a lot about vitamin D as I know most black women are deficient and its linked to many conditions. I’ve been real intentional about sitting in the sun for at least an hour every morning, usually between 8 and 10. As I’m sitting here this morning it dawned on me that I haven’t been using sunscreen. But that got me thinking. If I use sunscreen on my already melanated skin does that decrease my vitamin d absorption? Is this a risk vs benefit thing? I plan on looking up some scholarly articles later but wanted to pick your brain before I can get to doing so! Also, idk if this was mentioned on your post of things to discuss on social media.. I surely can’t be the only one that have had this thought…lol!
A: Here’s What We Know:
This is a really hard question to answer because there really isn’t a good answer out there. Here is what we know:
1) Vitamin D plays a role in a lot of bodily systems. Low levels are proven to be associated with osteopenia, heart disease, depression, asthma, and possibly diabetes, HTN. We are seeing correlation in other areas. I’ve fixed vitamin D levels and brought back someone’s hair! And then of course, we’re dealing with COVID.
2) We know active vitamin D is produced with sun exposure.
3) Black people have higher levels of a carrier protein for vitamin D that effectively makes our levels look lower than Caucasians. But truth be told, the recommended levels are really estimates, and we need better cross cultural study on this.
4) Sun exposure increases risk for skin cancer for sure, and black people get it less often yet more acutely.
5) Sun exposure ages the skin.
6) The ozone layer isn’t healthy, so today’s sun exposure is more intense than when we were kids. 15-20 min of sun exposure a few times a week should get you plenty of vitamin D, maybe longer with skin of color, but you don’t need to tan. If you put on sunscreen, it’s not 100% protective—it takes a while to settle and work and it wipes off over time, so you are getting some sun.
7) My opinion is to protect the areas that are exposed most on a regular basis so they don’t start looking old: hands, tops of feet if you wear flip flops, definitely face and neck. If you are wearing less, like a bathing suit, those areas may be more sensitive to burns so wear sunscreen or a rash guard. Avoid burns at all costs, and YES black skin can burn.
8) Get more vitamin D from your diet than just depending upon the sun. Fish, like salmon, and fish oils (cod), fortified dairy (milk), egg yolks will help. Having a balanced diet helps!
9) Wear sunscreen but live your life—enjoy the sun and being outside with your kids. All things in moderation.