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
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
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.
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
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
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!”
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
during the schoolday without a physician's note
(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
(4) Nothing in this subdivision requires school
assist pupils in applying sunscreen.
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
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.
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.