On April 24, 2024
State News

‘Like brushing your teeth’: Bill cuts red tape around sunscreen in schools

Currently, putting on sunscreen in Vt. schools is regulated like medicine

By Holly Sullivan, Community News Service

Editor’s note: The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.

Despite being one of the cloudiest and coldest states, Vermont has the country’s second-highest rate of new skin cancer cases per capita. Using more sunscreen could reduce the rate, and lawmakers want to make it easier to start the habit young.  

Senators passed S.187 last month to allow students to apply sunscreen freely without its being regulated like a medicine. The bill would let kids carry non-spray sunscreen in backpacks and slather it on whenever they see fit, as long as their parents sign an annual form. A House committee took up the proposal last week.

Right now, putting on sunscreen in Vermont schools is a tall order. 

“If I give a Tylenol, if I give an ibuprofen, if I give Benadryl, or if I have a student who has prescription medication — I notify the parent every time I do that,” said school nurse Clayton Wetzel, treasurer of the Vermont State School Nurses Association. “Imagine, we have 160 kids, and now I’m helping apply sunscreen for all of these people and then notifying parents about the application of sunscreen. It’s not a very good use of anyone’s time.”

He walked legislators through the ponderous process back in February: A nurse needs to get an annual permission slip signed by a guardian, have a guardian deliver sunscreen in its original bottle and store it in the nurse’s office. They need to call students in and put the sunscreen on them, then notify the guardian and write down a list of details for student health records: each date and time they put sunscreen on a student, the dosage, a reason why and any results of the remedy. 

If the bill became law, sunscreen could become just another checkbox on a pre-existing health form, signifying,“‘Hey, if you sign this, we’re all set. You can send it in and you don’t have to worry about it,’” Wetzel explained.

Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., have similar laws. 

Exposure to ultraviolet light, which the sun emits, is closely tied to most forms of skin cancer — especially melanoma, the deadliest. That’s made sun a damage a hot topic in Vermont, where sunscreen use is low and skin cancer rates are high. In 2013, more than a third of adults here reported having at least one sunburn in the past year, according to state data. In 2015, that number was 65% for high schoolers and 54% for middle schoolers. 

The last time the state asked students about sunscreen, in 2013, less than three in 10 middle schoolers said they always or usually wore sunscreen SPF 15 or higher when out in the sun for over an hour. For high schoolers, it was less than two in 10.

When national nonprofit IMPACT Melanoma surveyed Vermonters in 2018, most said they don’t use sunscreen due to forgetfulness or lacking concern. 

Top chart shows the actual education tax rates and increase over last year. Below shows the tax implications for a $500K home.

Vermonters, a “rapidly aging” and “fair-skinned”  demographic, are negatively impacted by the state’s limited sunshine, Sharon Mallory, the state health department’s cancer control program director, told a University of Vermont researcher in 2020. 

“Vermonters often get ‘short bursts’ of sun because of our short summer seasons,” Mallory told the researcher, Joy Benner. “It is thought in cancer research that short bursts may actually be more harmful than long-term exposure because you don’t build up that melanin reserve. We are also not as good at wearing sunscreen all year round because we have long winters and cloudy days, so people may not be wearing enough sunscreen during these times.”

Efforts to prevent skin cancer in the state have grown in recent years, such as supplying free sunscreen dispensers in state parks and banning tanning beds for people younger than 18. 

Vermonters’ susceptibility to skin cancer is why so many experts are urging representatives to pass S.187. As for the focus on younger people: Sunburns during childhood raise the risk of melanoma by up to 80%, state officials say.

Ilisa Stalberg, family and childcare director at the Vermont Dept. of Health, said normalizing sunscreen use will protect kids’ skin as they get older.

“It’s just a good habit. And we know how influential school and peers are,” she said. “So, every time you go outside, you’re putting on sunscreen. It’s like brushing your teeth. It becomes a habit, and that is a future prevention strategy.” 

Generally, S.187 has had little to no opposition. However, the bill’s specification of “non-aerosolized” sunscreen sparked some debate. 

Brendan Atwood, public health policy advisor for the health department, suggested removing the word from the bill for fear of equity issues.

“Essentially, by restricting the use of aerosolized sunscreens, it just may force some folks to have to purchase sunscreens that may cost more. It just limits the options that are available to some folks,” he told senators Feb. 23.

Atwood acknowledged aerosolized sunscreens may trigger asthma in some students. But he stood behind the edit, believing schools could easily work around this issue. 

On the flip side, Wetzel approved of the bill’s language. 

“This is just anecdotally, but non-aerosolized doesn’t put as much product out for the period of time that people are applying it,” he told senators in the same meeting. “And it also uses propellants that could possibly be an irritant. Having an aerosolized product exploding in a backpack would make an even bigger mess. And just leaking, it could be a little bit dangerous.” 

Still, most stakeholders seem to agree the bill would make life easier for students and teachers. 

“It breaks down the barriers to utilizing sunscreen because it’s a lot [of stress] on a kid to have to go to the nurse to get sunscreen on,” Stalberg said. “Moving around the school is not simple —  teachers need you in certain places at certain times, so it really does help there.”

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