To complement more reliable methods of reducing skin exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation (such as sun avoidance, clothing, and hats) sunscreen can be very useful.  However, limitations to the effectiveness of sunscreen include the following common user errors:

  • Failure to apply enough
  • Uneven application / missed spots
  • Failure to re-apply

Because some amount of UV radiation might pass by the sunscreen, unintentional sunburn can occur.  Think of these products as a back-up to other, more effective, sun safety strategies.


The sun emits a broad spectrum of radiation that includes harmless visible light as well as ultraviolet radiation.  The bands of wavelengths that damage human skin are categorized as UVA and UVB.  UVB rays are the main cause of the skin turning red, or exhibiting a sunburn.  They can fracture the DNA in skin cells, resulting in mutations.  UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and are the main cause of wrinkling, and discoloration.  They cause the formation of damaging atoms called free radicals, and can inhibit the immune system from doing its job to prevent cancer.  It is important to protect the skin from both UVA and UVB.

Broad Spectrum Sunscreen

If, and only if a sunscreen effectively filters out UVA rays as well as UVB rays (which is highly desirable) it may be labeled "Broad Spectrum."  When shopping for sunscreen, always look for a product labeled "Broad Spectrum SPF" rather than simply "SPF."  Certain antioxidants can augment the broad spectrum protection.  Look for a mention of antioxidants on the product label but unfortunately there is not yet any rating system to help you compare antioxidant effectiveness between products.


Probably the greatest drawback with sunscreen is that most people do not apply a sufficient dose.  The SPF number is determined by the manufacturer using a “standard” application amount (required by the FDA) of 2 milligrams of product per square centimeter of skin.  For the average adult in a bathing suit this would be a little more than one ounce, or approximately a shot glass full.  (That’s one quarter of the typical 4 oz. sunscreen bottle.)  When a person applies less than the “standard” amount, only a fraction of the labeled SPF will be achieved.  Studies have shown that the average person applies less than half the “standard” amount of sunscreen, which results in an SPF of only about one third of that labeled on the bottle.  Spray on sunscreens are particularly subject to underdosing.  By contrast, if more than the “standard” amount is applied, the SPF achieved will exceed that labeled on the bottle.

UV causes some sunscreen ingredients to gradually deteriorate on the skin’s surface in response to sun exposure.  Sunscreen can also dissipate due to sweating, rubbing, and penetration into the skin.  To maintain maximum effect, sunscreen should be re-applied every two hours.  A single application before coming to school cannot be expected to adequately protect a child for afternoon physical education.

These products must be applied liberally and, as with paint, two coats are better than one.  Thus, Sun Safety for Kids coined the phrase:  “Put on a lot. And don’t miss a spot!”

A History of Prohibition

Because sunscreens are regulated by the FDA as over the counter drugs, many California schools either refrained from encouraging their use or prohibited them under a “zero tolerance for drugs” policy.  To overcome this hurdle, in 2002 the California state government amended the Education Code as follows:

Section 35183.5 (b)
(1) Each schoolsite shall allow pupils the use of sunscreen
during the schoolday without a physician's note or prescription.
(2) Each schoolsite may set a policy related to the use of
sunscreen by pupils during the schoolday.
(3) For purposes of this subdivision, sunscreen is not an
over-the-counter medication.
(4) Nothing in this subdivision requires school personnel to
assist pupils in applying sunscreen.

Using sunscreen at school

Schools should actively encourage sunscreen use as a supplement to other sun safety strategies such as hats, long clothing, sun avoidance, etc.

Parents should be asked to ensure that their child has a sufficient supply for use at school. Reminders from the teacher, as well as announcements, posters, etc. will help to increase compliance.

Adopt a plan to accomodate children who forget or run out of sunscreen.  Product can be sold in the student store and a supply can be stocked in the nurse’s office.  If funding allows, a large pump bottle can be supplied in primary school classrooms, and in the gym at secondary schools.  (A P.E. uniform with longer sleeves and pants will lessen the amount of sunscreen necessary.)

Although teachers in Australia commonly assist young children in applying their sunscreen when necessary, American teachers tend to be fearful of touching a student.  Nonetheless primary teachers can be a tremendous help by demonstrating application technique on themselves and by providing appropriate supervision and reminders, focusing most closely on students who have the most lightly pigmented skin.

Risk reduction

When it’s suggested that U.S. schools could follow the Australian example of providing a supply of sunscreen in classrooms, administrators commonly raise an unfounded concern that some child might be allergic.  Fortunately, allergic reaction to sunscreen is very uncommon and, if one does occur, it is generally a minor reversible skin rash.  This is in sharp contrast to the potentially serious type of allergy that can occur in reaction to certain foods, such as shellfish or peanuts.  Any concerns about possible misuse or allergy to sunscreen should be on a par with those regarding other skin products already found at school, such as the hand soap supplied in the restroom.

A simple and appropriate risk reduction strategy would be to inform parents of the availability of sunscreen at the school.  If the parent objects to the school’s sunscreen, they should be advised to counsel their child not to use it.


Due to UV, the outdoors during daylight is akin to a radiation chamber.  To help protect children from sustaining damage on the playground, schools can and should strongly promote the use of sunscreen as a supplement to other sun protection methods.

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