The Sunbeatables curriculum, designed by specialists MD Anderson Cancer Center, features a cast of superheroes who teach children the basics of sun protection including the obvious: how and when to apply sunscreen.
There’s just one wrinkle. Many of the about 1,000 schools where the curriculum is taught are in states that don’t allow students to bring sunscreen to school or apply it without a note from a doctor or parent and trip to the nurse’s office.
Schools have restrictions because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration labels sunscreen as an over-the-counter medication. To override that, at least seven states including California, New York, Oregon and Texas, have passed laws that require that schools allow students to bring in and put on sunscreen, says Doug Farquhar, program director of environmental health for the National Conference of State Legislatures. . This year there has been a flurry of legislation. Arizona, Washington and Utah passed bills, and legislation is pending in Rhode Island, Louisiana, Georgia, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Alabama and Pennsylvania, to allow sunscreen.
“It has been a challenge,” says Mary Tripp, an instructor in behavioral science at MD Anderson in Houston who developed the curriculum. “It’s important that the school have policies in place that permit sunscreen application.”
A spokeswoman for the FDA declined to discuss the agency’s rules for sunscreen beyond noting that it regulates sunscreen as an over-the-counter drug. The legislation hasn’t faced much opposition. In Rhode Island, the School Nurse Teacher Association opposes the proposed legislation due to concerns about students with allergies to sunscreen and the practicality of applying sunscreen to so many young children.
“This is common-sense legislation,” says Elizabeth Tanzi, a Washington, D.C.-based dermatologist and member of the American Academy of Dermatology. The Academy, she says, “supports the fact that kids should be able to carry their own sunscreen, apply their own sunscreen, and it should be widely available in school and applied liberally.”
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Melanoma accounts for the majority of skin cancer-related deaths and is among the most common types of invasive cancers. One blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence can double the risk of developing melanoma, says Dr. Tanzi. And sun damage is cumulative. The Skin Cancer Foundation notes that 23% of lifetime sun exposure occurs by age 18. Regular sunscreen application is a widespread recommendation among medical experts though some groups have raised concerns about the chemicals in certain sunscreens.
“Five or more sunburns increases your melanoma risk by 80% and your non-melanoma skin cancer risk by 68%,” Dr. Tanzi says.
Pediatric melanoma cases add up to a small but growing number. There are about 500 children diagnosed every year with the numbers increasing by about 2% each year, says Shelby Moneer, director of education for the Melanoma Research Foundation.
Specialists at MD Anderson developed and launched “Ray and the Sunbeatables” curriculum in 2015, on their own and without the sunscreen industry involvement. It is designed for children in preschool, kindergarten and first-grade and includes superheroes Ray and Serena. The lesson plan includes science experiments, art activities and songs that children sing while applying sunscreen. Students and teachers are taught to apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going outside and to reapply it every one to two hours.
Holly Thaggard is chief executive and founder of Supergoop, a sunscreen brand which includes several products designed especially for children. She recently approached MD Anderson and is donating 64-ounce bottles of her sunscreen to some schools participating in the Sunbeatables program, as well as other schools that have learned about the promotion through social media. In the past month, Supergoop shipped sunscreen to 15 schools in five states.
Supergoop designed a pump to make it easy for children to use, and doesn’t include controversial chemicals, such as parabens and oxybenzone. Ms. Thaggard came up with a jingle to the tune of “You Are My Sunshine,” that helps children with the steps of sunscreen application. “It’s meant to take the burden off the teachers and to teach the child in the classroom how to apply sunscreen,” she says.
Howard Early Childhood Center in San Antonio, a prekindergarten and kindergarten school of more than 400 students, recently got Supergoop and is expected to implement the Sunbeatables curriculum next school year.
Marianne DiSabato, a kindergarten teacher at the school, taught her students about sunscreen the same way she has taught them about other important behavioral health habits, such as washing their hands before lunch. “I told them that we are going to develop a new habit,” Mrs. DiSabato says.
In just a few weeks, she has created a classroom ritual before both the morning and afternoon recess. The big pump is placed on a work table in the front of the classroom. When the children assemble on the carpet before going outside they get a pump of sunscreen and apply it to themselves while waiting for instructions. They are welcome to get another pump on the way outside if they need more.
She instructs the children to do their faces first including their noses, cheeks and forehead and then the shoulders, arms and legs. The full jingle was a little too long for the children.
Instead, the students sometimes sing one line as they apply the sunscreen, “This is our sunscreen, our special sunscreen,” they sing. “It keeps our skin safe when we go play.”