When parents send children to school or camp, they may worry about many things, from bullies to bus accidents. But unauthorized sunscreen use?
It turns out that many schools and camps do that worrying for parents, with policies that ban kids from carrying sunscreen without a doctor's note and warn staffers not to dispense it. Such policies are getting new scrutiny this week, thanks to Jesse Michener, a mother in Tacoma, Wash., who was horrified to see two of her daughters, ages 11 and 9, return from a school field day with severe sunburns.
The girls have extremely fair skin, and none of the adults at the event offered them sunscreen - or shade, for that matter - as a rainy day turned sunny, Michener, 37, wrote in a post in her blog, Life.Photographed, that got nationwide attention. More than a week later, their skin still is peeling and red, Michener told USA TODAY Wednesday: "It's appalling."
Michener says school officials have promised her the sunscreen policy will be changed by fall, thanks to a change in state law that gives schools new leeway on handling over-the-counter drugs. Shannon McMinimee, a lawyer for Tacoma Public Schools, said in an e-mail that the school board was expected to review the policy but would need to seek guidance from state officials and health experts first.
But sunscreen rules are common. They typically stem from state and local policies that stop kids from bringing any drug - including non-prescription drugs - to school, says Jeff Ashley, a California dermatologist who leads an advocacy group called Sun Safety for Kids.
Sunscreens are regulated as over-the-counter drugs, so many districts treat them like aspirin, just to be safe, he says.
Ashley helped get California to pass laws that say kids have a right to bring sunscreen, hats and other sun gear to school. That was nearly a decade ago, but as far as he knows, no other state has done the same.
So there's a mish-mash of policies. Often, "sunscreen application at school seems to be an issue that each individual school district rules on," says Jennifer Allyn of the American Academy of Dermatology. "Some treat sunscreen as they would any other fragrance-type product, and forbid their use to avoid allergic reactions. Others require a doctor's note, and others treat sunscreen like something as basic as Chapstick. The academy endorses sunscreen use but has no policy on how schools should handle it."
But Ashley says allergy concerns are overblown: "Sunscreen allergies are no more common than allergies to soap. Are schools going to take soap out of their bathrooms?"
Another common concern: Adults will get in trouble for inappropriately touching kids if they help apply sunscreen. That was the question in Maryland last summer when the state enforced, then repealed, a rule forbidding camp staffers or even other kids from slathering lotion on campers. Now it's OK, as long as parents say it is.
Michener says her daughters also were forbidden to bring hats to school. That's another common policy, Ashley says. "Schools will tell you hats can be signs of gang affiliation." Some schools dodge that danger, he says, by selling or supplying identical sun-safety hats.
Parents who find their school or camp lacks a sensible sun-safety policy can form committees to change the policies, he says. Tips on how to do that and what to include are at sunsafetyforkids.org.
Michener has joined another group, Project Backback. It also advocates for sun safety at schools and is affiliated with a sunscreen maker.