Vitamin D - Are we getting enough? Do we still need to cover up in the sun? Our SunSmart Schools Program Coordinator, Sally Blane, answers these burning questions.
The answer is yes - we are generally getting enough vitamin D and, yes - we do still need to cover up in the sun, even during the cooler months.
Recent research has shown some Australians have been deliberately seeking sun exposure because they are concerned about vitamin D deficiency. Some schools also expose students to ultraviolet (UV) radiation because of concerns over vitamin D levels.
Vitamin D is important.
Vitamin D is required for healthy muscles and bones. The sun's UV radiation is our best source of vitamin D, but also the major cause of skin cancer. Many other benefits are claimed for vitamin D, but very few are supported with strong evidence.
Widespread vitamin D deficiency is largely unproven.
The consensus of current evidence is that a sufficient level of vitamin D to maintain bone health is 50-60 nmol/L.
The best survey of Vitamin D levels in Australia is the 2011-12 Australian Health Survey. In this, only 23 per cent of Australian adults had any level of vitamin D deficiency at all (<50nmol/L). Of these, 17 per cent were mildly deficient (30-49 nmol/L). Only 6 per cent were moderately deficient (13-29 nmol/L) and less than 1 per cent who were severely deficient (<13nmol/L).
The groups at highest risk of vitamin D deficiency are those:
- with previous skin cancer or at high risk of skin cancer,
- people who always wear concealing clothing for religious or cultural reasons,
- naturally very dark skinned people,
- people who are housebound or in institutionalised care,
- older adults,
- obese people,
- babies and infants of vitamin D deficient mothers.
In other words, most West Australians, particularly children, are likely to have acceptable levels of vitamin D.
UV Radiation is very strong in WA.
77,000 skin cancers are diagnosed in Western Australia every year. The symptoms of vitamin D deficiency are not commonly diagnosed. Defending against skin cancer is by far the greater priority.
Sensible sun protection does not put us at risk of vitamin D deficiency. This is due to the strength of our UV radiation and the long hours of sunshine that we get in WA. Trying to increase vitamin D levels by increasing sun exposure brings a real increase in the risk of skin cancer.
So what does this mean?
Since our UV levels are among the highest in the world, it is unlikely that adults and children who spend some time outside each day will be vitamin D deficient. Wearing sensible sun protection has been shown to have little effect on vitamin D levels whereas the risk of skin cancer in Australia is proven. Tens of thousands of Western Australians exhibit the obvious symptoms of sun induced skin damage.
What should you do?
Be SunSmart when the UV Index is 3 or above!
The UV Index in most parts of Western Australia reaches damaging levels every day. Therefore, you should always be sure that you wear sunscreen and sun protective hats (not caps) outside when the UV Index is 3 or above.
This article originally appeared on GenerationsSunsmart.com.au. For more resources and information about being SunSmart, particularly for schools and child care centres, please visit www.generationsunsmart.com.au