Md. to require parental permission before kids can use sunscreen

Maryland health officials were making revisions late Friday night to a new policy that would have severely restricted who could apply sunscreen to children attending summer camps.

The new policy, which was issued last month, ordered summer camp operators to steer away from assisting kids with applying sunscreen and to get parents’ permission before letting any child use sunscreen at camp.

A report on that policy was posted Friday afternoon on washingtonpost.com. Late Friday, health officials said they recognized that the policy had caused confusion, and said revisions were underway.

The revised policy will make it clear “that, in fact, parents do” need to give permission for kids to have sunblock, said Clifford C. Mitchell, assistant health director for environmental health and food protection.

But he said, “It will be silent on the thing that has raised questions. It will not deal with issues of contact in any way.”

The guidelines, issued June 10, had been described as among the toughest in the nation.

The guidelines said, “Camp staff should limit touching the camper as much as possible. Under no circumstances should campers assist each other in the application of sunscreen.” The policy also prohibited camps from supplying sunscreen to campers.

“We regret the confusion caused,” Mitchell said Friday night in an interview.

The rules were aimed at protecting children from inappropriate touching at camp, but they came as the federal government campaigns for parents to get more serious about protecting children against damage to skin the sun’s rays can inflict.

Health officials had argued that their motivation was strictly about safety. “Our intention is certainly not to discourage the use of sunblock,” Mitchell said. “It’s really to walk a fine line between protecting kids’ skin and making sure they feel personally safe.”

Mitchell said he did not know of any cases of inappropriate touching by counselors that might have led to the new regulations.

At camps across Maryland, parents are receiving permission forms asking whether their child may use sunscreen while at camp. At the Barrie Day Camp in Silver Spring, for example, parents who allow their child to use sunscreen must also check off on whether the sunblock may be applied with or without assistance from staff members.

“The camp is just doing what the state ordered them to do,” said Paul Basken, a father of two children who attend Barrie camp. “But this can’t be serious. I mean, if I didn’t feel safe about the camp, I just wouldn’t send my kids there.”

Before the revision started Friday night, many parents, physicians and dermatologists had expressed worry that Maryland’s approach could result in a surge of sunburn cases. “Restricting counselors’ ability to apply sunscreen or assist with sunscreen reapplication could make it more likely that children will not be protected from the damaging rays of the sun,” said Ronald Moy, president of the American Academy of Dermatology.

The rules are “absurd,” said Maral Skelsey, a dermatologist in Chevy Chase. “This is the biggest known carcinogen that children are exposed to. We should be asking camp counselors to take an active role in promoting skin protection.”

The June revision was an attempt to clarify policies, state officials said. In the past, the rules did not make it clear whether sunscreen was classified as a medication. If it was, it could legally be applied to children only by a medical professional. The June rules stated that sunblock was not a medication, Mitchell said.

But he acknowledged that camp directors had been ignorant of the old rules and generally allowed sunscreen application by any staffer or camper.

“We are sort of bound by all of the various constraints in law and policy regarding contact and keeping children safe,” he said.

He said states vary widely in their rules about sunscreen use at camps. Virginia’s regulations, for example, give staff members who work with children more leeway; the state’s rules for day-care centers also govern camps, and those rules allow any staff member, regardless of medical training, to apply sunscreen to children from infancy through age 13.

Still, some Virginia camps prohibit counselors from applying sunscreen just to steer clear of any issues around improper touching. At the Freedom Aquatic & Fitness Center Camp at George Mason University’s Manassas campus, for example, parents are instructed to send children to camp with sunscreen. In the same sentence, they are warned that “camp staff is not permitted to apply sunscreen to campers.”

“Camps buy sunscreen by the tens of gallons,” said Jennifer Selke, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley who runs TheCampDirector.com, a blog on camp administration. “Kids need sunscreen multiple times a day, and some kids can’t reach all of their back.”

Selke said camps have become highly attentive to concerns about inappropriate touching and train counselors about where and how they can touch campers. “I understand the concern about touching, but touching is going to happen in a camp environment, whether you’re applying sunscreen or teaching someone how to hold a baseball bat,” she said.

“The far bigger danger we see is when 5-year-olds try to put on sunscreen themselves and get it in their eyes,” Selke said. “Parents call all the time to ask us to remind their kids to put on sunscreen. Kids need help.”

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He’s been The Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he’s covered politics, education, pop culture, and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.
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