General Assembly passes bill relaxing sunscreen restrictions in schools

Children play tag in a hallway at Fox Elementary School in Richmond, (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Lawmakers have argued on guns, gambling and gerrymandering over the first few weeks of this year’s legislative session. But there’s at least one area where they all agree: sunscreen.

Both chambers of the General Assembly unanimously passed a bill to allow any public elementary or secondary schoolers to carry — and apply — their own sunscreen. It’s an allowance so basic, it was met with incredulity by the senators who discussed the bill during a January committee meeting.

“It’s shocking that we have to have a state statute telling people they can use sunscreen at schools,” said Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg. “To me, it’s just a sign that we have gotten completely overregulated.”

But the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, said it was the lack of statewide regulations that led parents to request the bill. Virginia currently allows individual school boards to set their own policies on sunscreen, which has led to inconsistencies between districts. Some allow sunscreen as long as it’s labeled with a student’s name. Others — including Spruill’s home district of Chesapeake — require a note from a parent or doctor.

Peake said a similar bill was brought to the General Assembly in 2018 after one Virginia school district banned sunscreen completely — a response to one student who had an allergic reaction to the lotion.

That year, the legislation met its demise in a Senate subcommittee. But the move to adopt Spruill’s bill puts Virginia in line with a national trend to relax school restrictions on sunscreen. Ten other states have adopted similar policies, including one — Utah — with some of the highest skin cancer rates in the country.

While Virginia’s are more in line with national standards, promoting sunscreen use is still a major health priority. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates sunscreen for safety and effectiveness, recommends that all Americans use an SPF of 15 or higher. Several national organizations, including the American Academy of Dermatology Association, have specifically advocated for similar legislation across the country.

The state’s own health education standards call for kindergarten students to recognize “sun safety practices,” including the use of sunscreen.

“To put barriers in front of that seems just ridiculous.” said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, said during the committee hearing. “It seems to me that we should pass this.”

The bill was approved by the Senate on Jan. 14 in a 39-0 vote. The House unanimously passed the legislation on Wednesday in a 98-0 vote with no discussion. The bill will move to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk for final approval.