Best Vitamin D Sources: How to Get Your Fix From Sunlight, Food, Supplement Pills, Tablets, Powders, Skin-Care Products, and Medications

Vitamin D is a key nutrient for healthy bones and a slew of other potential health benefits. Learn all the ways you can reach optimal levels.

Whether you’re out enjoying the summer sun or hunkering down indoors during the winter months, it’s important to expose yourself to ample vitamin D. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin crucial for efficient calcium absorption, which in turn helps you build and maintain strong bones, decreasing your risk for osteoporosis, or bone disease, says Kelly Kennedy, RD, a nutritionist at Everyday Health.

“There is a lot more research out there that looks into other potential benefits, which include fighting cancer and contributing to a person’s mental health,” Kennedy says. (1) “But the research isn’t quite there yet for the government to make a recommendation. Regardless, the benefits of vitamin D are huge and numerous.”

Vitamin D deficiency can be serious. Research shows that vitamin D is crucial for keeping bones healthy — warding off rickets, osteomalacia, and osteoporosis. 

It’s necessary for other groups as well. Pregnant women, for instance, need vitamin D for bone health, immunity, and healthy cell division. If you’re breast-feeding, getting your fix of vitamin D is critical, too, as the vitamin can foster healthy bone development for your child and may ward off dangerous pregnancy-specific conditions like preeclampsia. (4)

Are You Getting Enough Vitamin D for Optimal Health?

This all raises the question: How much vitamin D should you be getting?

Kennedy says that depends on whom you ask. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends 600 international units (IU) each day for most adults and 800 IU for seniors (individuals ages 70 and older). (1) The Endocrine Society also recommends 600 IU daily for adults but notes more may be needed to increase blood levels of vitamin D above a specific range. (5)

Meanwhile, other independent organizations recommend even more vitamin D. The Vitamin D Council suggests humans need 5,000 IU of vitamin D3 per day, while the Institute of Medicine argues the tolerable upper level of vitamin D is 4,000 IU of vitamin D daily. (2)

“There are definitely a lot of different views out there from a lot of scientists,” Kenndy says. “I would say studies will probably push for an increase in the (government’s) recommended amount from 600 IU to 800 for adults moving forward. We’ll see what happens.”

Regardless of these debates, the universal opinion is that we all need vitamin D, and, depending on a number of factors, you may need to up your intake of the sunshine vitamin.

Given the importance of vitamin D, what are the best ways to increase your intake? Kennedy recommends a handful here.

Get Outdoors and Soak Up Some Sun

Getting natural sun exposure might seem like the most no-brainer way to get vitamin D, but Kennedy says there are a few things to keep in mind. She says age, skin color, the season of the year, and where you’re geographically located can make a difference in how much natural sun you should be getting.

“Even sun exposure in your house versus being outside doesn’t work the same way. You need the direct light rays, and the glass from inside your home can block that — sitting in the sunlight inside isn’t the same as sitting outside,” she says. “Also, someone with darker skin has a lot harder time getting enough sun exposure to make enough vitamin D.”

If you live in the Northeast and it’s wintertime, you aren’t going to get enough vitamin D through natural light alone, Kennedy says. That’s when talking with your doctor about taking a vitamin D supplement will be key, as food sources of vitamin D also won’t provide enough.

During the summer, when direct sunlight is in good supply, getting enough vitamin D usually isn’t a concern for most people, Kennedy says. In fact, you’ll want to limit your sun exposure during this time of year to about 10 to 15 minutes of direct sunlight. (6) “Make sure to put on sunscreen if you're out for longer than that — you don’t want to overdo it and risk skin cancer,” Kennedy says.

Reach for Foods High in Vitamin D

Although food isn’t the most efficient way to absorb vitamin D, prioritizing vitamin D-rich eats can help increase your intake in conjunction with either a supplement or exposure to direct sunlight.

Kennedy points out that healthy sources of vitamin D include fatty fish such as cod and salmon; yogurt; and fortified milk and orange juice.

Take a Vitamin D Supplement in Pill or Tablet Form

Taking a pill or tablet supplement can be a good way to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D, especially if you’re at risk for deficiency or your doctor has determined that your levels are low with a blood test.

A low vitamin D blood test reading would be less than 20 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml). (7)

At your local pharmacy or online, you’ll likely see two options for vitamin D supplements: vitamin D2 and vitamin D3. What’s the difference, and which should you opt for? Essentially, Kennedy says, D3 is the natural form of the vitamin that your body generates from the sun. D2 is the form that our body cannot make on its own. She says that if you’re looking to add more nutrients to your body, D3 is generally preferable because it’s more potent than D2 when used at high levels, though scientists and  physicians continue to debate which version trumps the other

There are various kinds of tablets and pills out there — including some that you would swallow like a normal pill, as well as dissolvable tablets.

Just keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate supplements. It’s important to work with your doctor to pick a safe and responsible supplement that is effective and won’t interfere with any medication you’re already taking. After all, you wouldn’t want to worsen your health with the addition of a supplement!

“It’s important for you and your healthcare provider to be on the same page. Never feel afraid to ask your doctor or dietitian about what might be a good supplement for you,” Kennedy says.

Consider a Vitamin D Powder

If you search online for other ways to get supplemental vitamin D, you may come across various vitamin D powders. While there isn’t that much information out there, Kelly says that, as with other vitamin supplements, these may help you get your fix — especially if swallowing supplements in pill form isn’t your thing.

These kinds of supplements are meant to be added to drinks or food during meals that include fat. She says fat is important because it’s needed for the body to absorb D, which is a fat-soluble vitamin. (1)

Check Out Vitamin D Skin-Care Products

Beyond more traditional supplements that are meant to be orally taken, you might consider skin-care products that contain vitamin D. A study suggests these sources of vitamin D may be good for people who have a difficult time absorbing vitamin D through diet or sunlight. People who may have a hard time absorbing vitamin D include those with Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, cystic fibrosis, and pancreatitis. (9)

Just take that notion with a grain of salt: The study was very small — only 50 women were initially surveyed — and it only suggests, rather than proves, that vitamin D3 may be safely absorbed through the skin. (10)

Kennedy cautions these products are relatively new, so there isn’t much research on them so far. Also, keep in mind that while many of these skin creams may have “vitamin D” listed on their ingredients label, the exact amount of the nutrient present usually isn’t, Kennedy adds.

“Because this industry is not well regulated, it’s impossible to determine exactly what you may be getting, and the concentration may even vary from company to company and even jar to jar,” she says. “For now, food, supplements, and sun are still the best delivery systems for vitamin D in people who are able to absorb the nutrient through these modes."

Use an Over-the-Counter Medication With Vitamin D

You may find various over-the-counter medications at your local pharmacy that claim to be good sources of vitamin D.

Kennedy recommends looking for products that also contain calcium if your doctor determines you’re also deficient in calcium. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and build strong bones. (1)

The Takeaway: Why Vitamin D Is Important and When to Increase Your Intake

Vitamin D is one of those crucial nutrients that may have a snowball effect on your health. If you get enough, it may help improve everything from bone health (1) to reducing your risk of the flu (11) to even helping with a healthy pregnancy. (4)

How can you tell if you’re deficient and need to up your intake?

Although the Endocrine Society doesn’t recommend vitamin D supplements for everyone, it does recommend that at-risk people get blood work done to analyze their levels. (5)

After all, vitamin D deficiency is common across all age groups. And because few foods contain vitamin D naturally, there’s a chance you may need to supplement your diet — especially if you’re at risk for vitamin D deficiency because of your skin color, geographic location, or health condition. (1)

In our fast-paced lives, staying on top of your nutrition, and particularly your vitamin D intake, can sometimes be tough. It’s something that Kennedy wishes everyone were more mindful of.

“The need for vitamin D is something that more people are aware of,” Kennedy says, “but it’s not as many people as I would hope.”

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Best Vitamin D Sources: How to Get Your Fix From Sunlight, Food, Supplement Pills, Tablets, Powders, Skin-Care Products, and Medications