In late June, two elementary school sisters in Tacoma (Wash.) Public Schools came home from a field day sunburned so badly that their mother rushed them to the hospital. Aside from being fair skinned, one girl, Zoe, has albinism, making her particularly sensitive to the sun. Because it was raining that morning, Zoe’s mother hadn’t put sunscreen on her daughter. Tacoma school officials said that sunscreen is monitored by the FDA as an over-the-counter drug and isn’t allowed in schools without a doctor’s note. The only exception is California.
“Because so many additives in lotions and sunscreens cause allergic reaction in children, you have to really monitor that,” said Dan Voelpel, Tacoma school district spokesman, in a statement.
“If you don’t carve out sunscreen as an exemption to over-the-counter medicine, you can’t really talk to students about promoting sun protection awareness,” says Dr. Jeff Ashley, an ally of the Skin Cancer Foundation and president of Sun Safety for Kids, a nonprofit promoting skin cancer awareness and prevention. Ashley has been working hard to get districts nationwide to change policies, including lifting bans on sunscreen and hats that can shade the sun,
in an effort to teach young students about the dangers of sun exposure and skin cancer.
Skin cancer is caused by an accumulation of sun damage. Children are more vulnerable than adults to such damage, and exposure in the early years dramatically increases the risk of developing cancer later in life.
While policies may not change overnight, the Skin Cancer Foundation has developed a new initiative, Sun Smart U, to teach middle school students about the danger and about preventative measures they can take. The program includes free downloads and lesson plans for teachers of grades 6-8, a video of a young woman’s struggle with melanoma, a true or false activity to gauge students’ existing knowledge of skin cancer, a segment explaining smart steps to take, and a quiz to help students identify their skin type and inherent susceptibility to sun damage. To download, visit www.skincancer.org/education.