A Texas school district's sunscreen policy is getting criticized after a child was sunburned during a school field trip. The district says the policy is in place to protect students from accidental ingestion of a toxic substance, and to prevent allergic reactions if students share. The child's mom says the policy is ludicrous and needs to be changed.
Photo credit: Deborah Pendell/Moment Open/Getty Images

Christy Riggs thought she was protecting her child. She knew her 10-year-old daughter Rachel was scheduled to attend an outdoor field trip that would have her in the sun for about six hours. Rachel has fair skin, and Christy wanted to be sure her daughter was protected from sunburn — especially considering Christy's father died of skin cancer earlier this year. So she lathered Rachel up before sending her off, and gave her a tube of sunscreen for reapplication later. When Rachel came home later that day, Christy was upset to find the school had refused to allow Rachel to have the sunblock for reapplication, and as a result, Rachel was severely burned.

Sunblock: Banned

When Christy asked why Rachel couldn't have her sunblock, the school cited district policy, which restricts students from bringing sunscreen to school on field trips. North East Independent School District spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor said, "Typically, sunscreen is a toxic substance, and we can't allow toxic things to be in our schools." Chancellor also cited potential allergy issues, saying, "We don't want students sharing sunscreen. If students get it in their eyes or react badly to the sunscreen it can be quite serious." Also, sunscreen is treated as a medicine, requiring a doctor's note for the child to have on campus. Said Chancellor: "If there are extenuating circumstances students are welcome to keep sunscreen in the nurse's office and go there to reapply."

The policy is flawed

Where do you draw the line? Do we say no hand sanitizer? Do we not allow school glue?

While the school district's stance regarding the toxicity of sunscreen is understandable, there are plenty of other toxic substances freely carried about school campuses — a point articulated by Christy. "Where do you draw the line? Do we say no hand sanitizer? Do we not allow school glue?"

And though it is absolutely possible that a child could be allergic to a component of sunscreen, other allergens are probably being freely carried on school property. A child could have an allergy to a specific type of laundry detergent — should that cause the school to have a ban on sharing sweaters?

Given the chemicals contained in most sunscreens, the classification as "medicine" isn't surprising or unusual. "Many U.S. schools have rules and restrictions around the usage of sunscreen, because it is an over-the-counter drug," says Dr. Ana M. Duarte, division director of dermatology for Miami Children's Hospital, founder and president of the Children's Skin Center and consultant to Coppertone. But to require a trip to the nurse's office for reapplication during an off-campus field trip is not only inconvenient, but rather difficult to arrange.

Play outside, but don't get burned?

Here's the thing: We want our kids outside playing, but it isn't reasonable to expect them to spend time outdoors without sun protection. "(S)unscreen needs to be reapplied at least every two hours and/or after swimming, sweating or towel drying," says Dr. Duarte. "If they're going to be in and out of the water like the Texas student, they should be using a water-resistant sunscreen and reapplying more frequently." This point was also articulated by Christy: "The school wants us to lather our kids up in sunscreen before school, but when they're outside all day or swimming, they need to be reapplying every couple of hours."

Change can't come soon enough

The school district said they may revisit their policy on sunscreen at the yearly review, but change isn't promised.

More and more we are seeing instances in which a parent's preference is ignored, from the scope of sex-ed lessons in schools to the removal of Justina Pelletier from her parents' custody. The idea that a school can override your parenting decisions, even small ones such as the choice to have your child use sunscreen, is disconcerting.

The school district said they may revisit their policy on sunscreen at the yearly review, but change isn't promised. "The school district really needs to look at this and talk to the schools and regroup and realize how wrong this is," said Christy. And she's right. If kids are going to be outside for any significant period of time their skin needs protection. How that protection comes should be up to the discretion of the parent, based on their child's needs and the parents' wants. In trying to protect every child from everything, this school is protecting none.

More on sun safety

Sunscreen: Friend or foe?
5 Sunscreen mistakes you're (probably) making
Sun safety: Myths vs. facts