Most U.S. schools could do a lot more to protect students from the sun, with efforts like keeping kids indoors at high noon or making time for sunscreen application, a recent study suggests.
Researchers examined data on policies at 577 schools nationwide. Just 16 percent of schools asked parents to apply sunscreen before school, and even fewer supplied sunscreen to students or scheduled outdoor activities to avoid the peak intensity of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays.
"In spite of both strong evidence that UV exposure can lead to skin cancer and multiple calls for improvements in school programs including policies to prevent skin cancer, our study found that most schools still lacked practices that could protect children and adolescents from sun exposure while at school," said lead study author Sherry Everett Jones of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Students most at risk from the sun may get the least help with sun protection from schools, Jones added by email.
"High schools were less likely to adopt several practices even though high school students may be at particular risk for sun exposure because of their desire for a tan," Jones said.
The researchers examined data from surveys on health policies and practices that were completed by school representatives in 2014.
Among other things, questions touched on use of sunscreen at home and in school, scheduling outdoor time, and rules for wearing hats or sunglasses.
Overall, 48 percent of respondents said teachers allowed time for students to put on sunscreen at school, researchers report in JAMA Dermatology.
But just 28 percent said teachers reminded students to apply sunscreen right before going outside and only 13 percent had sunscreen on hand for students to use.
Beyond sunscreen, about 30 percent of schools encouraged students to wear long sleeves or pants outside to limit sun exposure, while 33 percent recommended hats and 21 percent advised students to wear sunglasses outside.
High schools were less likely to encourage sun protection than schools serving younger students, the study also found.
Just 4 percent of high schools asked parents to have students apply sunscreen before school, for example, compared with 17 percent of middle schools and 21 percent of elementary schools.
Sun safety practices varied by region, the researchers found. Schools in southern states, for example, were more likely to always or almost always schedule outdoor activities to avoid times when the sun was at peak intensity.
The study wasn’t a randomized experiment designed to prove that certain school characteristics cause sun safety practices to be more or less common, the authors note.
Another limitation is the possibility that the individual completing the survey might not be aware of all school policies or practices related to sun safety, researchers also point out.
Still, the results suggest that more public education about sun safety is needed, Dr. Henry Lim of Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan writes in an accompanying editorial.
"Importantly, students can apply the sun safety habits they develop in school to other outdoor activities with their families and friends, throughout their lives," said Dr. Mary Tripp of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Parents can encourage schools to allow children to carry and apply sunscreen if current policies prohibit this or don’t make it a priority, Tripp, who wasn’t involved in the study, added by e-mail. Parents can also make sure kids have hats, sunglasses and clothing that covers their arms and legs when they’re going to be outdoors.
"UV rays from the sun can damage unprotected skin, even after a brief exposure period such as 15 minutes," Tripp said. "Students may also receive significant UV exposure during outdoor field trips and after-school activities."