Sunshine, skin chemistry, and vitamin D

The UK is on the same latitude as Northern Canada (Image Source: Wiki Commons)

As I write this it’s the last day of September in the U.K., which means we’re well into meteorological autumn and summer is, at least here, a distant memory. The weather is cooler and the days are getting shorter. Soon, the clocks will go back an hour, and we’ll shift from BST (British Summer Time) to GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).

Seasons in the U.K. are particularly marked because of our northerly latitude. British weather tends to be fairly mild (thanks, Gulf Stream), and it’s easy to forget just how far north we are – but a quick look at a globe makes it clear: London is actually further north than most of the major Canadian cities, while the Polar Bear Provincial Park in Ontario is roughly on the same latitude as Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh.

Yes, I hear you say, but what on Earth (hoho) does this have to do with chemistry?

Well, a clever little piece of chemistry happens in human skin, and, if you live in the U.K., it’s about to stop. At least, until next spring.

Some clever chemistry happens in human skin.

There’s a substance in your skin called 7-dehydrocholesterol (7-DHC). It is, as the name suggests, something to do with cholesterol (which, despite its bad press, is an essential component of animal cell membranes). In fact, 7-DHC is converted to cholesterol in the body, but it’s also converted to something else.

You will have heard of vitamin D. It helps us to absorb calcium and other minerals, and if children, in particular, don’t get enough it can lead to rickets – which leads to weak bones, bowed legs and stunted growth. Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to lots of other health problems, including increased risk of certain cancers, heart disease, arthritis and even type one diabetes.

More recently, vitamin D has been linked to COVID-19. It’s estimated that around 80-85% of people who contract COVID-19 experience mild or no symptoms, while the rest develop severe symptoms and, even if they recover, may suffer life-altering after-effects for many months. Early data suggest that patients with low vitamin D levels are much more likely to experience those severe symptoms. There’s a plausible mechanism for this: vitamin D helps to regulate the immune system and, in particular, helps to reduce the production of cytokines.

It’s possible that having inadequate levels of vitamin D may increase your chances of a severe response to COVID-19.

Cytokines are small proteins which are important in cell signalling, but if the body starts to produce too many in response to a virus it can cause something called a cytokine storm, which can lead to organ failure and death.

It’s proposed that having the right levels of vitamin D might help to prevent such cytokine storms, and therefore help to prevent a severe COVID-19 response. This is all early stages, because everyone is still learning about COVID-19, and it may turn out to be correlation without causation, but so far it looks promising.

One thing you many not know is that vitamin D is, technically, misnamed. Vitamins are, by definition, substances which are required in small quantities in the diet, because they can’t be synthesised in the body.

But vitamin D, which is actually a group of fat soluble molecules rather than a single substance, can be synthesised in the body, in our skin. The most important two in the group are ergocalciferol (vitamin D2) and cholecalciferol (vitamin D3), sometimes known collectively as calciferol.

Shiitake mushrooms are a good source of vitamin D2.

Vitamin D2 is found in fungi, but it’s cleared more quickly from the body than D3, so needs to be consumed in some form daily. Mushrooms are a good source (especially if they’ve been exposed to UV light), so if you like mushrooms, that’s one way to go. Vitamin D3 is hard to obtain from diet – the only really good source is oily fish, although other foods are fortified – but that’s okay because, most of the time, we don’t need to eat it.

Which brings us back to 7-DHC. It’s found in large quantities in the skin, although exactly how it gets there has been the subject of some debate. It used to be thought it was formed from cholesterol via an enzymatic reaction in the intestine wall and then transported to the skin via the bloodstream. But the trouble with this idea is that the blood would pass through the liver, and 7-DHC would be reconverted to cholesterol, never having a chance to build up in skin. A more robust theory is it’s actually synthesised in the skin in the first place, particularly since higher levels are found in a layer closer to the surface (the stratum spinosum) than in the deeper dermis.

We make vitamin D in our skin when we’re exposed to UVB light from the sun.

Anyway, the important thing is that 7-DHC absorbs UV light, particularly wavelengths between 290 and 320 nm, that is, in the UVB range, sometimes called “intermediate” UV (in contrast with “soft” UVA, and “hard” UVC). When exposed to UVB light, one of the rings in the 7-DHC molecule breaks apart, forming something known pre-D3, that then converts (isomerises) to vitamin D3 in a heat-sensitive process.

In short, we make vitamin D3 in our skin when we’re in the sunshine. Obviously we need to avoid skin damage from UV light, but the process doesn’t take long: 10-15 minutes of midday sunlight three times a week, in the U.K. in the summer, is enough to keep our levels up.

Sun exposure is by far the quickest, and certainly the cheapest, way to get your vitamin D. If you live somewhere where that’s possible.

Here’s the thing, though, if you live in the U.K., for a chunk of the year, it’s just not. I’ve pinched the graph here from my husband, whose work involves solar panels, because it makes a nice visual point.

The amount of sunlight we’re exposed to in the U.K. drops sharply in autumn and winter.

From April – September, there’s plenty of energy available from sunlight. But look at what happens from October – March. The numbers drop drastically. And here’s the thing: it turns out that vitamin D production in human skin only occurs when UV radiation exceeds a certain level. Below this threshold? Well, no photocoversion takes place.

In short: if you live in the U.K. you can’t make vitamin D in your skin for a few months of the year. And those few months are starting… round about now.

The NILU has a web page where you can calculate how much vitamin D you can synthesise in your skin on a given day.

If you want to experiment, there’s a website here, published by the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU), where you can enter various parameters – month, longitude, cloudiness etc – and it will tell you how many hours during a given a day it’s possible to synthesise vitamin D in your skin.

Have a play and you’ll see that, for London, vitamin D synthesis drops off to zero somewhere around the end of November, and doesn’t restart until sometime after the 20th of January. In Edinburgh, the difference is even more marked, running from the first week or so of November to the first week of February.

It’s important to realise that it tails off, too, so during the days either side of these periods there’s only a brief period during midday when you can synthesise vitamin D. And all this assumes a cloudless sky which in this country… is unlikely.

The skin pigment, melanin, absorbs UVB. (Image Source: Wiki Commons)

The situation is worse still if you have darker skin because the skin pigment, melanin, absorbs UVB. On the one hand, this is a good thing, since it protects skin cells from sun-related damage. But it also reduces the ability to synthesise vitamin D. In short, wimpy autumn and winter sunshine just isn’t going to cut it.

Likewise, to state the obvious, anyone who covers their skin (with clothing or sunblock), also won’t be able to synthesise vitamin D in their skin.

Fortunately, there’s a simple answer: supplements. The evidence is fairly solid that vitamin D supplements increase blood serum levels as well as, if not better than, sunshine – which, for the reasons mentioned above, can be difficult to obtain consistently.

Now, as I’ve said many times before, I’m not a medical doctor. However, I’m on fairly safe ground here, because Public Health England do actually recommend everyone take a vitamin D supplement from October to May. That is, from now. Yes, now.

I do need to stress one point here: DO NOT OVERDO IT. There always seems to be someone whose reasoning goes along the lines of, “if one tablet is good, then ten will be even better!” and, no. No. Excessive doses of vitamin D can cause vomiting and digestive problems, and can lead to hypercalcemia which results in weakness, joint pain confusion and other unpleasant symptoms.

If you live in the U.K. you should be taking a vitamin D supplement from October-May.

Public Health England recommend everyone in the U.K. take 10 micrograms per day in autumn and winter. Babies under one year should also be given 8.5–10 micrograms of vitamin D in the form of vitamin drops, unless they’re drinking more than 500 ml of infant formula a day (because that’s already fortified).

Amounts can get a little confusing, because there are different ways to measure vitamin D doses, and in particular you may see IU, or “international units“. However, if you buy a simple D3 supplement, like this one that I picked up at the supermarket, and follow the dose instructions on the label, you won’t go far wrong.

So, should you (and everyone else in your family) be taking a simple vitamin D supplement right around now? If you live in the U.K., or somewhere else very northerly, then yes. Well, unless you’re really keen to eat mushrooms pretty much every day. At worst, it won’t make much difference, and at best, well, there’s a chance it might help you to avoid a really unpleasant time with COVID-19, and that’s got to be a good thing.

But, look, it’s not toilet roll. Don’t go and bulk buy vitamin D, for goodness sake.

Until next time, take care, and stay safe.


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Cleaning chemistry – the awesome power of soap

Well, times are interesting at the moment, aren’t they? I’m not going to talk (much) about The Virus (there’s gonna be a movie, mark my words), because everyone else is, and I’m not an epidemiologist, virologist or an immunologist or, in fact, in any way remotely qualified. I am personally of the opinion that it’s not even especially helpful to talk about possibly-relevant drugs at the moment, given that we don’t know enough about possible negative interactions, and we don’t have reliable data about the older medicines being touted.

In short, I think it’s best I shut up and leave the medical side to the experts. But! I DO know about something relevant. What’s that, I hear you ask? Well, it’s… soap! But wait, before you start yawning, soap is amazing. It is fascinating. It both literally and figuratively links loads of bits of cool chemistry with loads of other bits of cool chemistry. Stay with me, and I’ll explain.

First up, some history (also not a historian, but that crowd is cool, they’ll forgive me) soap is old. Really, really, old. Archaeological evidence suggests ancient Babylonians were making soap around 4800 years ago – probably not for personal hygiene, but rather, mainly, to clean cooking pots. It was originally made from fats boiled with ashes, and the theory generally goes that the discovery was a happy accident: ashes left from cooking fires made it much easier to clean pots and, some experimenting later, we arrived at something we might cautiously recognise today as soap.

Soap was first used to clean pots.

The reason this works is that ashes are alkaline. In fact, the very word “alkali” is derived from the Arabic al qalīy, meaning calcined ashes. This is because plants, and especially wood, aren’t just made up of carbon and hydrogen. Potassium and calcium play important roles in tree and plant metabolism, and as a result both are found in moderately significant quantities in wood. When that wood is burnt at high temperatures, alkaline compounds of potassium and calcium form. If the temperature gets high enough, calcium oxide (lime) forms, which is even more alkaline.

You may, in fact, have heard the term potash. This usually refers to salts that contain potassium in a water-soluble form. Potash was first made by taking plant ashes and soaking them in water in a pot, hence, “pot ash”. And, guess where we get the word potassium from? Yep. The pure element, being very reactive, wasn’t discovered until 1870, thousands of years after people first discovered how useful its compounds could be. And, AND, why does the element potassium have the symbol K? It comes from kali, the root of the word alkali.

See what I mean about connections?

butyl ethanoate butyl ethanoate

Why is the fact that the ashes are alkaline relevant? Well, to answer that we need to think about fats. Chemically, fats are esters. Esters are chains of hydrogen and carbon that have, somewhere within them, a cheeky pair of oxygen atoms. Like this (oxygen atoms are shown red):

Now, this is a picture of butyl ethanoate (aka butyl acetate – smells of apples, by the way) and is a short-ish example of an ester. Fats generally contain much longer chains, and there are three of those chains, and the oxygen bit is stuck to a glycerol backbone.

Thus, the thick, oily, greasy stuff that you think of as fat is a triglyceride: an ester made up of three fatty acid molecules and glycerol (aka glycerine, yup, same stuff in baking). But it’s the ester bit we want to focus on for now, because esters react with alkalis (and acids, for that matter) in a process called hydrolysis.

Fats are esters. Three fatty acid chains are attached to a glycerol “backbone”.

The clue here is in the name – “hydro” suggesting water – because what happens is that the ester splits where those (red) oxygens are. On one side of that split, the COO group of atoms gains a metal ion (or a hydrogen, if the reaction was carried out under acidic conditions), while the other chunk of the molecule ends up with an OH on the end. We now have a carboxylate salt (or a carboxylic acid) and an alcohol. Effectively, we’ve split the molecule into two pieces and tidied up the ends with atoms from water.

Still with me? This is where it gets clever. Having mixed our fat with alkali and split our fat molecules up, we have two things: fatty acid salts (hydrocarbon chains with, e.g. COONa+ on the end) and glycerol. Glycerol is extremely useful stuff (and, funnily enough, antiviral) but we’ll put that aside for the moment, because it’s the other part that’s really interesting.

What we’ve done here is produce a molecule that has a polar end (the charged bit, e.g. COONa+) and a non-polar end (the long chain of Cs and Hs). Here’s the thing: polar substances tend to only mix with other polar substances, while non-polar substances only mix with other non-polar substances.

You may be thinking this is getting technical, but honestly, it’s not. I guarantee you’ve experienced this: think, for example, what happens if you make a salad dressing with oil and vinegar (which is mostly water). The non-polar oil floats on top of the polar water and the two won’t stay mixed. Even if you give them a really good shake, they separate out after a few minutes.

The dark blue oily layer in this makeup remover doesn’t mix with the watery colourless layer.

There are even toiletries based around this principle. This is an eye and lip makeup remover designed to remove water-resistant mascara and long-stay lipstick. It has an oily layer and a water-based layer. To use it, you give the container a good shake and use it immediately. The oil in the mixture removes any oil-based makeup, while the water part removes anything water-based. If you leave the bottle for a minute or two, it settles back into two layers.

But when we broke up our fat molecules, we formed a molecule which can combine with both types of substance. One end will mix with oily substances, and the other end mixes with water. Imagine it as a sort of bridge, joining two things that otherwise would never be connected (see, literal connections!)

There are a few different names for this type of molecule. When we’re talking about food, we usually use “emulsifier” – a term you’ll have seen on food ingredients lists. The best-known example is probably lecithin, which is found in egg yolks. Lecithin is the reason mayonnaise is the way it is – it allows oil and water to combine to give a nice, creamy product that stays mixed, even if it’s left on a shelf for months.

When we’re talking about soaps and detergents, we call these joiny-up molecules “surfactants“. You’re less likely to have seen that exact term on cosmetic ingredients lists, but you will (if you’ve looked) almost certainly have seen one of the most common examples, which is sodium laureth sulfate (or sodium lauryl sulfate), because it turns up everywhere: in liquid soap, bubble bath, shampoo and even toothpaste.

I won’t get into the chemical makeup of sodium laureth sulfate, as it’s a bit different. I’m going to stick to good old soap bars. A common surfactant molecule that you’ll find in those is sodium stearate, which is just like the examples I was talking about earlier: a long hydrocarbon chain with COONa+ stuck on the end. The hydrocarbon end, or “tail”, is hydrophobic (“water-hating”), and only mixes with oily substances. The COONa+ end, or “head”, is hydrophilic (“water loving”) and only mixes with watery substances.

Bars of soap contain sodium stearate.

This is perfect because dirt is usually oily, or is trapped in oil. Soap allows that oil to mix with the water you’re using to wash, so that both the oil, and anything else it might be harbouring, can be washed away.

Which brings us back to the wretched virus. Sars-CoV-2 has a lipid bilayer, that is, a membrane made of two layers of lipid (fatty) molecules. Virus particles stick to our skin and, because of that membrane, water alone does a really bad job of removing them. However, the water-hating tail ends of surfacant molecules are attracted to the virus’s outer fatty surface, while the water-loving head ends are attracted to the water that’s, say, falling out of your tap. Basically, soap causes the virus’s membrane to dissolve, and it falls apart and is destroyed. Victory is ours – hurrah!

Hand sanitisers also destroy viruses. Check out this excellent Compound Interest graphic (click the image for more).

Who knew a nearly-5000 year-old weapon would be effective against such a modern scourge? (Well, yes, virologists, obviously.) The more modern alcohol hand gels do much the same thing, but not quite as effectively – if you have access to soap and water, use them!

Of course, all this only works if you wash your hands thoroughly. I highly recommend watching this video, which uses black ink to demonstrate what needs to happen with the soap. I thought I was washing my hands properly until I watched it, and now I’m actually washing my hands properly.

You may be thinking at this point (if you’ve made it this far), “hang on, if the ancient Babylonians were making soap nearly 5000 years ago, it must be quite easy to make… ooh, could I make soap?!” And yes, yes it is and yes you can. Believe me, if the apocolypse comes I shall be doing just that. People rarely think about soap in disaster movies, which is a problem, because without a bit of basic hygine it won’t be long before the hero is either puking his guts up or dying from a minor wound infection.

Here’s the thing though, it’s potentially dangerous to make soap, because most of the recipes you’ll find (I won’t link to any, but a quick YouTube search will turn up several – try looking for “saponification“) involve lye. Lye is actually a broad term that covers a couple of different chemicals, but most of the time when people say lye these days, they mean pure sodium hydroxide.

Pure sodium hydroxide is usually supplied as pellets.

Pure sodium hydroxide comes in the form of pellets. It’s dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, precisely because it’s so good at breaking down fats and proteins, i.e. the stuff that humans are made of, it’s really, really corrosive and will give you an extremely nasty burn. Remember that scene in the movie Fight Club? Yes, that scene? Well, that. (Follow that link with extreme caution.)

And secondly, when sodium hydroxide pellets are mixed with water, the solution gets really, really hot.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realise that a really hot, highly corrosive, solution is potentially a huge disaster waiting to happen. So, and I cannot stress this enough, DO NOT attempt to make your own soap unless you have done a lot of research AND you have ALL the appropriate safety equipment, especially good eye protection.

And there we are. Soap is ancient and awesome, and full of interesting chemistry. Make sure you appreciate it every time you wash your hands, which ought to be frequently!

Stay safe, everyone. Take care, and look after yourselves.


Want something non-sciency to distract you? Why not check out my fiction blog: the fiction phial. There are loads of short stories, and even (recently) a poem. Enjoy!

If you’re studying from home, have you got your Pocket Chemist yet? Why not grab one? It’s a hugely useful tool, and by buying one you’ll be supporting this site – it’s win-win!

Like the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page for regular updates, or follow @chronicleflask on Twitter. Content is © Kat Day 2020. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do. If you enjoy reading my blog, please consider buying me a coffee through Ko-fi using the button below.
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