You are a thorough consumer who wants to understand what you are buying, and more importantly, what you are putting into either your or your child’s body.  So when you look at the vitamin D label (and various other vitamins as well), you notice that the amount of vitamin D is given as “IU” and not mg or mcg like many of the other vitamins.  What does “IU” stand for and why is it used?

“IU” stands for International Unit. It is a unit of measure, but one that is very different than what we are accustomed to seeing on labels, such as the milligram (mg) or microgram (mcg).  The mg and mcg units depict an amount based on mass or volume, something that we can literally see or feel. However, the IU measurement describes something that we cannot see; the potency, or biological activity of a product. This is particularly helpful to pharmacologists when products have more than one form, such is the case with vitamin D. Vitamin D has two different forms that are found in supplements: vitamin D2, also known as ergocalciferol and vitamin D3, cholecalciferol. Each of these has a different biological activity or potency, so scientists need a reliable way to compare the potency of these two vitamins. Measuring vitamin D in IUs gives scientist a way to compare apples to apples.

The idea of using IUs to standardize the reporting of vitamin D potency was first established by the World Health Organization in 1931 using vitamin D2. Once vitamin D3 could be made by scientists, the IU recommendation was changed to be based off vitamin D3 in 1949. Today, many countries still use the IU to measure vitamin D; 1 IU of vitamin D is equivalent to 0.025 micrograms (abbreviated as either mcg or μg) of cholecalciferol or ergocalciferol.1 Conversely, 1 microgram of vitamin D equals 40 IU of vitamin D.

You can use the following to convert vitamin D:
From IU to mcg: IU/40 = mcg
For example: 400 IU/40 = 10 mcg
From mcg to IU: mcg * 40 =IU

A simpler approach is to use the following vitamin D conversion table:


Now that you know what IU means on a vitamin D label, you might be wondering how much you need! Check out all of our vitamin D health authority recommendation posts here.

Follow Ddrops on Twitter to keep up with breaking news on high quality vitamin D research! Looking for more of our Frequently Asked Questions?

Have you ever wondered what time of day you should take vitamin D? What about the amount of vitamin D in multivitamins? We’ve got answers to all your vitamin D questions here.

Natalie Bourré is a Ddrops Guest Blogger. She is a mom of 4 young children, health writer  and social media consultant who is passionate about promoting good health for the entire family. She is keen to share scientific information about about vitamin D in an easy to understand fashion. She also truly listens to people’s input and as such, she welcomes you to connect, discuss and share your questions and feedback with her on our social media accounts.  

Updates and edits by Carrie Noriega, MD, FACOG.

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  1. The World Health Organization’s Expert Committee on Biological Standardization , Report of the Subcommittee on the Fat Soluble Vitamins, Lonon, 26-29 April 1949. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/38884/1/WHO_TRS_3.pdf