Before you slip on sandals and beach wear, stock up on all-natural sun-protection lotions or creams with a 10-15 Sun Protection Factor.

When was the last time you took a sunbath? The memory you turn to is probably that warm, sunny day in August on the beach? Well, think some more!

Do you remember the day you spent shopping at an outdoor flea market, or the morning you shoveled the snow out of your driveway? Most people don’t think of those times when they think of sun exposure. But those may be just the occasions when you don’t realize you’re spending too much time in the sun – and that you’re exposing your skin, especially your face, to an extra dose of ultraviolet light that could lead to skin cancer.

Despite the fact that skin cancer has reached epidemic proportions – with roughly half a million new cases each year – most Americans still consider tanned skin a sign of health and beauty.

What are the known types of skin cancer?

To clarify, while all skin cancers are serious, not all are immediately life-threatening. For instance, the basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinomas often take months to years even to become noticeable, and many more years, untreated, to become life-threatening. But melanoma is a different story. This tumor of pigment cells is life-threatening, by definition, if it exists.

Melanoma starts as a collection of just a few pigment cells which multiply in a disorganized fashion. When they are first noticeable, the tiny spot they form is quite thin. It thickens as it grows, pressing deeper and deeper into the dermis below and actually growing into it. The crucial fact to remember in melanomas is that timing of the diagnosis is ultracritical. If you believe you have any symptoms of skin cancer, please visit your dermatologist or health-care practitioner immediately.

We all may not be aware that a tan could signal the start of a serious problem. Tanning is nothing more than the skin trying to protect itself from the sun’s damaging rays. Tanning is just another word for “melanin,” any of various dark brown or black skin pigments. (Consequently, “melanoma” got its name from “melanin.”) People who have olive or dark complexions have more melanin and are believed to be less vulnerable to skin damage than are their fairer counterparts.

However, it is now known that no matter what your skin tone may be or how dark you get you won’t be shielded from the harmful effects of the sun’s most damaging ultraviolet rays, called UVBs. These rays are most prevalent between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., and are responsible for causing the most common and curable skin cancers.

Sunscreens, as the name implies, are creams and lotions that contain ingredients that absorb and screen out the sun’s harmful radiation. The higher the product’s sun protection factor, the better the protection. Sun protection factor (SPF) is always indicated on a sunscreen product (generally 10 to 15 is best for protection).

Here’s how SPF is determined

If your unprotected skin normally takes 20 minutes to become red in the sun, a sunscreen with an SPF of 10 will allow you to stay out in the sun 10 times longer – 3 hours and 20 minutes – before you become red.

Remember, SPF is only an approximate number. Humidity, perspiration, reflective surfaces, and wind are among the other factors that can reduce safe exposure time. Keep in mind that sunscreens do permit some ultraviolet rays to reach the skin.

Natural ingredients to look for, and one to avoid

Keep in mind that the sun protection products you use should be as natural as possible, using ingredients from Mother Nature like aloe vera, vitamin E, immortelle (an herb with UV absorption properties), rose hip seed oil, buckthorn, willow bark, jojoba oil, and other herbal extracts and oils. Try to steer clear of products that have a significant amount of chemicals. Be sure to read the ingredient list before you buy.

Contrary to popular advice, it is best to stay away from products containing high amounts of PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid), which is a water-soluble B vitamin found in certain foods (like bran, brewer’s yeast, eggs, milk, rice and wheat germ) and is a well-known ingredient in many sunscreen products. However, many people tend to have some type of allergic reaction from it (i.e., anything from blotches to acne). There are some non-PABA-containing sunscreen lotions available for those who know they have an allergy to this ingredient.

Let’s look at sunless tanning lotions

You may not be aware that you can have a year-round golden glow without baking in the sun. Now there’s a whole generation of sunless tanning lotions on the market, and they’re more advanced than the previously sold products that left your skin streaky and orange.

With these products, color is achieved when the ingredients in the lotion interact with amino acids present in the skin to safely create a natural-looking tan. The only minor drawback with this kind of product is that it can rub off on collars and cuffs. Also you have to reapply the lotion every few days. You can have a great-looking, “safe tan” if you apply these products as follows:

* Apply lotion thinly and evenly; for a darker look, repeat the application the next day rather than applying one thick layer the same day.

* Allow lotion to dry thoroughly before going to bed or putting clothing over it.

* Remember, if you use the lotion on your face, also apply it to your neck area if you’ll be wearing an open-neck blouse or shirt.

* Use only a small amount around ankles, elbows and knees, because you need less in those areas.

* Always use a sunscreen over the sunless tanning lotions when you’re outdoors. Remember, neither the lotion nor the resultant skin darkening is meant to provide protection from the sun’s rays.

Sunless tanning lotions should be all-natural and chemical-free. Many of the all-natural ones contain dyes from walnuts and other plants.

Other precautionary measures

For those that prefer to venture out into the sun, in addition to the aforementioned cautionary measures for best protection, be sure to cover those often-forgotten areas like the tips of your ears, your lips, and the tops of your feet. (There are some lip balms available that have a listed SPF.) And remember to apply sunscreens every time you go out into the sun – not just when you intend to sunbathe on the beach.

Don’t expect water to protect you, because it won’t. Almost 90 percent of the ultraviolet rays from the sun penetrate the top three feet of water. So wear a sunscreen when you sweat or swim and reapply afterward, even if your sunscreen is supposed to be “waterproof.” It is best to apply the “waterproof” sunscreen about an hour before you’d expect to be in the water, giving the product a chance to soak into the skin layers that need the most protection. Wet clothing also offers no protection against the sun’s power.

If your lips, nose, cheeks, or shoulders are particularly burn-sensitive, you may try zinc-oxide ointment, an opaque, pasty-looking substance that totally blocks out the sun. It’s most often seen on the nose of lifeguards and swimmers.

As you sit beneath your beach umbrella, you may think you’re being shielded, but sunlight can be very tricky. Sand or light-colored concrete reflects light. White-painted surfaces and aluminum reflect even more light than does sand.

Just because the clouds have rolled in, you shouldn’t feel safe from sunburn. As much as 80 percent of the sun’s burning rays can find their way through a cloud cover that may appear gloomy and dark.

Wear loose clothing as cover ups while you’re in the sun. As a rule of thumb, cotton clothing tends to be more protective than synthetic fabrics, and dark shades are more protective than lighter shades. For example, a white shirt has an SPF of about 7 while a pair of jeans has an SPF of about 1700. (However, darker clothing will be “hotter” to wear because the dark color absorbs heat, whereas lighter clothing reflects more heat.)