People With Pale Skin Need Extra Vitamin D
October 4, 2011

People With Pale Skin Need Extra Vitamin D

People with very pale skin may not be able to spend enough time in the sun to produce the necessary amount of vitamin D the body needs and may need to take supplements, according to suggestions from researchers at the University of Leeds, UK.

Fair-skinned people often cannot spend large amounts of time in the sun for fear of sunburn, and thus do not get the vitamin D needed. Supplements of vitamin D may also be needed by melanoma patients, suggests the study, funded by Cancer Research UK, and published in the journal Cancer Causes and Control.

Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones and most people can get the necessary amount from exposure to sunlight during the summer months. The National Health Service (NHS) says that while there is not one recommendation that will suit everyone, it advises that short daily periods of 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure without sunscreen between April and October are enough for most people.

Researchers noted that sunlight and supplements are not the only factors that can determine the level of vitamin D in a person´s body. Some inherited differences in the way people´s bodies process vitamin D into the active form also have a strong effect on people´s vitamin D levels.

The study suggests the optimal amount of vitamin D required for healthy bones is at least 60nmol/L (60 nanomoles per liter). Some studies have shown that levels lower than this are linked to an increased risk of heart disease and a higher mortality risk from breast cancer. And levels lower than 25nmol/L are linked to poor bone health.

The new study found that while fair-skinned people, on average, did not reach 60nmol/L unless they were taking supplements, they did maintain levels above 25nmol/L.

The study suggests the risk of skin cancer from excessive sun exposure outweighs the vitamin D benefit for fair-skinned people. And the researchers agree that increased sun exposure is not the right move for pale-skinned people to achieve higher vitamin D levels.

Lead author Professor Julia Newton-Bishop said: “Fair-skinned individuals who burn easily are not able to make enough vitamin D from sunlight and so may need to take vitamin D supplements.”

“This should be considered for fair-skinned people living in a mild climate like the UK and melanoma patients in particular,” she said.

Her study team analyzed vitamin D levels in 1,203 people and found that around 732 had sub-optimal levels in their body. Those with pale skin had significantly lower levels than others in the group.

“We must be careful about raising the definition of deficiency or sufficiency to higher levels until we have more results from trials showing that maintaining such levels has clear health benefits and no health risks,” Sara Hiom, director of health information at Cancer Research UK, told the Telegraph.

“If you are worried about your vitamin D levels, our advice is to go see your doctor,” Hiom said.

Supplements are already recommended for groups at higher risk of deficiency. This includes people with dark skin, such as people of African-Caribbean and South Asian origin, and people who wear full-body coverings. The supplement recommendations also include elderly, young children, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers, as well as people who avoid the sun.

Based on the new study, fair-skinned people should be added to that list.

“People with fair skin are at higher risk of developing skin cancer and should take care to avoid over-exposure to the sun's rays,” Hazel Nun, of Cancer Research UK, told BBC News. “It is about striking a balance between the benefits and harms of sun exposure.”

“If people are concerned about their vitamin D levels, they should see their doctor who may recommend a vitamin D test,” she said.

Nun added that it was too soon to start recommending supplements, but most people could safely take 10 micrograms of vitamin D daily without any side-effects. Besides supplements, vitamin D is also found in oily fish and dairy products in smaller amounts.


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