Why Can't Kids Use Sunscreen at School?

Despite evidence showing the importance of sunscreen, many schools don't allow kids to have it or apply it. . (Photo: TravnikovStudio/Shutterstock)

As parents, we're told time and time again about the importance of slathering sunscreen on our kids. New research shows that even one bad sunburn in childhood more than doubles a person’s chances of developing melanoma later in life, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Yet in many states, kids are prevented from reapplying sunscreen throughout the day in the one place where they spend the majority of their days — at school.

Sunburn danger is at its highest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. And do you know where most kids are at that time? At school, at least in the spring and fall. Yet in many states across the United States, kids are not allowed to bring sunscreen to school or to reapply it during the day.

Why would schools have such counterintuitive policies? It all boils down to the way sunscreen products are regulated. The Food and Drug Administration classifies sunscreens as over-the-counter medications. Most schools therefore use the same policies with sunscreen that they would with over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen or Benadryl. That means a kid must have a prescription and/or a doctor's note and it needs to be kept in the nurse's office. That doesn't exactly make it convenient for your second-grader to slather up before recess.

What schools say

School districts defend this policy by noting that there are many ingredients in sunscreen that could be potential allergens, and if students were to share sunscreen it could increase the risk for potentially dangerous reactions. (Also, check out the Environmental Working Group's guide to sunscreens to find products with fewer potential allergens.) The only hole in that logic is that kids can bring all kinds of things to school — lotion, perfume, hair spray, candy, etc.— that other kids are allergic to, so if schools are going to police allergens, they might not want to single out the one product that could protect children's health.

It's not just schools that treat sunscreen like medication. Some camps, scout groups, day care centers and after-school clubs have similar policies.

Thanks to parental pressure, many states are realizing that allowing kids to reapply their sunscreen throughout the day is a good idea. Arizona and Washington state recently joined Oregon, Utah, Texas and New York in enacting legislation that allows the use of sunscreen at school without a doctor's note. California was an early adopter of this policy, with legislation in place allowing sunscreen use at school as early as 2002.

The school year is almost over in many places, but it's never too late to understand your school's policies regarding sunscreen use on campus, especially if your child's summer activities will take place there.