Do you think of your skin as a beautiful feature to be bared when the weather warms up? Or is it simply a protective shell, an instrument for touch, or a telling clue to your age? While your skin may be all of these things, it is also your body’s most prominent organ.

So it’s essential you take care of it, especially during the summertime, when UV levels can wreak havoc on exposed skin. While those killer rays may feel sensational, the effects of sun exposure may not be as agreeable over time. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), one in five Americans will develop some form of skin cancer during their lifetime.

Prolonged ultraviolet exposure may also lead to cataracts, which affects more than 20 million Americans over age 40, reports the National Eye Institute. Then there’s premature aging of the skin. The National Institute on Aging has pointed to sunlight as a major culprit of wrinkles, dryness, and age spots.

The best way to avoid trouble? Block harmful rays when you’re out during the day; even during cloudy days use sun protection. Sun rays can penetrate light clouds, mist, and fog. The danger exists in all seasons, and the damage builds up each year.

“The fall, winter, and spring will account for at least 20 percent of the [UV] exposure that we have,” says Ron Shelton, MD, FAAD, FAACS, a board-certified dermatologist, and assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. “Yet, there’s no doubt that the bulk of the sun damage happens in the summer months.”

Whether you’re driven by medical concerns, beauty, or both, gear up with WebMD’s Summer Skin Survival Guide before hitting the beach, the golf course, or even the back yard -- and keep your skin glowing with good health all year round.

Sun Shields Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. There’s strong evidence that excessive sun exposure raises the risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of the disease. According to the American Cancer Society, there will be about 62,000 new cases of melanoma in 2006, and nearly 8,000 will die of the ailment.

Sunscreens. Sunscreen is a highly recommended defense against sunburn and skin cancer. It is now available in lotions, creams, ointments, gels, wax sticks, and spray. Some have glitter and tint, too.

What’s the best kind? That depends on you. “It’s nice to use a product with a higher SPF, but it’s more important you find a sunscreen that you like because you’ll use it more,” says Andrew Kaufman, MD, a dermasurgeon and a member of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery.

Make sure to apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you go out. Put on enough so that it takes a full minute to rub in. If at the beach, spread at least 1 ounce -- enough to fill a shot glass -- on your face and entire body. Use more if you need to for good coverage. If you swim, sweat, or are outdoors for a long time, reapply every two hours. Your sunscreen should also have the following qualities:

--It is water resistant. Sweat or water cannot easily remove it.

--It has SPF of 15 or higher. According to The American Academy of Dermatology, sunscreen-SPF rating is calculated by comparing the amount of time needed to produce a sunburn on sunscreen-protected skin to the amount of time needed to cause a sunburn on unprotected skin.

For example, with an SPF 2 sunscreen a person who normally (without sunscreen) would turn red after 10 minutes of sun exposure would take 20 minutes to turn red. A sunscreen with an SPF of 30 would allow that person to multiply that initial burning time by 30, which means it would take 30 times longer to burn. However, SPF should not be used to determine time in the sun.

Skin damage can happen even without a burn. Plus, higher SPF numbers do not give proportionate protection. SPF 15 deflects 93 percent of sun-burning rays, whereas SPF 30 deflects 97 percent, reports the AAD.

--It provides broad-spectrum protection, which is in sunscreens containing benzophenones (oxybenzone), cinnamates (octylmethyl cinnamate and cinoxate), sulisobenzone, salicylates, titanium oxide, zinc oxide, and avobenzone (Parsol 1789).

Unless it has these agents, the sunscreen may filter only UVB light, the major culprit for sunburn and skin cancer. Yet, protection from UVA is important, too. It is responsible for premature aging and the development of skin cancer.

How to Choose the Right Sunscreen

Clothing and Lip Balms

Clothing. Start with a hat, because those harmful rays reach your scalp and your ears when you leave your noggin unprotected. And remember, baseball caps are not nearly as effective as hats with broad brims, because they leave your ears exposed.Garments designed to ward off skin-cancer-causing rays are now available in specialty stores. These are given an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating, indicating how much of the sun’s rays are absorbed by the fabric. Articles with UPF 30, for example, allow only 1/30 of UV light to penetrate.

These clothes are a foolproof way of shielding against skin damage, says Cyndi Yag-Howard, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist and SPF clothing entrepreneur in Naples, Fla. “They basically act like a really good sunscreen,” she says, noting most people don’t apply enough sunscreen for it to be effective.

At the same time, there’s no need to buy special products for sun protection. Try your closet. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, clothes with certain qualities can prevent harmful rays from reaching the skin.

--Garments made of unbleached cotton, high-luster polyesters, and thin, satiny silk can absorb or reflect UV radiation, preventing damaging rays from reaching the skin.

--Darker materials tend to absorb UV light, keeping it away from your body.

--Clothes with tight weaves or knits prevent penetration of harmful rays.

Lip balm. The lip is a common site for skin and lip cancer, primarily because of extended sun exposure. Cracked, peeling, scaly lips that aren’t helped by lip balm or petroleum jelly may be signs of actinic keratoses. The condition can be the earliest stage of the development of skin cancer, and has the potential to progress to deadlier forms of the disease. People either forget to put sunscreen or balm in the area, or lick it off. To fully protect lips:

--Look for lip-specific products that have SPF 15 or higher, recommends Shelton. Use a lip balm with SPF 30 or higher if you have a history of lip and skin cancer.

--Apply lip product every two hours or so, based on the amount of contact with the UV rays.

--While in the sun, stay away from baby oil, petroleum jelly, or high-shine lip gloss.

--If you decide to wear lipstick, try darker shades as they provide more UV defense than sheer, glossy ones.

--Better yet, wear lipstick with SPF, or apply a lip conditioner with SPF and antioxidants under lipstick for extra moisture and protection.

Is Tanned Skin Still 'In'?

Sunglasses and Cosmetics

Sunglasses. Oversized sunglasses are in again this year, with the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton sporting their large shades. Even aviator styles for men are rounder and bigger.

The trends have no better fan than Neil Hodur, OD, professor of optometry at the Illinois College of Optometry. “The more of the eye you can cover, the less the intensity of light … to reach the back part of the eye,” he says.

Prolonged UV exposure can redden the whites of eyes, just as the sun can burn skin. Over time, this can cause eye problems, such as cataracts and macular degeneration. To prevent eye damage, choose sunglasses with the following qualities:

--UV 400 protection. It blocks up to 400 nanometers of UV light.

--Impact resistant. The shades can possibly withstand active lifestyles or an accident.

--The right color. Translucent-colored sunglasses are hot, but to ward against distortion of colors, stick to gray and brown shades.

--The right price. Effective eye defense can fit any budget, from $10 to $1,000.

Cosmetics. Can makeup protect against the sun’s harmful rays? The answer is a qualified “yes.” While any kind of coating on your face can help block UV light, cosmetics by themselves do not have enough protection to prevent sunburn or skin cancer.

Mineral makeup, darker foundations, powders, and eye shadows do have better sun-protective qualities than other cosmetics. Yet makeup can be applied unevenly and wiped off during the course of the day, losing its ability to effectively block UV light. For surefire protection, Shelton recommends wearing sunscreen first, and then applying makeup on top.

Makeup that contains broad-spectrum SPF has UV-filtering qualities as well. However, Shelton says that makeup with SPF is not as effective as sunscreen by itself. Makeup doesn’t bind to the skin as well as sunscreen. Plus, when you combine sunscreen with something else, he says it often does not retain all of its UV-filtering properties.

How to Pick Proper Sunglasses

The Young and the Vulnerable

Think children are immune to the ravages of the sun? They are actually more susceptible. The AAD estimates that kids get 80 percent of their total lifetime sun exposure by the time they turn 18. If a blistering sunburn is a part of that childhood, the risk of deadly skin cancer doubles later in life.

In general, it’s a good idea for both you and your kids to stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. To shield children from UV damage, the basic rules of using sunscreen, wearing sun-protective clothing, lip protection, and sunglasses apply. But there are some exceptions and additions to the rules.

--Babies younger than 6 months should be kept out of the sun. If they are outdoors, a wide-brimmed hat, protective clothing, and sunglasses are recommended. Be sure to ask the pediatrician before using sunscreen on an infant, as the products have not yet been tested on them.

--Kids over 6 months should always wear sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher. SPF 30 or higher is suggested for kids who spend a lot of time outdoors, and who have fair skin, light-colored eyes and hair. Ask camp counselors or guardians to reapply sunscreens for children after active play or swim.

--Teenagers who spend a lot of time working and/or playing outdoors can be at special risk for sun damage. All the basics of sun protection apply to this group as well.

Get Tips for Making Your Summer Safe

Sunless Tanning

Forget dangerous sun worshipping and tanning booths. Sunless tanning products are better than ever with streak-proof varieties. They come in lotion, cream, gel, and spray form. With the active ingredient dihydroxyacetone (DHA), dead skin cells are safely coated with color. The tint disappears when the cells are either washed off or sloughed off. Some cautions:

--Find the right sunless tanning product for you. Since some self-tanners can turn some skin orange, test the product first in a small area of your body.

--Self-tanning preparations do not necessarily contain sunscreen. Read labels carefully. The FDA requires tanning products without sunscreen to contain a warning statement indicating it does not protect against sunburn.

--Stay way from “tanning pills.” They are not approved by the FDA and may cause unwanted side effects such as eye discoloration.

Smooth, Radiant Summer Skin

Which skin care products work best? It depends on your skin type, says Leslie Baumann, MD, a cosmetic dermatologist, and author of The Skin Type Solution. In her book, she classifies skin as dry or oily, sensitive or resistant, pigmented or nonpigmented, and wrinkled or tight. Mixing up the four options yields 16 different combinations such as the dry, resistant, pigmented, wrinkled type (DRPW), and the dry, sensitive, pigmented, wrinkled type (DSPW). Different skin types call for different treatments.

--Oily skin. You don’t have to use a cream or moisturizer, says Baumann. In fact, she recommends products with salicylic acid such as Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash or Skin Medica Acne Toner with Tea Tree Oil and Salicylic Acid. Benzoyl peroxide is also ideal for people with sensitive and acne-prone skin. Recommended products include PanOxyl Bar 5% and Proactiv Repairing Solution.

--Dry skin. Look for barrier repair creams or moisturizers that contain cholesterol, ceramides, and fatty acids. Examples include Dove Sensitive Essentials, CeraVe, and Atopalm. Avoid foaming detergents and soaps as they can strip your skin of necessary lipids.

--Sensitive skin. Anti-inflammatory ingredients work best for you. Try chamomile, the licorice extract licochalcone (Eucerin Redness Relief products), cucumber, feverfew (Aveeno Ultra Calming line), quadrinone (Cutanix), salicylic acid, and selenium (Thermal Spring Water).

--Resistant skin. You can apply any kind of skin care products without trouble since your skin has a solid skin barrier that protects deeper skin layers from allergens and irritating substances. However, many products may not work as well because they are not able to penetrate your skin.

--Pigmented skin. Solutions that contain hydroquinone (EpiQuin Micro or Tri-Luma), kojic acid (Kojic), arbutin (PCA Skin pHaze 23 A &C Synergy Serum), Tyrostat, and mulberry extract (DDF Intensive Holistic Lightener) can improve dark spots. Vitamin C and retinoids work, too, particularly if you are also the oily/dry, resistant, pigmented, and wrinkled type.

--Wrinkled skin. Use prescription retinoid and antioxidants such as idebenone (Prevage), ferulic acid (SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic), and vitamin C (Active C). Oral antioxidants such as Polypodium leucotomos extract (Heliocare) and pomegranate (Murad Pomphenol Sunguard Supplement) are also recommended.

When putting it all together, a dry, resistant, pigmented, wrinkled type (DRPW) and an oily, resistant, pigmented, wrinkled type (ORPW) would thrive with high concentrations of retinoids, which will improve pigments and wrinkles. However, the dry skin type would need a barrier-repair moisturizer, while the oily skin type would do well with salicylic acid.

Visit WebMD's Skin & Beauty Center

Confused?

All the fancy, futuristic-sounding skin care ingredients have you scratching your face instead of admiring it? It’s no wonder. With the cosmetics and toiletry industry a $45 billion business, there are hundreds of products vying for customer attention.

So-called cosmeceuticals claim anything from removing wrinkles to firming up skin. Many of the claims are based on preliminary scientific research, but there is no evidence that they will deliver, says Kaufman. To figure out what product is right for your skin’s needs, he recommends a visit with a skin care doctor.

By Dulce Zamora, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: American Academy of Dermatology. National Eye Institute. National Institute on Aging. Ron Shelton, MD, FAAD, FAACS, board-certified dermatologist; assistant professor of dermatology, Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York City. American Cancer Society. Andrew Kaufman, MD, dermasurgeon; member of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. Cyndi Yag-Howard, MD, FAAD, dermatologist; SPF clothing entrepreneur, Naples, Fla. Skin Cancer Foundation. Neil Hodur, OD, professor of optometry, Illinois College of Optometry. Leslie Baumann, MD, cosmetic dermatologist; author, The Skin Type Solution. The New York Times: "Smart Enough to Understand Your Moisturizer?" Dec. 22, 2005. Baumann, L. Skin and Allergy News, March 2006; vol 37: pp 16-17.