Vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin, is like every other vitamin in that it is essential for life. Among other functions, it allows the absorption of calcium from the gastrointestinal tract. Lack of vitamin D in babies and children leads to rickets, and in adults a deficiency causes osteomalacia a softening of the bones. It's been estimated that one billion people worldwide suffer from vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency.
We get vitamin D in food, and we can also make it ourselves when the skin is exposed to sunlight it converts a pre-vitamin D to vitamin D. And there's the rub exposure to the sun also ups the risk of skin cancer, especially for folks with fair skin. Most worrying, of course is melanoma the skin cancer that is frequently fatal. So what's a person to do? Avoid the sun and rely on diet and/or supplements for the correct vitamin D quotient?
Current medical advice certainly points in that direction, as every summer we're reminded to use sunscreen lots of sunscreen which effectively blocks the sun's ultraviolet rays, lowering the risk of skin cancer and also the production of vitamin D in the skin. Science may be coming to the rescue, however.
A recent report published in the journal PLOS One describes a new type of sunscreen that blocks the damaging effects of UV light, while still allowing the production of vitamin D. Basically, the authors of the study experimented with the various types of chemicals used in sunscreens. Some of them are there to block UV light, while others function to prevent the actual sunburn (erythema). The experimental procedure involved altering the ratios of the different types of chemicals, and then testing them in vitro.
The researchers, led by Dr. D. Kockoff, employed by the company UV-Technik in Hanau, Germany, used ampules filled with the pre-vitamin D found in human skin, and exposed them to varying ratios of sunscreen chemicals. They found a ratio of these compounds that blocked the burn-producing effects of the sun, while still allowing the production of vitamin D a comparison of their sunscreen (labelled RadianD) with a commercial product (both with an SPF factor of 15) is shown in the graph below. It indicates that at virtually all time points tested, RadianD was better at allowing the conversion of pre-vitamin D to vitamin D.
Although this is still a preliminary study, the data seem to be solid, and provide hope that in the not-too-distant future we may see sunscreens that function to prevent burns, and thus decrease the risk of skin cancers, but still allow the stimulation of the skin to produce vitamin D.