Allowing Students to Access Sunscreen Without Restriction

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.