How unsupervised sunscreen use is gaining approval in K-12 districts

A movement to allow students to carry and apply sunscreen in school without written approval is growing, boosted by concerns about skin cancer risks
By: | Issue: July/August, 2019
July 9, 2019
Getty Images

A movement to allow students to carry and apply sunscreen in school without written approval from parents or doctors is growing, pushed by concerns about the risks of sun-related skin cancer.

This year, Illinois, Arkansas, Maine, Nevada, Minnesota and Connecticut joined 18 other states in enacting legislation based on the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery’s (ASDS) SUNucate model bill, which removes barriers that prevent students from possessing and applying over-the-counter sunscreen at school or during school-related activities.

“Skin cancer risks in kids are real, and allowing proper sun protection during outdoor time at school is important,” says Kristin Hellquist, director of advocacy and practice affairs for ASDS. “Kids spend more time at school in daylight than at home.”

Empowering students

Sun exposure is the leading cause of melanoma skin cancer, and pediatric melanoma cases have increased by 2% each year between 1973 and 2009, according to research published in the journal Pediatric Nursing. Approximately 25% of ultraviolet light exposure occurs during childhood and adolescence, the research found.

However, sunscreen is regulated and classified as an over-the-counter drug by the Food and Drug Administration. Depending upon the state or district policy, students may or may not be allowed to carry over-the-counter medicine at school, says Laurie Combe, president-elect of the National Association of School Nurses.

School nursing practices vary from state to state as to whether these professionals can administer such medications. Rules may also depend on a student’s grade level, Combe adds.

“It’s important that barriers are removed,” Combe says. “School nurses are heavily invested in prevention, and skin cancer is not an exception to that.”

The SUNucate model bill allows students to possess and use a topical sunscreen while on school property or at school-sponsored events or activities without a physician’s note or prescription. The model bill also contains a provision calling for schools to allow the use of sun protective clothing, such as hats, while outdoors.

Protecting students from skin cancer

District leaders in states that prohibit students from carrying sunscreen can advocate at the local and state levels for policies that support sun protection, Hellquist says.

“School policy should always protect kids,” Hellquist says. “Getting burned by the sun at recess, at field day or at a sporting event can have lasting negative consequences.”

“We have within our power in schools to lower exposure to UV rays and prevent melanoma if we use multiple interventions to protect students,” says Combe.


Tips to reduce student exposure to UV rays

Student leaders concerned about students’ sun exposure can follow these tips from the National Association of School Nurses

• Allow and encourage students to wear sunglasses, hats and protective clothing.

Avoid students’ outdoor play during peak sun intensity hours.

• Allow students to play in shade-protected areas.

• Encourage students not to suntan or use tanning beds.