Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Arpita Singh (Beauty Expert)  on 27th Oct 2020

Does vitamin D play any role in keeping your skin healthy

Role of vitamin D

All about its topical use.

It is essential to spend some time in the sun. The rays falling on your skin enable it to make a specific vitamin D. One, which keeps your bones strong and skin healthy. You must have heard the experts saying so.

A few questions may arise in your mind then.

Will spending time in the sun provide you with the right amount of vitamin D?

Or is it the only option available to satisfy your vitamin D requirements? What if it causes a sunburn?

All your doubts are valid and deserve proper clarification.

So, keep reading this article as we have got the answers that may help you see vitamin D (specifically, vitamin D3) in a different light.

Let's start with the basics.

● What is Vitamin D? 

Vitamin D comes in two primary forms - 

  • Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol), derived from the food you eat.
  • Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) is produced by the action of sunlight on a

compound, 7-dehydrocholesterol, present in the epidermis of the skin. It follows a chain of reactions and converts into the vitamin your body needs.

Calcitriol, the active form of Vit D3 in your blood. 

● Where do you get vitamin D from?

1) Dietary intake

Few foods contain vitamin D naturally, such as salmon, egg yolk, shrimps, etc. While in some, vitamin D is added to make them fortified with the nutrients. Such include milk, cereal, yogurt, and orange juice.

You can obtain both vitamin D2 and D3 from food sources. 

2) Sun exposure 

Your skin naturally forms vitamin D3 in the presence of sunlight. The reason why it's called the sunshine vitamin. 

3) Oral supplements 

If your body still lacks adequate vitamin D levels, then oral supplements can be an excellent way to tackle the issue.

Just keep an eye on the dosage (either the pills or the liquid forms). Don't exceed the recommended limits. 

● What are the essential functions of vitamin D? 

  • Increases the absorption of calcium and phosphorus from the small intestine.
  • Helps in the maturation of bone cells, promoting bone growth. 
  • Possibly reduces the risk of certain cancers. 

Interesting fact:

Vitamin D is a mood booster. Nourishing yourself with oral supplements or spending time in the sun has shown to improve the symptoms of depression.

● How does your body process the vitamin D it obtains?

  • Vitamin D is lipophilic (fat-soluble) in nature, and can be absorbed through the skin, whether you acquire it from sunlight or topical use. Or maybe, you receive it from food or supplements, at the end - it is stored in the body's fat cells.
  • It then remains in the inactive form until your body demands it. 
  • When the body does so, the kidneys and liver (through a process of hydroxylation) convert the stored vitamin into its active form (calcitriol), which can be actively taken up by your body.
  • Vitamin D2 or D3, and no matter what sources you are relying on to ensure a healthy supply of the nutrient, your body works well with each and accepts them all. 

● What causes a deficiency of vitamin D in the body? 

Erum Ilyas, MD, FAAD, Pennsylvania, US, Says

People, over the age of 50, have less ability to synthesize vitamin D3 from sunlight. Especially, the ones who are institutionalized, i.e., bound to stay put at home

Most of the times, the reasons may include - 

1) Lack of exposure to sun rays. 

  • You live in an area with very high pollution, or where the buildings are tall and block the sunlight. 
  • You may be using excessive quantities of sunscreen, and that too more often. 
  • You spend more time indoors. 

2) Impaired vitamin D absorption (due to a medical condition) 

In case you, by any chance, happen to be lactose intolerant or have milk allergies, you may be asked to take vitamin supplements. Fat absorption issues and gastrointestinal disorders can also lead to your body being deficit in the nutrient. 

3) Medications that interrupt the regular functioning of vitamin D in the body.

People who had weight loss surgery or ones who are taking anticonvulsant medicines. 

4) Low dietary intake of vitamin D 

If you don't consume milk regularly, your body may fail to maintain the required levels. 

5) Irregularities in Melanin

Melanin acts as a natural sunscreen and decreases the production of vitamin D3 in the skin.

Individuals with a darker complexion (or more pigmented skin) need more time than the ones with a fair face to produce the same amount of vitamin D3. 

How does vitamin D help you to keep your skin healthy? 

  • Promotes longer telomeres.

    It prevents the premature aging of your skin. How exactly, you may ask?

    Well, let's take it to the molecular level. Telomeres, the caps of genetic material on the free ends of DNA strands, shorten as you grow old. The shortening of telomeres renders the DNA unstable, which keeps on worsening until the cell dies.

    According to a (2007) report by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, "telomeres were found significantly longer in patients with the highest serum vitamin D levels as compared to those with the lowest..." 
  • Acts as endogenous antibiotics.

    It is associated with antimicrobial peptides (AMP) production in the keratinocytes (skin cells).

    It helps you fight various skin ailments such as psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, acne, rosacea, vitiligo, etc. 
  • Modulates the production of keratinocytes.

    It regulates skin cell growth, repair and maintains its metabolism. It stimulates the process of healing wounds and helps in the development of new blood vessels. It also supports the epidermal barrier. 
  • Plays a part in the immune responses of the skin.

    It looks after the regulatory mechanisms of skin immunity. 
  • Serves as an antioxidant. 

As you already know, the sun's UV radiation can disrupt free radicals' balance in the body. How exactly? When your skin gets exposed to the rays, they create an excess of free radicals in it.

Free radicals are highly reactive oxygen species, which in search of electrons, go on disturbing the lipid structures in cell membranes. They affect the DNA of the cells in a manner utter damaging. If the same process/method is repeated every time, the damage bulks up and can lead to different skin cancer forms.

Vitamin D is a membrane antioxidant and prevents the epidermal lipids from degrading. It neutralizes the free radicals, rendering them harmless.

However, the scavenging capacity of vitamin D has not been proved to a satisfactory extent. Dermatologists suggest a need for high-quality studies, which would confirm vitamin D's role as an antioxidant. 

Vitamin D works to improve the symptoms of skin infections.
Is it so? 

1) Psoriasis 

"Studies show that people with psoriasis are likely to have low levels of vitamin D in their body. However, it is not considered a definite link," informs Dr. Ilyas. "Yet, sunlight and topical vitamin D help to treat psoriasis. The oral supplements do not provide the same benefits."

It is a state/condition in which the skin cells build up and form scales and dry, itchy patches. Vitamin D and its analogs attempt to bring in control the proliferation rate of the skin cells. It pulls down the hyperactivity of the skin cells and settles it to normalcy. 

2) Ichthyosis 

Severely dry and thickened skin puts out the rare disorder (if India is considered). It is associated with low levels of vitamin D in the body. 

3) Eczema (Atopic dermatitis) 

If you follow the theories, you will get mixed results on the connection between eczema and vitamin D concentration in your blood.

Two main reasons behind the itchy inflammation a person faces in this condition: 

  • The epidermal barrier of the skin is not functioning correctly.
  • Dysregulated immune response of the skin, which interacts with the environmental factors. 

The topical use of vitamin D and its analogs increases the vitamin D receptors (VDR) in the skin cells, which improves the epidermal barrier breakage. This, in turn, lessens the transepidermal water loss (or, your skin will be able to retain moisture for a longer time). 

4) Acne 

The studies conducted so far have not established a concrete link between acne and vitamin D.

Yet, a countable few suggest that acne's severity is inversely related to vitamin D levels in the body.

Whether the deficiency of vitamin D is the root cause behind your acne and giving you the symptoms or merely making your acne worse, the answers are not yet conclusive and have a long path ahead to sort themselves out.

If your acne is primarily due to bacterial overgrowth, vitamin D's anti-microbial properties (when topically used) can calm down the symptoms.

The anti-inflammatory nature of vitamin D may help you address the inflammation and redness during recurrent acne. 

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The dairy products, which are sometimes recommended to fulfill your needs of vitamin D, are hyperglycemic (or containing high amounts of sugar). Such food sources can further aggravate your acne. It is best to seek advice from your dermatologist.

5) Vitiligo

A common disorder in which depigmented patches or macules erupt on parts of the body, including the mouth, hair, and eyes.

"Vitamin D protects the epidermal melanin unit and restores its integrity." It makes use of several mechanisms to do so. Be it - controlling the activation, multiplication, and migration of melanocytes, or adjusting the skin's immune responses. 

● What does the research say about the topical use of Vitamin D? 

According to a (2014) study, patients with nodulocystic acne had relatively low vitamin D levels in the blood serum.

Another study (2015) implied that "people with acne experienced improved symptoms when they took oral vitamin D supplements.

A randomized, controlled pilot study proved that "vitamin D3 can safely be delivered through the dermal route."

Some theories assert that adequate vitamin D levels in the body can "prevent the initiation and progression of lethal skin cancers." It inhibits cell proliferation (multiplication) of skin cells and induces differentiation (the cells change, get categorized, and assign a particular function) instead.

Experiments strongly indicate that the topical use of calcitriol (the active form of vitamin D, found in the blood serum) ointment is safe and may be an effective treatment for plaque-type psoriasis.

The other vitamin D analog, calcipotriene (or calcipotriol), is used to treat chronic plaque psoriasis, either alone or in combination with steroid medicines.

An experimental study held in 2011 elucidated the relationship between eczema (atopic dermatitis)and vitamin D. It involved 37 children with eczema symptoms. Serum vitamin D levels were higher in patients with milder eczema than those with severe and moderate cases. One point that comes to light is that vitamin D deficiency is related to the severity of eczema.

Nonetheless, further studies should make it an urging compulsion to investigate the optimal levels of vitamin D, which are deemed necessary to maintain cutaneous health. 

How can you use vitamin D topically?

Vitamin D is available in the various OTC skincare products, either acting as the main ingredient or an enhancing supplement. Some being moisturizers, neck cream, oils, face washes, mist drops, sunscreens, etc.

Vitamin D dissolves in fats and oils, and hence, several of the topical formulations are oil-based.

Vitamin D mainly serves the purpose of a moisturizer and emollient. It forms a thin layer over the skin and retains the moisture beneath it. Also, it helps to soften the skin and mend the dry textures.

It can be used in combination with vitamin A, B, or E. Hyaluronic acid compliments vitamin D in the best way possible. 

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A few side effects that you may experience

Vitamin D has not caused any irritation in most of the cases. It is generally not associated with any sensitivity.

However, in the rarest of situations, you may suffer from irritation, stinging, or other uncomfortable sensation.
Vitamin D doesn't interact negatively with any of the skincare ingredients. It is deemed harmless and safe. You can effortlessly/easily incorporate it into your daily regimen.

If you take the oral supplements of vitamin D, you should be extremely careful regarding the dosage. If the regular intakes exceed the critical limits, the build-up of calcium can occur in your blood. It may lead to nausea, vomiting, and other troubling symptoms. 

The Bottom Line

Yes, being out in the sun for prolonged periods can increase the risk of getting skin cancer and other severe conditions. Moreover, applying sunscreen on the majority of the exposed parts of your skin can slow down the formation of vitamin D3.

What to do and what not to, things may riddle you entirely.

Skincare experts ask people to keep a balance between the quantity of sunscreen they use and the amount of time they spend out in the sun. You don't need to get a sunburn to fulfill your needs for Vitamin D. Also, your skin can produce sufficient vitamin D even with the sunscreen already rubbed on.

If there's a problem, you can always prefer the fatty diet, topical products, or oral supplements to overcome the lacking.

It is always recommended to stay away from tanning beds and other artificial sources of UV rays. They often radiate UVC rays, which can put you at risk for skin cancer.