Protecting Children's Skin During the School Day

Health Writer
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Children, especially in elementary school, can have significant sun exposure during the school day. During the summer months, parents often make sure their children use sunscreen, but that doesn’t always happen once children return to school. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "[u]nprotected skin can be damaged by the sun’s UV rays in as little as 15 minutes.”

That means your children are at risk during recess, gym class, standing and waiting for the bus, field trips, and after-school activities.

Many schools do not allow children to apply sunscreen or wear hats without written permission from a doctor. (The Skin Cancer Foundation provides a template to bring to your doctor.)

And if you do supply sunscreen, some schools insist that, because it is considered an over-the-counter medication, students go to the nurse’s office to apply it. Recess and other outdoor activities would be severely limited if all students needed to stand in line at the health office to retrieve and apply sunscreen.

What parents can do

As parents, you can’t follow your child around school to apply sunscreen. But there are some things you can do to help protect them from sun exposure during the school day.

  • Check your school district’s handbook for policies regarding sun protection. For example, is sunscreen considered medication or can children wear hats during recess and other outdoor time? What are the procedures for applying sunscreen during the day? Attend a school board meeting to address any concerns you may have or request changes in the school policy.

  • Educate children about sun exposure. Explain why sunscreen is important and how, even on cold or cloudy days, UV rays can still cause skin damage. Request that during recess they look for shady areas to play. Show them how to apply sunscreen. The more your children understand about sun exposure, the more apt they are to use sun protection strategies.

  • Apply sunscreen each morning before your child goes to school. Even though your child is probably heading out to school before sunscreen is needed and recess might not occur until additional sunscreen should be applied, you are setting a precedent and showing that this is important. Make sunscreen part of the morning routine.

  • Pay attention to outdoor areas at your child’s school. Ask where children go to recess and other school time activities. Are there shady areas?

  • Join the local parent organization and attend school board meetings to request changes. You might suggest adding awnings or shade sails to give children an area to play out of the sun.

  • Supply sun protection gear. Once you know the policies in your school district, be sure to supply your child with the needed supplies including sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, and protective lip balm.

  • Dress your child in lightweight, long-sleeved shirts and pants during warm weather. The general rule of thumb is that if you can see through the fabric, it doesn’t offer much protection from the sun.

  • Look for organizations in your locality that are willing to partner with schools for added sun safety. The CDC suggests having local businesses sponsor shady areas, such as having tree nurseries donate trees for outdoor play areas.

  • Volunteer to work with school safety committees to draw up new or revised sun safety programs in your school district.

  • Be a role model. If you actively practice sun safety on a daily basis, your child is more likely to see it as important.

What schools can do

The CDC offers guidance on policies and practices school districts can employ to increase sun safety awareness and promote active sun safety. Some of their ideas are:

  • Adopt and enforce sun safety policies, such as requiring teachers to wear hats and sunglasses during recess and encouraging students to do the same.

  • Provide an adequate amount of shade in outdoor play areas and require teachers and volunteers that manage after-school activities to promote sunscreen use. Trees, sun-protecting sails, shelters, awnings, and canopies can all be added to outdoor areas.

  • Rearrange daily schedules to minimize the time children spend in the direct sunlight; for example, having outdoor gym classes occur in the early morning.

  • Arrange and conduct sun-safety programs during teacher in-service days. Ask local dermatologists, public health officials and other community leaders to present a program educating teachers and school personnel.

  • Create a sun-safety committee. If your school district already has a safety committee, ask them to identify ways you can incorporate sun safety. If not, create a separate committee to address these issues.

  • Request that the school board insist that health and physical education teachers incorporate sun safety into their curriculum.

  • Ask parents to provide hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen for their children. These items can be added to the back-to-school checklists that are provided in the summer for parents with reminder notices throughout the year.

Sun protection matters. Skin cancer rates are increasing and everyone needs to do their part. Even one sunburn during childhood can increase a person’s chance of developing skin cancer later in life. Schools can be a big part of the solution.

See more helpful articles:

How to Protect Your Infant's Skin From the Sun

Why Do You Need Sunscreen on a Cloudy Day?

Sun Sensors to Keep You Safe in the Sun

Six Strategies for Summer Sun Safety

Choosing the Best Sunscreen