How to get vitamin D from sunlight

Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones, and we get most of our vitamin D from exposure to sunlight. Find out how to get enough without risking sun damage.

Cover up or protect your skin before it starts to turn red or burn

Everyone needs vitamin D to absorb calcium and phosphorus from their diet. These minerals are important for healthy bones.

A lack of vitamin D – known as vitamin D deficiency – can cause bones to become soft and weak, which can lead to bone deformities. In children, for example, a lack of vitamin D can lead to rickets. In adults, it can lead to osteomalacia, which causes bone pain and tenderness.

How do we get vitamin D?

Our body creates most of our vitamin D from direct sunlight on our skin. We also get vitamin D from some foods – including eggs, meat and oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines.

Vitamin D is also added to all infant formula milk, as well as some breakfast cereals, soya products, dairy products, powdered milks and fat spreads.

How long should we spend in the sun?

There isn't one recommendation for everyone. This is because the amount of time you need to spend in the sun for your skin to make enough vitamin D depends on a number of factors. These include your skin type (how dark your skin is or how easily you get sunburnt), the time of year and what time of day it is.

Vitamin D and you

The amount of time you need to spend in the sun for your skin to make enough vitamin D is different for every person

Short daily periods of sun exposure without sunscreen during the summer months (April to October) are enough for most people to make enough vitamin D. Evidence suggests that the most effective time of day for vitamin D production is between 11am and 3pm.

A short period of time in the sun means just a few minutes – evidence suggests that about 10 to 15 minutes is enough for most lighter-skinned people – and is less than the time it takes you to start going red or burn.

The larger the area of skin that is exposed to sunlight, the more chance there is of making enough vitamin D before you start to burn.

People with darker skin will need to spend longer in the sun to produce the same amount of vitamin D.

In the UK, our skin isn't able to make vitamin D from winter sunlight (November to March) as the sunlight hasn't got enough UVB (ultraviolet B) radiation. During the winter, we get vitamin D from our body's stores and from food sources.   

The longer you stay in the sun, especially for prolonged periods without sun protection, the greater your risk of skin cancer. Remember to cover up or protect your skin before the time it takes you to start turning red or burn. Stay covered up for most of the time you spend outside and use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15.

Read more about keeping skin safe in the sun.

Who is at risk of vitamin D deficiency?

Some groups of the population are at risk of vitamin D deficiency, and the Department of Health advises that they take daily vitamin D supplements. These groups are: 

  • all pregnant and breastfeeding women
  • all babies and young children from six months to five years old (unless they are having more than 500ml a day of infant formula)
  • older people, aged 65 and over
  • people who are not exposed to much sun – for example, those who cover their skin, or who are housebound or confined indoors for long periods

People who have darker skin – for example, those of African, African Caribbean or South Asian origin are also at risk of vitamin D deficiency because it takes their skin more time to produce as much vitamin D as someone with lighter skin. 

It is important that pregnant and breastfeeding women take a vitamin D supplement to make sure their own needs for vitamin D are met, and so that their baby is born with enough stores of vitamin D for the first few months of its life. 

Pregnant women and children aged five or under who qualify for the Healthy Start scheme can get free supplements containing vitamin D.

Pregnant women and families with children aged under four years old who qualify for the Healthy Start scheme can also get free supplements containing vitamin D.

Find out who should take vitamin D supplements and how much to take.

Can you have too much vitamin D?

People who take supplements are advised not to take more than 25 micrograms (µg) of vitamin D a day, as intakes from supplements above this amount could be harmful, according to the UK Expert Group on Vitamins and Minerals.

The amount of vitamin D contained in supplements is sometimes expressed in international units (IU), where 40 IU equals 1µg of vitamin D.

Your body doesn't make too much vitamin D from sun exposure, but always cover up or protect your skin before the time it takes you to start turning red or burn.

Further information on vitamin D

The Department of Health's recommendations on taking vitamin D supplements are based on advice from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN). SACN produced a report in 2007 that summarised the scientific evidence on vitamin D and health. It is now reviewing the latest evidence on vitamin D and health and will report on this when it is complete.

Watch an animation on Cancer Research UK's SunSmart website to see how sunburn damages your skin.

In 2010, seven British health organisations produced a joint statement of their views on vitamin D. Read the joint statement on vitamin D.

Find out more about healthy diet in pregnancy.

Page last reviewed: 31/10/2013

Next review due: 31/10/2015

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The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

loadbang said on 09 December 2013

I have never known why the NHS recommendations for the dosage of vitamin D is so low, especially when comparing it to other countries of similar latitude. I wonder if this is a typo in this article for "too much vitamin D", and you mean 250µg not 25µg.

I'm an average person living an average life, and I asked my doctor for a test. I was found to be deficient. I was given a large dose by injection, then took 5,000 IU (50µg) of D3 daily for a couple of months. I then went to 2,500 IU then 1,000 IU. After a year trying to find the right balance, 2,500 IU daily keeps my levels constant in the winter time, 1,000 IU in the height of summer.

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RufusG said on 24 October 2013

Where is the evidence for the statement: Do not take more than 25 micrograms per day

There are experts who say that they have never seen toxicity at levels of 250 micrograms per day ( Vieth, Cannell, Holick & Hollis )

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sowhat said on 24 May 2013

While this article emphasises dietary sources of Vitamin D it's actually sunlight that your body needs to ensure that you are not deficient as your body makes most of it.

I have noticed that while US and Australian websites emphasise this, UK websites are only concerned about burning skin when due to the summers we have had here there are many people particularly if they are an ethnic minority who will be Vitamin D deficient and insufficient.

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