Sun Safety in Schools

Skin cancer is the most common – and most preventable – type of cancer diagnosed in the United States. On July 29, 2014, the acting Surgeon General issued a Call to Action that named skin cancer a major public health concern requiring immediate attention. The Call to Action noted that many patients are unaware of the risks associated with exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays and that increased education and counseling is warranted.

The Surgeon General named 5 goals for a program aimed at preventing skin cancer: increase sun protection opportunities in outdoor settings, provide information to individuals regarding sun safety, promote policies that prevent skin cancer, reduce harms associated with indoor tanning, and strengthen research related to skin cancer. These goals can only be accomplished with a comprehensive, unified effort from governments, communities, and families. The American Academy of Dermatology and the American Academy of Pediatrics support the Call to Action and have been offering the same advice to patients for years. They note that any damage to skin – even a tanned appearance – increases the risk of skin cancer later in life.

In the last 30 years, more Americans have had skin cancer than all other types of cancer combined and more than 5 million people receive treatment for skin cancer every year. The good news, though, is that skin cancer is nearly entirely preventable with relatively easy steps. Avoiding UV exposure, covering skin with clothing or hats, and applying sunscreen every time a person is outside will dramatically decrease the incidence of skin cancer.

The bad news is that the most vulnerable population – children – is not being protected as well as it should be. Only a few states have instituted sun safety and skin cancer prevention in the health education curriculum and only 2 states allow students to apply sunscreen during the school day without a physician’s note. A vast majority of school policies do not allow sunscreen to be applied or re-applied during the day, which places children at risk of skin damage during outdoor activities.

Recently, the media have reported many stories of children who have been sunburned at school, many owing to policies that prevented children from taking appropriate sun protection measures during school-sponsored activities. If the public is ready to heed the warnings of the surgeon general, then public schools need to update policies and practices to keep children safe. Today, schools pay attention to (and control) kids’ food choices, body composition, and vaccine status in an effort to promote and maintain the health of students, but simple sun safety practices are often ignored.

As a health care professional and as a parent, I know first-hand the dangers of too much sun exposure. For the most part, I believe that schools go to great lengths to effectively protect students and maintain a safe and healthy environment.  And, I know that many schools have problems to worry about that vastly outweigh the sunscreen demands of helicopter parents. But, if we ever expect to reverse the tide of ever-increasing rates of potentially deadly skin cancer, schools and families must work together for a sensible and practical approach to sun safety.


American Academy of Dermatology. Sunscreen FAQs. 2014. Accessed 7 August 2014.

American Academy of Pediatrics. Sun and Water Safety Tips. 2013. Accessed 7 August 2014.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How Can I Protect My Children from the Sun? 2014. Access 7 August 2014.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer. 2014. Accessed 7 August 2014.

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