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States Reconsider Sunscreen as Banned Drug in Schools

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By guest blogger Lisa Stark

Head to a park or a pool and you'll see it—parents lathering their kids with sunscreen. And for good reason. Childhood skin is very vulnerable to sun damage. "Sunburns in childhood play a big role in the risk of skin cancer later in life," according to Dr. Jeff Ashley, a California dermatologist and the founder of sunsafetyforkids.org.

So it may seen surprising that in most states children aren't allowed to bring sunscreen to school—at least not without a doctor's note. That's because the Food and Drug Administration considers sunscreen an over-the-counter drug, and most schools have a zero-tolerance policy for drugs. Generally, students can't possess sunscreen and school employees can't offer it to their students. Ashley has a simple word for that policy: "Silly."

UPDATE:  Governor Inslee signed the sunscreen bill on May 4th. 

This may soon change in Washington state, where a bill passed by the legislature and now sitting on Gov. Jay Inslee's desk would allow "students, parents, and school personnel to possess and apply sunscreen products" on school property, on a field trip, or a school summer camp. No prescription required. The only rule is the parent or guardian must supply the sunscreen. Republican state Senator Ann Rivers sponsored the legislation. She told Education Week, "I want both students and school districts to have protection, students from the sun, and school districts from the idea that sunscreen [is] a dangerous pharmaceutical that needs to be overseen by nurses and others." 

At least five states, California, New York, Oregon, Texas, and Utah, allow sunscreen use by students at school, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Besides Washington, this year six other states—Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island—are considering similar legislation.

Ashley helped champion California's law, which was enacted more than a decade ago. "Children get a significant amount of sun exposure during outdoor school activities," he said. He discovered that passing a law is only the first step. His group is still working to make sure California school districts change their written policies and he'd like school nurses to promote the use of sunscreen. "I deal with skin cancer every day," said Ashley, "and there's hardly a skin cancer patient that doesn't mention that when they were young no one warned them to stay out of the sun." 


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