Op-Ed: Silly Sunscreen Rules Pose A Burning Dilemma

"Tanorexic" New Jersey mom, Patricia Krentcil. Source: Julio Cortez / AP Photo

BETWEEN THE LINES: Some rules are made to be broken, particularly when they lack common sense.

Such is the argument with rules that don’t allow students to use sunscreen when participating in outdoor school activities. All things considered, this one’s a no-brainer.

In the just ended Albany session, lawmakers enacted legislation to protect children from bullies. Now, they need to protect children from sunburn. One state senator from Queens has proposed changing New York’s guidelines for students’ sunscreen use — without a doctor’s note — when engaged in outdoor school activities.

Several weeks ago, two elementary school students in Washington came home with serious sunburns after a five hour outing because their school didn’t allow them to use sunscreen.

Apparently, every state, with the exception of California, which changed the sunscreen rule a decade ago, doesn’t allow students to use sunscreen, because the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) classifies it as an over-the-counter drug. By the way, several other items that can easily be purchased by anyone at your local drug store — including lip balms, Vaseline and antibiotic ointments — are also in that category. Classified as “medications,” they can only be administered under medical supervision or with parental permission.

The FDA advocates the ban, and school districts adhere to it, because dozens of sunscreens marketed for children contain chemicals and additives that absorb the sun’s rays and penetrate the skin. It can disrupt the body’s natural hormones as well as cause allergic reactions.

However, some health pros insist that the risk of an allergic reaction to sunscreens, which they claim is as uncommon as allergies to soaps, is outweighed by overexposure to and long-term adverse effects from the sun.

Even so, shouldn’t a principal or teacher have the good judgment to advise students to seek parental permission for sunscreen before going on a school outing that might expose them to the harmful rays of the sun for several hours? More importantly, before they grant permission for a child to partake in such an activity, parents should be responsible enough to make sure the school is aware of a child’s allergies or other medical restrictions.

Of course, without authorization, schools cover their behinds and prohibit use of potentially harmful items. But, school administrators should request that parents inform them of any medical restrictions that pertain to their child’s health.

According to sunsafetyforkids.org, “The risk of developing skin cancer will be substantially reduced for children who learn to ‘Block the sun, not the fun!’” Developed by dermatologists from The Los Angeles Metropolitan Dermatological Society, the site is dedicated to reducing the incidence of skin cancer through teaching and promoting sun protection to children.

This issue is personal — very personal.

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with and treated for low-level skin cancer. The dermatologist said my condition was due to prolonged, unprotected exposure as a child, which increased my risk.

Before I reached my teens, I spent many summer days at Bay 18 in Coney Island with friends, family and neighbors. Covered with moderate doses of suntan lotion, now largely referred to as sunscreen, we swam, played games, built the occasional sand castle and did what most children do — had fun in the sun. At that time, the public was generally uninformed about the long-term, harmful effects of the sun’s rays.

In high school, I spent more than a few summer days with friends at Manhattan Beach or Riis Park. We usually went to the Queens beach after playing a few hours of 18-hole three-par golf — in the sun without sunscreen. So, before the dangers of skin cancer were well-documented, my body had already absorbed more than its share of dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays, which gradually transformed my body’s cells.

Since I was diagnosed, I regularly examine myself for new skin cancer growths, which continue to appear every so often. I’m well aware this could happen for the rest of my life.

Health experts, as well as the FDA, concur that sunscreens block unsafe radiation, a principal cause of skin cancer. Yet, the FDA has also cited studies that show that sunscreen users, especially those with lighter skin tones, feel well-protected and tend to spend longer periods in the sun, which may inflict more subtle damage. The agency and some skin experts have suggested that spending less time in the sun, even with sunscreen, may reduce one’s risk for skin cancer.

Sunscreen may not be appropriate for everyone, but schools should try to determine if the product is or isn’t potentially harmful for students when planning an activity that could possibly expose them to the harmful rays of the sun.

It goes without saying that schools must be cautious when it comes to potential student medical and health problems, but common sense should also be part of the equation. Sitting idly by as students get severely or even slightly sunburned may be adhering to the rules, but it also poses a risk almost equally as serious as letting them cover their tender skins with sunscreen.

Consequently, since schools would be subject to legal consequences if they broke the rules, it is up to lawmakers to quickly modify the misguided guidelines banning sunscreens.

Perhaps the safest way to reduce melanoma, which has increased nationwide in the last two decades, is to avoid or reduce excess exposure to the sun. But, that is highly unlikely for most adults and especially for active children.

After all, a suntan is merely a short-term, cosmetic transformation that could initiate permanent damage below the surface.

Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.

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