The team, funded by Cancer Research UK, state that even with a lot of sun exposure, those with fair skin may not be able to make enough vitamin D, and too much sun can cause skin cancer. Clearly, for this reason, increasing sun exposure is not the way to achieve higher vitamin D levels in the fair-skinned population, say the researchers. But taking supplements could be.
Their work examined 1,200 people, of which, 730 were found to have "lower than optimal" vitamin D levels, and many of these were people with very pale, freckled skin.
Fair-skinned people who are prone to burning easily are not able to make enough vitamin D from sunlight and so may need to take vitamin D supplements. Supplements are already recommended for groups at higher risk of deficiency. These groups include people with dark skin, such as people of African-Caribbean and South Asian origin, and people who wear full-body coverings, as well as the elderly, young children, pregnant and breastfeeding women and people who avoid the sun. These latest findings indicate that pale-skinned people should be added to the list.
Most people get enough vitamin D with short exposures to the sun (10 to 15 minutes a day) in addition to consuming a small amount from the diet in foods, like oily fish and dairy products. But people with fair skin do not seem to be able to get enough, according to Prof Julia Newton-Bishop and her team at the University of Leeds.
This may be due to the fact that pale-skinned people, who burn easily, keep out of the sun, however, some pale-skinned people appear to be less proficient at making and processing vitamin D in the body, regardless of how long they sit in the sun.
Prof Newton-Bishop said: "It's very difficult to give easy advice that everyone can follow. There's no one-size-fits-all." However, 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."
Last updated: 05-10-2011
Hazel Nunn, of Cancer Research UK, said: "It is about striking a balance between the benefits and harms of sun exposure." 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." If people are concerned about their vitamin D levels, they should see their doctor who may recommend a vitamin D test." She said it was too soon to start recommending supplements, but said most people could safely take 10 micrograms a day of vitamin D without any side-effects.