Integumentary System

Skin Function

How do skin cells synthesize vitamin D?

Vitamin D is crucial to normal bone growth and development. When ultraviolet (UV) light shines on a lipid present in skin cells, the compound is transformed into vitamin D. People native to equatorial and low-latitude regions of the earth have dark skin pigmentation as a protection against strong, nearly constant exposure to UV radiation. Most people native to countries that exist at higher latitudes—where UV radiation is weaker and less constant—have lighter skin, allowing them to maximize their vitamin D synthesis. During the shorter days of winter, the vitamin D synthesis that occurs in people who live in higher latitudes is limited to small areas of skin exposed to sunlight.

Increased melanin pigmentation, which is present in people native to lower latitudes, reduces the production of vitamin D. Susceptibility to vitamin D deficiency is increased in these populations by the traditional clothing of many cultural groups native to low latitudes, which attempts to cover the body completely to protect the skin from overexposure to UV radiation. Most clothing effectively absorbs irradiation produced by ultraviolet B rays. The dose of ultraviolet light required to stimulate skin synthesis of vitamin D is about six times higher in African Americans than in people of European descent. The presence of darker pigmentation and/or veiling may significantly impair sun-derived vitamin D production, even in sunny regions like Australia.


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