Why more states are getting serious about sunscreen

WASHINGTON | Rep. Craig Hall, R-Utah, has four redheaded school-age children, lives in the state with the highest rate of melanoma in the country and buys sunscreen “in the Costco size.” He is an unabashed proponent of sun protection.


But when Hall introduced legislation this year to allow kids to bring sunscreen to school, he said his fellow state lawmakers were a little less enthusiastic. “My colleagues’ first reaction to this bill was mostly, ‘Seriously? We need a bill for this?’”

Like ibuprofen or hay fever medication, sunscreen is considered an over-the-counter drug by the Food and Drug Administration, and therefore by almost all schools. That means kids can’t bring it to school without a doctor’s note and even then must see the school nurse in order to use it.

The result: Teachers leading a sunny field trip are free to cover themselves in a thick protective layer of sunscreen. But in most states, children can’t follow suit. In Indianapolis, for instance, kids go back to school July 31 — the height of summer — but they must have a doctor’s note to bring sunscreen to school and visit the school nurse to put it on.

That is beginning to change. In the past four months, Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Utah and Washington have enacted laws declaring students may use sunscreen in school and at after-school activities, no doctor’s note required. Those states join California, New York, Oregon and Texas, which already have lifted the ban on sunscreen in school. The laws in Arizona, New York and Washington also stipulate kids may bring and use sunscreen at summer camps.

The legislation is designed to allow school districts to implement “sun safety” policies that encourage kids to use sunscreen, and wear hats and long sleeves in the sun — though in a nod to school dress codes, the legislation allows schools to ban clothes and hats deemed inappropriate.

Sunscreen legislation is also in the works in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. A sunscreen bill that cleared the Senate in Mississippi died in a House committee, and a bill introduced in Georgia has stalled.

“Parents, I think, are the best decision-makers on” their children’s sunscreen use, said Sen. Terry Burton, R-Miss., a co-sponsor of the Mississippi bill. It would have required the state Education Department to write a sun safety policy for districts to follow. “The school should not interfere with a decision that a parent makes to protect their child.”

Legislators say they are motivated by angry parents whose children suffered serious sunburns at school events where sunscreen was banned. “If you just Google ‘kid sunburned at school,’” Hall said, “some of the stories are horrifying.”

Rep. David Bennett, D-R.I., ran into opposition from the state association of school nurses, which opposes the bill. Unlike other state sunscreen laws, Rhode Island’s legislation has no language to address liability for school employees who may apply sunscreen and for school districts. The school nurses group also believes sunscreen should be kept out of classrooms because of potential allergies among students.

Diane Kowal, president of the Rhode Island Certified School Nurse Teachers Association, said two children in her Coventry school district carry EpiPens because of sunscreen allergies. Parents could be sending their kids to school with sunscreen and a doctor’s note, which would allow her to dispense the sunscreen, she said — but they don’t.

While she receives doctor’s notes from parents to administer ibuprofen and even cough drops, she has not received any to permit sunscreen use, even at annual school field days when she alerts parents to be sure kids are protected from the sun. “They all show up with the hats and water bottles,” but no sunscreen, Kowal said.

“We’re not against sunscreen,” Kowal said. “There just needs to be language to protect everyone, from the person putting it on to the kids sharing it.”

Bruce Brod, political advocacy chair for the Pennsylvania Academy of Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery, said a serious allergy risk is unlikely. “A kid might be allergic to hair gel. The question is where do you draw the reasonable line?”

Beyond media coverage of kids with lobster-red sunburns, the legislation has been driven by an advocacy campaign from a coalition of medical groups including the American Academy of Dermatology Association and the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery Association, whose members decided in March to push for sunscreen legislation. The dermatologic surgery group wrote model legislation and earmarked $30,000 in grants for state dermatology organizations to lobby for the bill. The dermatology association also provided advocacy grants to state groups.

The quick results — four state laws in three months — are because “it’s an issue that doesn’t seem to be politically divisive at all,” said Terry Cronin, a Melbourne, Florida, dermatologist and head of the advocacy working group for the dermatologic surgery society. “Everybody sees that kids need to be protected from skin cancer and they should be protected with sunscreen.”

The medical groups say they are hopeful Illinois and Ohio will take up sunscreen legislation next.

California was the leader in sunscreen legislation: The state enacted a law in 2002 allowing sunscreen to be used in schools without a doctor’s note, and requiring schools to let students wear hats and protective clothing when outdoors.