Schools have a responsibility to protect children from the sun when they are in their care. Paul Jakeway, Marketing Director here at Deb, assesses the risk that Ultraviolet (UV) rays can pose for children and young adults, and highlights the ways in which schools can better safeguard its pupils.
What impact can UV rays have on a child’s skin? It is a question which should be carefully considered by all parties involved in a child’s life; parents, teachers, schools. UV light is invisible light that radiates from the sun. Many are rightly wary of the risks that UV rays pose, however it has been suggested that if exposure is minimal and controlled, these rays can stimulate a child’s metabolism, increase oxygen levels in the cells and boost the immune system.
Professor Andrew Wright, Consultant Dermatologist at Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust reaffirms this: “15-20 minutes of unprotected sun exposure, without skin reddening or burning, per day should be sufficient for most people to produce the required Vitamin D level”. It is crucial that those responsible for protecting children understand when UV protection is necessary, and for exposure to be controlled. Failing to do so can have harmful consequences.
Understanding the threat
The threat that UV rays pose must be understood by all parties. For children or young adults who spend time outdoors, they are at risk from two types of UV rays: UVA rays contribute to skin burning, skin cancer and premature ageing. They have a longer wavelength, which means they are able to penetrate deeper into the base layer of the skin. UVB rays are the primary cause of sunburn and also contribute to skin cancer. UVB rays have a much shorter wavelength and burns the outer layer of the skin.
One of the barriers to effectively protecting the skin from UV rays is that parents, teachers and children themselves are often not clear on when protection is required. There are many misconceptions around the sun and UV rays which must be deconstructed. UV rays are not affected by sunlight or temperature, and can’t be seen or felt, meaning the sun may not be blazing, and it might not be blisteringly hot – but protection is still required.
The need to protect our children at school
Sun exposure in the first 15 years of life can contribute significantly to the lifetime risks of skin cancer. This is unsurprising, as children and young adults spend at least 1.5 hours a day outside per school day, more if involved in sport. This is likely to be at lunchtime, when UV rays are at their strongest, therefore it is essential that the issue of UV protection at school is examined.
This time spent outside can be harmful for pupils. It has been estimated that that 40% of school children have arrived home with sunburn sustained from school. Whilst some cases are more serious than others, each exposure to the sun could have an impact of the health of the skin.
Instilling the benefits of being sun safe at school in children is crucial. Educating pupils from a young age is likely to make being safe in the sun a lifetime habit. If you teach a child when they are at nursery or school about the risk that the sun poses and how they can look after their skin, it is likely that this will influence how effectively they protect their skin later in life, whether that be on holiday, or in the workplace if working outside. Those who have been appropriately educated can then pass this knowledge on. This is a cycle which must not be broken.
Duty of care – who is responsible?
Nurseries, schools and colleges are places where parents send their children under the assumption that they will be effectively cared for. These educational establishments must provide a Duty of Care to the pupils under their supervision in all areas, including skin safety. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines for skin cancer prevention recommend that schools “develop, implement and monitor a specially tailored policy to ensure people are protected as much as possible.”
It is crucial that the issue of effective sun protection is tackled by all parties. However, different approaches should be taken for different age groups. For primary school children it is essential that they are taught what UV rays are in a fun and interactive way, and that they understand the importance of being safe in the sun. For older children in secondary school and young adults in college or university, the emphasis should instead be placed on combatting the stigma attached to being sun safe. The risks of excessive UV exposure should be highlighted, and it must be stressed that not only must you protect yourself in every outside environment, not just on holiday, but that it doesn’t look cool to be burnt.
UV protection: Understanding the facts
Effectively minimising the risk of skin cancer in schools is a two-pronged attack which should consist of the appropriate products and the right educational materials. Schools, teachers, parents and children must be aware when the risk is heightened. Effective protection is required when the UV Index –something which has been developed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) – is three or above, but extra protection will be required for children with fair skin who burn easily, people with personal or family history of skin cancer, or people with more than 50 moles.
When it comes to choosing an effective solution for school children, it is crucial that schools choose a ‘broad spectrum’ sunscreen which provides protection against both UVA and UVB rays. With regards to application, it is recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation that at least one teaspoon of sunscreen must be applied to each child’s arm, leg, front of body, back of body and face (including ears and neck). Where possible, it should be applied to clean, dry skin 15-30 minutes before the initial exposure, and reapplied liberally every two to three hours. For children and young adults, it is also crucial that the sunscreen chosen is both water and sweat-resistant to ensure that they remain protected at school.
It is also recommended that a high Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is used – either SPF30 or SPF50 is advisable. Sunscreens with a lower SPF such as SPF15 will only be able to filter out 93% of incoming UVB rays, whereas SPF30 and SPF50 sunscreens are able to filter out 97% and 98% of all incoming rays respectively. It is also important to note that whilst most SPF30 sunscreens can be used on children aged three and above, certain SPF50 sunscreens have been created with an ultra-sensitive formula, which means it can be used on children from six months and above.
Protecting children and young adults from UV exposure doesn’t just concern the application of sunscreen. ‘The 5 S’s of Sun Safety’ is a set of simple steps to protect those who are vulnerable to skin damage. They are as follows:
Slip on sun protective clothing
Slop on minimum SPF30 sunscreen
Slap on a broad brimmed hat
Slide on some sunglasses
Shade from the sun whenever possible
Sunscreens are only half of the story. Effective education on the issue of sun safety is essential, and it is something which can be taught in the classroom, and at home. It is advised that as part of a school’s duty of care, they should create a sun safe policy and communicate it effectively to parents, before conducting classes on the topic of sun safety.
By providing educational establishments with high-quality sunscreens and the effective resources to learn about UV protection in a fun and informative way, it will ensure that children and young adults are healthier, happier and will have minimised their risk of being diagnosed with skin cancer.
 Professor Andrew Wright, Consultant Dermatologist at Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
 Cancer Research UK
 British Association of Dermatologists