Allowing Students to Access Sunscreen Without Restriction

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Legislatures reconsider whether students can access sunscreen in school without a doctor’s note.

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Each summer, parents slather sunscreen on their children to minimize sun damage. But during the school year, many children cannot use sunscreen without a doctor’s note. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers sunscreen an over-the-counter drug, which has led many schools in the past to limit student access to sunscreen. Today, legislatures across the nation are reconsidering this restriction.

Responding to data showing that one person dies of melanoma every hour in the United States, legislatures in Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, New York, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington have passed laws permitting students to use sunscreen in school without a doctor’s permission. The Washington, D.C. city council was the latest legislative body to join the movement as Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced a bill in January that would permit students and trained employees to apply sunscreen without a doctor’s permission.

Supporters of these new sunscreen laws claim that “common sense” necessitates exempting sunscreen from school medication rules. Education Week correspondent Lisa Stark argues that schools are obligated to allow students to access sunscreen without reservation—after all, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, a person who sustains sunburns in childhood more than doubles the likelihood of later developing skin cancer. Sunscreen reduces this risk, the foundation says. Even though FDA treats sunscreen as a drug, it nevertheless recommends the use of sunscreen for children over the age of six months.

Yet, opponents of the legislation say the solution to students’ risk of sun damage does not require new regulations. These critics claim that parents can ensure their children apply sunscreen before the school day begins. Moreover, parents could just provide a doctor’s note like they do for other medication like ibuprofen.

But supporters of sunscreen legislation claim that the doctor’s note requirement exceeds the government’s appropriate role. “It’s a bit of an onerous procedure for something as common as sunscreen,” Cheh says.

Moreover, Mississippi State Senator Terry Burton (R) argues that parents, not schools, are in the best position to make these kind of medical judgments. The school, Burton says, should not impede this decision. No longer will schools undermine parents’ message to their children about the importance of applying sunscreen, Burton and other legislators argue.

And even if parents applied sunscreen before the school day begins, as opponents to the new legislation suggest, sunscreen needs to be reapplied every two hours, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Yet, critics of sunscreen legislation argue that other considerations still warrant restrictions on children’s use of the product. The Rhode Island Certified Nurse Teachers Association reports that the limitation protects children who may be allergic to sunscreen. According to some doctors, ingredients in sunscreen can cause allergies. Critics of sunscreen legislation also contend that without a ban, children may improperly use the sunscreen. With free access to sunscreen, children may even eat the product, critics say. After all, lately some teenagers have been intentionally ingesting laundry detergent pods.

But supporters of sunscreen legislation argue that opponents inflate fears about allergies and misuse. Pennsylvania Academy of Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery political advocacy chair Bruce Brod claims that serious allergies to sunscreen are uncommon. Also, even if children were likely to eat sunscreen, the risks of sun exposure without adequate protection exceed the risks of ingesting the product. To these supporters, the harmful effects of sun exposure outweigh critics’ concerns about allergies and misuse.

Still, critics argue that legislation permitting children’s access to sunscreen in schools should be blocked for other reasons. Some fear that such legislation may expose schools to liability. Louisiana State Representative Patricia Smith (D) claims that schools may be liable if children allege a staff member inappropriately touched them while applying the sunscreen. Many camps prohibit staff from applying sunscreen on children because of possible liability arising from allegations of sexual abuse. And even if a staff member appropriately applies sunscreen, parents may seek to hold the school liable if the child experienced sunburn anyway.

But supporters of sunscreen laws say legislators can construct the laws to remove liability, providing immunity for the schools and staff members. Some sunscreen laws allow school staff volunteers to help children apply sunscreen, but only with parental consent. For proponents of sunscreen legislation, the importance of preventing long-term consequences of childhood sun exposure outweighs the risk a school may be burned by litigation.