A doctor's note for sunscreen at school? Why that's a mistake

UCLA Health article
An estimated 80% of a person's exposure to ultraviolet radiation — most of it from sunlight — occurs before the age of 18. Sunscreen is one of our primary defense mechanisms against ultraviolet radiation, but schools across the United States face a challenge because the Food and Drug Administration classifies sunscreen as an over-the-counter drug.

Due to that regulation, many schools require children to bring a doctor’s note in order to apply sunscreen at school. What's more: in many cases, a school nurse must supervise its application.

While getting kids to care about sun protection is typically a challenge for parents, requiring them to bring in a note — and then see the nurse — creates an even bigger hurdle.

Dr. Marcia Hogeling, director of pediatric dermatology at UCLA Health. (Photo credit: UCLA Health)

That's why Dr. Marcia Hogeling, director of pediatric dermatology at UCLA Health, believes sunscreen shouldn't be treated the same as prescription drugs that must be dispensed by a nurse.

"As physicians, we always consider risks and benefits to our patients," Hogeling says. "The risk of developing skin cancer outweighs the risk of an adverse event from sunscreens."

The harms of sun damage are indisputable. Sun exposure increases a person's risk for skin cancer, a disease that one in five Americans develops. Among females 15 to 29 years old, melanoma is the second-most common type of cancer.

To encourage the use of sunscreen for skin protection, at least 10 states — California included — already have lifted restrictions on sunscreen in school. Removing such restrictions is a great first step, Hogeling says, but schools could also be more proactive approach by encouraging sunscreen use.

"If funding allows, large pump bottles of sunscreen could be placed in school classrooms and gyms to prompt kids to apply their sunscreen prior to going outside," Hogeling says.

Because sunscreen is only one method of skin protection, schools may take other safety measures, too.

"Schools should encourage sunscreen use in addition to other sun safety strategies, such as wearing hats, long clothing and sun avoidance,” s Hogeling says. “They can also build shade structures over playground equipment to shield children from the sun."

While there have been some concerns of sunscreen allergy, Hogeling says that severe allergies to sunscreen are extremely rare, especially to zinc-based mineral sunscreens that are safe for children with sensitive skin.

"Most of the allergies to sunscreen that we see are contact dermatitis, which presents as an itchy rash. It would be an annoying side effect but not dangerous," she says.

For the vast majority of people, who aren't allergic to sunscreen lotions, Hogeling encourages the use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more. With back-to-school season here, it's a good idea to put sunscreen at the top your child's school supply lists.