Sun-protective Hats and Clothing

Heads up!

Don’t count on sunscreen to provide complete protection from the sun.  Wearing a sun-protective hat is a simple and effective strategy for reducing ultraviolet radiation to the face, head and neck.  If children could become accustomed to wearing a hat when outdoors at school it should increase the likelihood that they will routinely wear one for non-school outdoor activities as well.  But, the fear of ridicule from one’s peers can certainly be a strong deterrent.  Without a school policy to encourage, require, or reward, students for wearing a sun-protective hat, it is somewhat unlikely that children will allow themselves to benefit from using this practical and inexpensive cancer-prevention device.

History of Hats in Schools

Most schools have, or had, a policy to prohibit children from wearing a hat at school.  Concerns about hats being used as a sign of gang identification are most frequently cited as the reason behind such policy.  After learning that some California schools would not even allow a hat to be worn by a child with a strong genetic susceptibility to skin cancer and a doctor’s note, Mrs. Karen Graham took action.  Following the death of her son at an early age from melanoma, Mrs. Graham initiated legislation that resulted in an amendment to the California Education Code as follows:

35183.5. (a) (1) Each schoolsite shall allow for outdoor use during the schoolday, articles of sun-protective clothing, including, but not limited to, hats. (2) Each schoolsite may set a policy related to the type of sun-protective clothing, including, but not limited to, hats, that pupils will be allowed to use outdoors pursuant to paragraph (1).  Specific clothing and hats determined by the school district or schoolsite to be gang-related or inappropriate apparel may be prohibited by the dress code policy.

Communication gap

Many California parents and students remain unaware that children now have the right to wear a hat outdoors at school.  Although some schools and districts have amended their policy or dress code to remove the prohibition against hats, few have taken the important additional step of encouraging sun-protective hats and clothing.  In effect, there is room for improvement in most schools.

Promoting hats and long clothing

By implementing policies and incentives aimed at encouraging the use of sun-protective hats and clothing, schools have the no-cost opportunity to reduce the risk of skin cancer among the students and staff.

Many schools already sell articles of attire, such as T-shirts.  Why not encourage sun safety by adding sun-protective items?  A hat sporting the school name or mascot could not only promote school pride but also bring in additional revenue.

What type of hat shall be allowed?

While California law gives students the right to wear a hat outdoors at school, schools retain the discretion to determine the type of hat.  Whatever policy the school adopts, the goal should be the wearing of a hat by most or all students and personnel.

Policy Options:

  • Students may procure/wear any hat or visor that provides reasonable sun protection.
  • Hats meeting certain design criteria (as defined by the school or district) are allowed.
  • Certain types of hat (definition supplied) are not allowed.
  • Only specific hat(s), that the school or district provides for sale or to be ordered, are allowed.

Primary School

Young children will likely wear whatever hat is recommended.  Primary schools could provide a helpful service by educating parents about the features to look for in a sun-protective hat and/or offering proper hats for sale or to be ordered.  Policy might be implemented to more strongly encourage, or possibly require, hat-wearing for outdoor activities at this level.  As these children proceed into secondary school, they might be less likely to object to hats.

Secondary School

Teenagers are notoriously fashion conscious.  For any success with a campaign to encourage hat-wearing in secondary school it might be necessary to allow students considerable flexibility in their choice of a hat.  Although baseball caps are not ideal, one school of thought among sun safety advocates is that “Any hat is better than no hat.”  For students who object to a hat that disturbs their coiffure, a large clip-on visor could be a satisfactory compromise.

Most school or physical education uniforms are not particularly stylish but they are worn because it’s the rule.  If only one or a limited number of hats is allowed (equalizing the fashion disadvantage to every student), and if effective incentives are provided for wearing the hat, reasonable success might be achievable.  However, there is a significant risk of total failure with this approach.

The chance of success might be improved if students are invited to participate in determining what type of hat(s), or what specific hat(s), will or will not be allowed.  Securing the cooperation of school leaders, trend-setters, and teachers in wearing and promoting the hats might help to establish their acceptability.  It may also be advisable to develop a strategy for discouraging and punishing harassment of a child who does wear a hat or long clothing.


California has granted its school children the right to wear long clothing for outdoor activities while at school.  Schools can now help to prevent skin cancer by promoting long clothing.

Primary School

Parents of young children should be asked to provide a long sleeved garment for their child to bring to school and slip on (unless already wearing long sleeves) before outdoor activities.  This could be called a “playshirt.”  To prevent overheating on a warm day, it should be lightweight and loose fitting.

Schools may re-think their dress policy about shorts in light of the increased exposure to UV radiation that they permit.  It might be a hard sell to students and parents alike, but loose fitting, lightweight long pants or dresses can be just as cool and comfortable during warm weather.

Secondary School

The traditional physical education uniform consists of a T-shirt and short shorts.  To promote sun safety, schools could re-configure the P.E. uniform to incorporate longer sleeves and shorts, and a sun-protective hat, for the benefit of all students.  Rather than merely recommending sweatshirts and sweatpants, choose cover-up clothing that is lightweight and loose fitting to prevent overheating.


With numerous research studies clearly linking childhood sun damage to the later development of skin cancer, a passive allowance of hats and long clothing is not sufficient.  With virtually no impact on the budget, schools can actively encourage sun-safe behavior so that fewer of today’s children will have to face the morbidity or mortality of melanoma as adults.




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