OLYMPIA — Washington state lawmakers are pushing forward with a proposal that allows students to use sunscreen at school without a note from a doctor and parent, a rule that six other states also are considering to help protect children from developing skin cancer.
The law is in place for Washington students from kindergarten to 12th grade because the Food and Drug Administration lists sunscreen as a drug product. School employees also are banned from applying it on a student.
Senate Bill 5404 would exempt sunblock from being classified as a medication so children could use it on campus, at school-sponsored events or during field trips. The House passed the measure last week, and it now heads back to the Senate for agreement on changes that were made.
Republican Sen. Ann Rivers of La Center, Clark County, sponsor of the legislation, said her colleagues and constituents shared stories of some kids coming back from field trips “burnt like a French fry.”
“Every now and then, we come across a bill where we end up asking ourselves, ‘Really, do we really need a bill for this?’ It’s just kind of a no-brainer,” Rivers said.
When asked about the legislation, Mona Johnson, director of student support for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said sunscreen had not been a significant issue until River’s bill emerged.
“This issue was a surprise to us,” Johnson said. “It’s not something we’ve had lots of people be concerned about or lots of educators be concerned about it.”
She said the superintendent’s office supports the legislation as long as school administrators and nurses do, too.
At least four states have laws requiring schools to allow students to use sunscreen, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). They are California, New York, Utah and Oregon.
Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are considering similar legislation. A bill introduced in Congress last year to allow sunscreen in schools didn’t go anywhere, the NCSL said.
Betsy Janes of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network said some states do not have sun-protection laws because it might not be a problem there or it hasn’t become one yet.
But there’s a common misconception that people are less likely to get skin cancer in cloudier states, such as Washington, Janes said. Some of the highest rates of melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — occur in the cloudiest states, including Washington and Oregon, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Skin cancer is progressive and starts when a person is young and is more at risk of sun exposure, Janes said.
Dr. Henry Lim, president of the American Academy of Dermatology, said the risk of developing melanoma in adulthood is strongly related to a history of sunburns as a child and teen.
“Children’s skin is much thinner, so the ability for the sun to penetrate the skin is significantly higher as compared to adults,” he said. “Having availability for kids to be able to use sunscreen saves them from a lot of sun damage and saves them from the development of skin cancer.”
Lim said he has never had a parent come to him for a prescription so their child could use sunscreen at school.
“I don’t see any reason why sunscreen cannot be used by children if the parents give it to them to apply it,” he said.