Vitamin D and melanoma

Patient Guide

Vitamin D and health

Vitamin D has been shown to be essential for our health by regulating calcium and phosphate levels. This is necessary for healthy bones, teeth and muscles. Vitamin D also has a key role in maintaining healthy immune function.

There are two types of vitamin D:

  • Vitamin D3 is produced in the skin when it is exposed to sunlight
  • Vitamin D2 is taken in through our diet.

Foods containing sources of vitamin D include:

  • Oily fish (mackerel, salmon, herring and sardines)
  • Eggs (egg yolks are specifically rich in vitamin D)
  • Red meat and liver
  • Mushrooms (that have been exposed to sunlight —UVB, or grown wildly)
  • Fortified cereals and yoghurts
  • Vitamin supplements

Do I need to take Vitamin D Supplements?

Vitamin D and sun exposure

Few people in the UK eat enough foods containing vitamin D to gain enough through their diet, so they get most of it by making it from the sun. The type of sun’s rays we need to make vitamin D are called UVB. These can only be gained outdoors, as glass blocks them.

In the summer, a short period of time everyday in the sun with your legs and forearms exposed without sunblock, could produce sufficient vitamin D for many people. In the winter months in the UK, the UVB rays are not strong enough to produce sufficient vitamin D in our skin.

There is a complicated relationship between the sun and our skin. Although some sun exposure is important to get enough vitamin D, the sun can be harmful for people whose skin tends to burn easily. People with pale freckly skin are more prone to burn. This increases the risk for melanoma. See our sun safety pages for more information.

People with darker skin are generally more protected from the sun. However, this comes with its own problems. Those with darker skin living in the UK or elsewhere in Northern Europe often have very low levels of vitamin D because their skin type limits the absorption of sunlight into the skin and this can impact health.

Getting the right amount of sun and cancer risks

Unfortunately, it is difficult to know just how much sun exposure is enough for us to make the vitamin D that is needed by our body, without damaging the skin. This is because there are several different factors to account for. These include your skin type, strength of UV light, time in the sun, your clothing and whether you apply a sunblock.

>See our pages on sun safety

Vitamin D and Melanoma

People who have had a melanoma should avoid sunburn because it increases the risk of further melanomas. Research on lifestyle and melanoma indicated that people with low vitamin D levels had thicker melanomas at diagnosis and were more likely to suffer a recurrence of their cancer [Newton-Bishop et al., 2009]. Research shows low vitamin D levels may also help promote the growth of melanoma cells [Hardie et al., 2020]. Avoiding low vitamin D levels after a melanoma diagnosis with supplementation is therefore recommended.

Professor Julia Newton-Bishop, a leading expert in the field of Melanoma advises:

“Stick to the advice of the Science Advisory Committee on Nutrition and take 400IU (10 μg) of a vitamin D supplement daily. People who are overweight, and have very little exposure to the sun may need a little more: 800IU (20 μg) per day.
We don’t know what high doses do to cancer cells, so I would always say that we should avoid deficiency, but also, I would not recommend high doses. Family members of melanoma patients often have similar pale, freckly skin and the advice for them would be the same, — avoid sunburn, but also avoid vitamin D deficiency.”

Relevant References:

[1] Newton-Bishop JA, Beswick S, Randerson-Moor J, Chang YM, Affleck P, Elliott F, Chan M, Leake S, Karpavicius B, Haynes S, Kukalizch K, Whitaker L, Jackson S, Gerry E, Nolan C, Bertram C, Marsden J, Elder DE, Barrett JH, Bishop DT. Serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D3 levels are associated with breslow thickness at presentation and survival from melanoma. J Clin Oncol. 2009 Nov 10;27(32):5439-44. doi: 10.1200/JCO.2009.22.1135.

[2] Hardie CM, Elliott F, Chan M, Rogers Z, Bishop DT, Newton-Bishop J. 2020. Environmental exposures such as smoking and low vitamin D are predictive of poor outcome in cutaneous melanoma rather than other deprivation measures. Journal of Investigative Dermatology. 140(2), pp. 327-33