Low Vitamin D: What Increases The Risk?

Vitamin D smallOur bodies can obtain vitamin D from diet and make it from sun exposure. Even with these two routes for obtaining vitamin D, however, inadequate vitamin D is common, and deficiencies can be found on all continents, in all ethnic groups, and across all ages—a major concern, given the many ways that vitamin D helps protect our health. (1) There are a number of factors that increase the risk of having inadequate vitamin D, among them, lifestyle, sunscreen use, geographic location, skin tone, age, and body weight.

  • Lifestyle: People who spend less time outdoors, or who cover up with clothing when they are outdoors, get less exposure to the sun, so they make less vitamin D. (1)
  • Sunscreen Use: Correctly-applied sunscreen blocks the harmful ultraviolet B rays that cause skin cancer, but it also blocks most of the skin’s production of vitamin D. So people who use sunscreen daily are more likely to be low in vitamin D. (1) But don’t ditch the sunscreen: The American Academy of Dermatologists says that sunlight exposure to unprotected skin increases the risk of skin cancer, and that there’s no safe level of sunlight exposure that allows you to make vitamin D without increasing skin cancer risk. Their advice? Use sunscreen or other sun protection daily, skip the tanning booths, and get your vitamin D from diet or supplements. (2) Some Vitamin D experts take issue with the American Academy of Dermatologists’ hard line on sun exposure, and they recommend a more moderate option: Put sunscreen on your face, and allow your arms and legs to get a small amount of unprotected sun exposure—say, 15 minutes max—before applying sunscreen or covering up. It’s still a matter of scientific debate.
  • Geographic Location and Season: In the summer, if you sat out in a bathing suit on a sunny afternoon for long enough to turn your skin slightly pink, you could make plenty of vitamin D. Yet during the late autumn and winter, people who live at higher latitudes produce little or no vitamin D from the sun, because the sun is at too low an angle in the sky. In the northern hemisphere, people who live in Boston (U.S.), Edmonton (Canada), and Bergen (Norway) can’t make enough vitamin D from the sun for 4, 5, and 6 months out of the year. (3) In the southern hemisphere, residents of Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Cape Town (South Africa) can make far less vitamin D from the sun during their winter months (June through August) than they can during their spring and summer. (3) The body stores vitamin D from summer sun exposure, but it must last for many months. By late winter, many people in these higher-latitude locales are deficient. (1)
  • Skin Tone: People who have a darker skin tone have more melanin in their skin, and this pigment is a “natural sunscreen” that slows down skin production of vitamin D. (3)  This the main reason why African Americans are more likely to be low in vitamin D. (4)
  • Age: The ability to make vitamin D in the skin drops as we age, and is one of the reasons why older individuals are more likely to have low vitamin D levels. (1)
  • Body Weight: People with excess body fat have lower vitamin D levels, so those who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of having inadequate vitamin D.  (1, 5, 6)

The bottom line: Low vitamin D can be found in all ethnic and age groups, around the world, for a host of reasons. Even if you are taking a standard multiple vitamin, the amount of vitamin D in most vitamins (400 IU) is not enough to prevent low blood levels. If you suspect that you are at risk of vitamin D deficiency, you can ask your physician to order a blood test for vitamin D.


1. Holick MF. Vitamin D deficiency. N Engl J Med. 2007; 357:266-81.

2. American Academy of Dermatologists. 2010. Position statement on vitamin D.

3. Holick MF. Vitamin D: importance in the prevention of cancers, type 1 diabetes, heart disease, and osteoporosis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004; 79:362-71.

4. Ginde AA, Liu MC, Camargo CA, Jr. Demographic differences and trends of vitamin D insufficiency in the US population, 1988-2004. Arch Intern Med. 2009; 169:626-32.

5. Rodriguez-Rodriguez E, Navia B, Lopez-Sobaler AM, Ortega RM. Vitamin D in overweight/obese women and its relationship with dietetic and anthropometric variables. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2009; 17:778-82.

6. Wortsman J, Matsuoka LY, Chen TC, Lu Z, Holick MF. Decreased bioavailability of vitamin D in obesity. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000; 72:690-3.

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