Macro of Lichen on a dead tree trunk

Throughout history, keeping in sight of the sun was the best way for humans to get their daily vitamin D. Not only is vitamin D essential for bone health, it also contributes to the formation of a robust immune system, reduces inflammation, and builds up stronger muscles and joints. However, all that sun exposure often comes at a cost. There’s a lot to like about relaxing on the beach, but the American Academy of Dermatology warns that too much unprotected time in the sun can lead to skin cancer.

Because of this, more people than ever are slathering on sunscreen before heading out the door. Yet, the protection benefits for skin come at a direct cost to the amount of vitamin D it can absorb. For this reason, many people are turning to supplements to keep their vitamin D at optimal levels.

However, few people know the truth about the main ingredient in most vitamin D supplements, and the knowledge that it comes directly from greasy sheep wool might just make them turn away from supplements for good.

Why Sheep Wool?

Wooly, greasy sheep may not appear to have anything in common with the vitamin D supplements in convenience stores, but a closer inspection reveals how closely related they truly are.

In most cases, vitamin D3 (the kind most suitable for humans) is made from cholecalciferol, which comes from either fish oil or lanolin. While some forms of vitamin D supplements are made from plant-based sources of ergocalciferol, this form produces vitamin D2, which is less efficient for the human body and harder for it to absorb.

Making Vitamin D from Lanolin

Strange but true, sheepskin naturally produces lanolin as a water-resistant layer to their wool coats, and intensive processing is all it takes to turn this coating into a viable form of vitamin D for humans.

Making supplements from sheep wool is surprisingly simple. First, lanolin-infused wool is sheared from mature sheep and immediately undergoes an intense washing process. This vigorous washing scours the fleece in hot water with a detergent that separates the fatty components from the rest.

A farmer shears a sheep with electric clippers in a shed near Horsham, Victoria (Australia).

The resulting “crude lanolin” then undergoes further washes to increase its purity. The final product, crystallized lanolin, has gone through the same reaction that human skin goes through when it makes vitamin D from sunlight, and it becomes the base ingredient for vitamin D3 supplements.

Because sheep-based forms of vitamin D is cheap to produce and the easy for humans to absorb, the use of lanolin remains popular. However, vegetarians and vegans find it offensive and have long sought out plant-based alternatives. Now, there is a new way to make vitamin D that provides the same benefits through the power of plants.

Or rather, lichen.

Lichen: A Plant-Based Vitamin D Alternative

Lichen on rock

In many ways, lichen is the scrappy survivors of the plant world. As a moss-like organism that exists as a composite of fungus and algae, lichen can survive in a variety of climates, making it attractive as a lanolin alternative.

Most vitamin D derived from plants is vitamin D2 which is more difficult for human bodies to metabolize. However, lichen naturally contains vitamin D3, which is the same form found in lanolin. By accumulating vitamin D3 as it grows, lichen oil is a viable, cost-effective form of vitamin D3 that doesn’t involve animal cruelty. Unlike other forms of vitamin D3, lichen-based vitamin D is completely vegan.

Today, companies are researching ways to sustainably extract vitamin D3 from lichen. Because raw lichen quickly loses its vitamin content after harvesting, it’s usually processed right where it’s picked to ensure the oils have optimal vitamin D levels. After harvesting, lichen oil is refined and purified to remove traces of pathogens and improve its potency before being dosed into medical supplements.

Though lichen-sourced vitamin D tends to be more expensive than lanolin, the cost continues to come down as more research is conducted and better extraction methods are discovered. As time goes on, lichen may set the standard for high-quality vitamin D supplements and eventually supersede the prevalence of wool-based supplements on the market today.

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