Is it better to take oral or Transdermal vitamin D?

Is It Better to Take Oral or Transdermal Vitamin D?

sunshine and vitamin DDoesn’t it seem like everyone’s Vitamin D deficient these days? Just a few years ago, very few people talked about Vitamin D at all–they just assumed that they were getting enough from the sun. Then all of a sudden a new lab test that measures Vitamin D levels comes out and nearly all types of healthcare professionals–conventional and holistic–are recommending that their clients take a Vitamin D supplement. That includes me!

Vitamin D deficiency contributes to several skin issues that clients hire me to help them overcome, and it also has a protective effect on the skin due to its antioxidant properties in addition to a whole slew of other benefits–so it’s definitely in my arsenal of recommendations.

At first, the main questions were “How much should I take?” That varies. Or “What type should I take?” Vitamin D3–cholecalciferol. Or “Do I take it with food?” Yes–with a healthy fat. And then of course people wanted my recommendations for brands, drops vs pills vs liquids, and so on.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who recently visited a holistic chiropractor and Ayurvedic practitioner, and it was recommended that she not take any oral forms of Vitamin D at all. This practitioner solely recommended transdermal Vitamin D–meaning Vitamin D applied topically to the skin–preferably to an area of the body that has a decent amount of fat. The reasoning was that oral Vitamin D isn’t absorbed and can cause issues with the liver.

I’ve heard of transdermal medications and supplements before, so I wasn’t surprised to hear a recommendation for transdermal Vitamin D since many people have absorption issues.

Is transdermal Vitamin D really more effective than oral Vitamin D?

Vitamin D chemical structureI decided to do some homework–especially since some formulators of transdermal Vitamin D are packaging it into facial skincare products and body care products like deodorants. I found some interesting information, but I also found some conflicting and rather vague information (shocker).

First of all, it’s important to note that Vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient. It must be taken with a fat in order to have any chance at all at absorption (which is why skim milk should NEVER be marketed as a good source of Vitamin D or calcium for that matter since calcium is also fat-soluble). It’s only found in a few whole food sources, and it’s manufactured in the skin from contact with direct sunlight. So packaging Vitamin D in any form that’s NOT fat-soluble in an oral product whether it’s a food or a supplement is just silly.

One particular study used a transdermal Vitamin D in an aloe vera-based gel. Aloe vera gel is water-soluble. It’s a humectant which means it draws moisture from the environment and binds it into the skin, and it’s also an emollient, meaning it stays on the surface of the skin and forms a seal for protection.

My initial question regarding any transdermal (or topical) product at all is how much of the actual active ingredient will actually make it past the stratum corneum’s natural lipid barrier and other layers of the epidermis into the papillary dermis which contains the blood vessels. I immediately questioned why a researcher would put a lipophilic ingredient like Vitamin D3 into a hydrophilic vehicle like aloe, which does hydrate but doesn’t fully penetrate into the skin. Most topical active skincare ingredients are either lipophilic or encapsulated with a lipid (like lecithin or another phospholipid) at the molecular level to give it a better chance of penetrating beyond the stratum corneum–especially since the stratum corneum is hard to penetrate. I found my answer in the discussion following the results of the study:

Anatomy of the skin“Although the stratum corneum is an efficient barrier, some chemical substances are able to penetrate it and to reach the underlying tissues and blood vessels. These successful substances have to be lipophilic and Vitamin D is fat-soluble which means it should be able to cross the skin barrier…the most ideal penetration enhancer discovered to date is undoubtedly water. Hydration of the stratum corneum has been shown to increase the penetration of both hydrophilic and hydrophobic drugs. In this study, we used a composition of aromatic oils and glycerine as a permeation enhancer, which worked without complications.” So even though the product was aloe-based, it also consisted of oils.

The literature didn’t list what type of emulsifier they used–but that could be an issue since some emulsifiers and other functional ingredients might end up interfering with product penetration in the final end product. This is a big concern because typically the skin only absorbs up to 66% of what’s applied topically in the best-case scenario of the skin being fully hydrated prior to application. I would think that these factors would make it difficult to consistently gauge how much of the actual nutrient is being absorbed (and that’s assuming the nutrient is kept intact and doesn’t degrade before having the chance to penetrate at all).

What about the liver connection?

Topical absorption issues out of the way, what about absorption of Vitamin D3 when taken internally? Just like with a topical product, an internal dietary supplement must be formulated in a way that makes the active nutrients recognizable and usable by the human body. This might seem like a no-brainer, but the majority of supplements on the market are mostly fillers and contain low quality and insufficient amounts of the actual nutrient.

The other factor in whether someone’s body can absorb a nutrient has a great deal to do with the condition of their digestive and immune systems. If someone has chronic or inflammatory digestive issues, it’s likely that their digestive systems need strengthening or healing–and until that happens, it’s likely that they’re not absorbing most nutrients. Digestion is key here–if food (and even supplements) aren’t properly digested, then the nutrients can’t be absorbed. The under digested foods begin to rot in the small and large intestines, which creates an overly acidic, toxic environment that breeds and feeds bacteria, viruses, and yeast. These toxins accumulate and get stored in fat cells, and also overload the liver, colon, and kidneys. If someone’s body is already in this compromised condition, then it’s likely they’re absorbing very little of anything beneficial.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is rising in prevalence and is attributed to Vitamin D deficiency. Other causes of NAFLD are obesity, diabetes, and insulin resistance to name a few. It’s very hard for the body to eliminate fat (as many are aware), so if someone already has NAFLD the concern with taking Vitamin D orally wouldn’t be with adding more fat to the liver as much as the risk of hypercalcemia–where the Vitamin D produces excessive amounts of calcium in the liver and the blood–where it doesn’t belong. This is known as “free calcium,” which tends to accumulate where it isn’t wanted, like plaque in the arteries, on the teeth, and as calciferous tumors anywhere else in the body. Keep in mind though, that one would have to take copious amounts of Vitamin D3 for this to happen–a minimum of 40,000 IU per day for several months.

Bypassing the liver, where oral Vitamin D is metabolized, as well as the kidneys, where it’s activated prevents this from happening since the nutrient would be absorbed directly into the bloodstream via the skin.

So what’s the bottom line here?

I think Vitamin D is important. I also think that however you WILL take it is the best way to take it, because no supplement is effective if you don’t actually take it. Some people like taking pills, others prefer liquids, and others do best with creams. I think that you have to know you’re getting a properly formulated product–and unfortunately, you can’t depend on healthcare providers to understand formulation when they choose which products to recommend or retail. I’d recommend doing your homework and read the manufacturer’s website–and don’t be afraid to ask about the delivery system of the nutrient within the product. Ask to see clinical trials demonstrating absorption rates and efficacy. High-quality supplement companies should be able to produce this information.

If you’re someone with digestive, known absorption, and/or immune issues, it’s likely that a transdermal option would be better for you. However, if you’re someone without conditions like NAFLD, diabetes, obesity, or other issues; and you eat whole, healthy foods and detoxify your body on a regular basis, then a high-quality oral Vitamin D supplement will likely be fine for you.

When in doubt, ask your healthcare provider which is best for you–but if they give you a product to take, do your homework on that product to make sure it’s top quality whether it’s oral or transdermal Vitamin D.

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*Image 2 credit"Vitamin D structure" by Nwanneka123 - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vitamin_D_structure.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Vitamin_D_structure.jpg Image 3 credit Wong, D.J. and Chang, H.Y. Skin tissue engineering (March 31, 2009), StemBook, ed. The Stem Cell Research Community, StemBook, doi/10.3824/stembook.1.44.1, http://www.stembook.org. [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Image 4 credit Nephron (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

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26 thoughts on “Is It Better to Take Oral or Transdermal Vitamin D?”

  1. I had my D levels tested about a year ago by a holistic MD. Even though I eat foods rich in D, including pastured eggs and sardines, she recommended that I supplement. Currently I take it orally. It’s easy and I do it. I am interested in the concept of the transdermal delivery, but what I am doing right now is really easy and convenient.

    1. Elizabeth, it’s so hard to get enough Vitamin D from food sources–and because of the concerns with the sun, we can’t rely on it for our vitamin D either. I definitely say to keep doing what you’re doing if it’s working for you!

  2. Yes, I do take vitamin D daily and it is a strange coincidence that I was just wondering about the one I am taking. It is produced by Country Life and each small gel cap is 5,000 I.U.
    The label says that it is not sourced from fish liver. So I read the back label and it says that is sourced from lanolin. I believe that lanolin comes from the fat in sheep. I will look that up.
    I don’t know what to make of it or what it means for me, but I am sure that anyone who is vegan would not take it.
    Would like feedback. Thanks,

    1. Product manufacturers have a way with beating around the bush with certain things don’t they! It’s important to note that there is no source of vegan Vitamin D other than the sun itself. Lanolin might be doable for vegetarians though.

        1. That actually depends! Not all lanolin is humanely sourced, just like not all wool is humanely sourced. I recommend knowing where the lanolin comes from, and how the animals from that source are treated. Just because the animal isn’t killed to produce the lanolin, doesn’t mean they are treated well.

  3. thanks for the shout out about capturing life stories in the current newsletter. The vitamin D issue to capture my attention as my therapist thinks I should be doing 5000 but my doctor is concerned about liver damage. I have hemachromatosis and need to protect the liver. Consider doing an article on high iron in the blood…a condition many women experience as their menstrual cycles wane.

    1. Thanks Barbara! I’d be interested to see if there’s any connection to high iron in the blood to certain vascular skin conditions like rosacea. Hmmm.

  4. I love this article. I’m currently taking vitamin D softgels by NatureWise. I never try taking vitamin D topically but now I’m very curious about and maybe I can open a few softgels and mix with some carrier oils. 🙂

  5. Thanks for all the information. I did not even know that it was possible to take Vitamine D transdermally.
    And yes, I do take vitamine D. At the beginning of this year I was tested by a physician – after alot of begging (and paying) – and was super-low in Vitamine D, like WAY below the threshold that even labs here in Germany suggest. (Which is still way lower than most health coaches and websites and such suggest right now.) I am taking the one by Now Foods which I could order online. I am not sure how good it is – but at least it states that it is free of soy, gluten and a bunch of other things. The stuff that I got from my physician had soy and peanut oil in it, which I both try to avoid. I retested a while ago … still not where I want it to be, but at least better. 🙂

    1. Thank you for sharing Ursula! Yes–it’s really important to find a product that is free of extra ingredients that you don’t want to consume! Vitamin D does need to be formulated in some kind of lipid–but there are certainly better options than soy or peanut oils.

  6. Hi Rachael, I was recently tested and found my level to be 24ng. I was told to supplement with 2000 units a day, in capsule form. After 2 days I broke out with an itchy skin rash, and abdominal issues. I stopped taking it and the symptoms are going away. Seemed to be an allergic reaction. Do you think the topical D3 would work better form me? FYI: I am hypothyroid and gluten sensitive.

    1. Hi Lynn, I can’t really recommend either way without having a lot more information about you–but I’d say it’s worth a try, as long as you clear it first with your licensed healthcare professional. Hypothyroidism and gluten sensitivity typically do indicate some kind of digestive issue, and if you’re not digesting properly, absorption from oral supplementation won’t be ideal–many people with digestive/absorption issues do benefit from the transdermal.

  7. If one were to take Vit D transdermally, is it best to just use an oil based form that would normally be taken orally? Or, is there a specially formulated transdermal Vit D that would be better?

    1. Hi Carina, thanks for reading and for asking this great question! I would recommend a Vitamin D that has been specially formulated for topical/transdermal application. This way it will be formulated with the right cofactors to help it absorb properly through the skin. Hope that helps! –Rachael

  8. Hi Rachel
    I was recently diagnosed with low vitamin D it was 20
    I have been avoiding the sun because i had basil cell carcinoma which was removed
    I do have digestive issues like GERD and my stomach is very sensitive
    Do u recommend I try the vitamin D3 patches and which brand is the best and is 5000 too high?
    I appreciate your quick response

    1. Hello Haifa, thanks so much for reading and for your question. With pre-existing conditions, I always recommend consulting with your licensed health professional before adding or changing any medication or supplement regimen–preferably an integrative, functional, or naturopathic physician. –Rachael

  9. Aloe vera defiantly penetrates the skin it penetrates deep . In a study aloe and d3 were mixed. It is a fact that d3 can be absorbed through the skin. I take oral d3 and use it on the skin. There is no difference in ingesting aloe vera or d3. And putting it on your skin you can feel it working almost instantly. D3 is a hormone not really a vitamin.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Michael. Yes, I link to that study in this article, and also state that aloe is a penetration enhancer, and agree that D3 is a hormone, rather than a vitamin. In terms of efficacy of internal vs transdermal delivery, that’s something that depends on several factors.

  10. Hello, I am vitamin d deficient and have had hypothyroid for many years, i am 58 and tried two strengths of vitamin d3, one was to take every week 50000iu and i couldnt take it due to stomach and constiaption and got dizzy. so i tried once a day 1000 iu and still got indigestion and stopped as i didnt want to get constipated and dizzy, i see where they make the patch, will it be safe to use and Not cause these side effects? My dr said try them for 10 days and will, but wonder about them

    1. Hi Cathy, it’s different for everyone! I’d follow your doctor’s instructions and see how it goes. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment! –Rachael

  11. I am very low vitamin D deficient. I have tried just about everything, capsules, softgels even the gummi bears and each time I take it my ears begin ringing temporarily. I recently tried a Vitamin D3 cream which gave me a terrible full-body rash. Right now, the only thing available to me is my Sperti D lamp and the sun. I was thinking about pricking a softgel and placing its contents on my skin and absorb it that way but I’m not sure if I’ll break out into another rash. Is there anything else available that could possibly work to assist with raising my levels?

    1. Melvin, I’d have to advise you to consult with a licensed natural/functional healthcare professional to help with your personal situation. What I can say though, is that I don’t advise applying any supplements topically that were formulated to be digested/absorbed internally as opposed to topically.

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