Alison Simon lives in California, a state, by everyone’s assessment, gets a lot of sun. But when it comes to the issue of sun protection at her daughter’s preschool, it’s not so cut and dry.
“My understanding is that it is considered a non-prescription medication, so a consent form is required in order for teachers to apply it. It’s a licensing requirement,” Simon says. “I believe they request sunscreen be supplied by each family and labeled to counter against any possible skin reactions. So if the kid breaks out in hives, they can say, ‘we only put on what you gave us to put on.’”
Emily Sacks is in a similar situation. She lives in the equally sunny state of Florida and says that, for her two boys, it’s a liability issue that has to do with the teachers and counselors being liable for poor application. “It’s a bit different at camps because of the activities; students can bring sunscreen, but counselors still can’t apply it.”
“Personally, I’d rather have some 14-year-old counselor reapply for my 5-year-old than he attempt to do it himself and get burned,” she says.
Like a lot of parents, both mothers see the “must” in applying (and reapplying) sunscreen, but the benefit of it being used in schools is still a point of major contention—as most states have actually banned it, which leaves a lot of parents in a “scary position,” Greenwich, CT, dermatologist Kim Nichols, MD, says. “There have been recent cases of children who have been severely sunburned at school because they were not allowed to wear sunscreen.”
As Norwalk, CT, dermatologist Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD, explains, schools consider sunscreen to be comparable to an over-the-counter medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, and will not allow students to use it without a doctor’s note. Plus, as Dr. Nichols points out, schools often ban sunscreens “due to risks to additives in sunscreens that may cause allergic reactions.”
What’s more, there may be stipulations about not allowing someone else to help apply sunscreen on your child, Dr. Mraz Robinson says. “But there are states that are recognizing the need to change these rules given the known dangers of the sun. Arizona has a bill in its house that would allow students to use sunscreen without a doctor’s note while on school property or at a school-sponsored event. The bill also would allow school boards and camps to pass policies allowing employees and volunteers to help students apply sunscreen with parental consent. California, Oregon and Texas already have passed laws to allow sunscreen at school.”
If you do the math, while it’s a tiny win, it’s not the majority, and that’s what has a lot of derms concerned.
“It’s really disappointing that sunscreen has been banned from schools across the country. Unprotected sun exposure is dangerous, and some studies would say that up to 90 percent of your total lifetime sun exposure occurs before the age of 19! Clearly, this is an important time to practice safe sun,” says Omaha, NE, dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, MD.
“Any more than two blistering sunburns can actually increase a person’s melanoma risk by as much as 10 times later in life. Sunscreen can easily prevent sunburn, skin cancer and other harmful sun damage. But one application before school isn’t enough to protect your child’s skin all day, especially if they go outside at recess. For optimal protection, sunscreen should be applied at least 15 minutes prior to sun exposure and reapplied every two hours,” he adds.
Dr. Mraz Robinson recommends that if you don’t live in one of the states where it’s OK to bring sunscreen to school, to send sunscreen with the appropriate documentation for application and use from your physician—something she knows first-hand from personal experience. “I send my children with a sun shirt with SPF 50 and a sunhat to wear during recess/time outside. These physical means from protecting them from the sun can be very beneficial. I also send types of sunscreen that my children can easily apply. For example, I love mineral powder with SPF such as Colorescience brush-on sunscreen. My children can easily apply it and it is a great broad-spectrum SPF 50.”
“The best thing you can do as a parent is educate yourself about the sunscreen laws,” Dr. Schlessinger says. “Find out what your local laws are and how sunscreen is regulated at your child’s school. Call your child’s school and ask questions. If a doctor’s note is provided, will your child be allowed to keep the sunscreen in his or her backpack or will it need to be kept in the nurse’s office? Who is allowed to apply the sunscreen to your child, especially when he or she cannot easily reach all areas of exposed skin?”
Dr. Nichols’ advice is similar, as she says she recommends a physical sunscreen (i.e. something made with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide) with SPF 30 or more to be applied on children before they leave for school. “And then they should provide hats and other protective clothing to their kids that they can put on before they go outside to play at school.”
On the bright side, she notes, it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to sun protection in this country. “I’ve heard of dermatology associations, such as the American Academy of Dermatology, offering grants to help schools build a sun-safety curriculum and provide funding to schools to install permanent shade structures for outdoor school locations. More than 320 schools across the nation have since installed a permanent shade structure across the United States!”