05/30/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ban the Tan

Even though it's still March, we're already seeing plenty of sunshine in Los Angeles. Temperatures creeping into the 80s and beautiful afternoons are making the lure of the outdoors more difficult to resist. Many of us are heading to even sunnier regions for spring break and, soon, more of us will be shedding our jackets and sweaters to take to the beaches for some summertime fun.

Before you trade slacks for shorts, I'd like to make a suggestion.

And no, it's not to make that appointment at the tanning salon to get your base tan started.

Protect your skin. Despite what you've seen in the movies, at this point I think we all know that a bronzed glow really isn't healthy. But why do so many people keep doing it to their skin? The color change of a tan is the skin's reaction to damage. Exposure to ultraviolet rays increases your risk of developing cancer and of premature aging. Check out some pictures of what damage from prolonged exposure to the sun and skin cancer look like. It might help change your mind about how "healthy" that tan really is.

If you do chose to worship the sun or just have an active, outdoor lifestyle, here are some Do's and Don'ts to consider to slow down the damaging effects:

Understand SPF and choose a product with an SPF of 15 or more. The SPF, or sun protection factor, is a measure of the time it would take an individual to develop sunburn if they were not wearing sunscreen compared to the time it would take with sunscreen applied.

Furthermore, it's measuring the ability of the product to block ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which cause sunburns. However, it doesn't take into account the more deeply penetrating ultraviolet A (UVA) rays. While UVB rays are generally to blame for sunburns, UVA rays contribute to skin damage and premature aging. Both rays contribute to the risk of developing skin cancer.

The SPF numbers can be a little confusing. It would seem that an SPF 30 sunscreen would be twice as effective as an SPF 15. Not exactly.

An SPF 15 product blocks about 94 percent of UVB rays, while an SPF 30 product blocks 97 percent of UVB rays. So, these products claiming to be SPF 70, 80 and even 100 are not significantly stronger than your trusty SPF 30 - blocking only 1 or 2 percent more of the UVB rays. No product blocks 100 percent of UVB rays.

Invest in the SPF 30 and do your best to remember to reapply liberally and frequently. Anything beyond that doesn't provide significantly greater protection.

Choose broad spectrum sunscreen. The SPF number doesn't tell you if the sunscreen blocks UVA rays - which account for about 95 percent of the radiation we're exposed to daily. Many popular lotions smoothed on at beaches from Montauk to Malibu don't block those rays at all.

The Skin Cancer Foundation has named its top five ingredients for blocking UVA rays: avobenzone, mexoryl, octocrylene, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Your first clue that you're holding a bottle of effective sunblock are the words "broad spectrum," but flip the bottle over and check for one of those ingredients for confirmation.

Apply sunscreen early and often. Slather, slather, slather. No matter how powerful the sunscreen, it can't protect you if you're not wearing it, and you're not reapplying frequently. The majority of sunscreens are providing protection through a chemical reaction when applied to the skin. They do not provide instant protection, unless you select one that has the UVA blocking ingredients mentioned above that provide a physical barrier.

So, smooth on sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside, and reapply at least every two hours - more frequently if sweating or swimming. The skin has seven layers. Allowing the sunscreen to absorb into the skin before going out in the sun, will help increase its effectiveness. Applying once you are already in the sun means you may have already started to burn before the sunscreen has the time to start doing its job.

No sunscreen is truly waterproof. While water-resistant products may stay on longer in the water, it's critical to reapply after a swim or strenuous activity.

It takes about an ounce of sunscreen, or roughly two tablespoons, to cover the average person. Err on the side of being generous with your application. And, no matter if you have fair skin or a darker complexion, everyone needs sunscreen protection in the sun.

Do not rely on sunscreen alone. Sunscreen is a good preventative measure, but sunscreen alone won't necessarily protect your skin. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends covering up with clothing, including a wide-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.

Stick to the shade as much as possible during the hottest hours of the day, from about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Also remember that if you're dodging the sun, you should be sure to take a Vitamin D supplement.

Don't be fooled by cloudy days or the time of year. Even if you've never been burned yourself on a cloudy, foggy, or smoggy day - trust me, you still need the sunscreen. Even on a cloudy day, 80 percent of those damaging UVA and UVB rays can penetrate cloud cover, and do the same damage to your skin.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher daily year-round. Harmful ultraviolet rays are present even when it's not summer vacation.

Do not buy in to the myth of the base tan. There is no such thing as a healthy tan. No amount of tanning, either from the sun or from artificial light in a tanning bed, is safe, nor will it protect you from further sun damage.

Tanning beds, which usually emit mostly UVA rays, are not safer tanning alternatives as recently emphasized by the FDA. Exposure to UVA rays increases the risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

The only safe tan is a sunless tan that comes out of a bottle or that's sprayed on in a salon. If you choose this option, keep in mind that these products generally do not contain sunscreen. They may protect you from being teased about your pale legs - but not from skin damage.

Take advantage of these warmer days to go outside, enjoy a hike, a bike ride, a good swim or a relaxing afternoon on the beach. This beautiful weather is one of the greatest benefits of living in Los Angeles. Just don't be caught without the must-have accessories of the season: broad spectrum sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses.