Ouch!

Just the thought of a sunburn sends chills up the spine. Shoulders too warm for a shirt. Neck too pained to turn. Back too sore to sleep on.

As a kid, I never seemed to learn. Every year a bad sunburn to start off the summer. "You'll pay for it," my mother warned. Red hair, freckles, a light skin - I was the likeliest of candidates to turn a tender pink.

"You're paying for it," my dermatologist said recently. I had become an American Cancer Society statistic, one of the more than 300,000 Americans annually who develop skin cancer. There were three spots on my back, fortunately easily removed (though one required minor surgery), but it gave me a good scare.

Now if you see me at the beach, I'm the one under the big umbrella wearing a floppy hat and draped in towels, spreading on the strongest sun-blocking cream I can buy.

Though it may not appear so with all the recent rain, the sun season is upon us - and with it come the warnings that too much sun can be harmful to the skin.

The American Cancer Society quotes reports by skin specialists that skin cancer is increasing in the United States as a result of our outdoor life style and our national passion for a tan.

Skin cancer is the most common form of canner, and "fortunately the easiest to cure," says the society. Still around 3,500 people die each year from melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, which can spread rapidly to other parts of the body.

Malignant melanoma "occurs as a small, mole-like growth that increases in size, may become ulcerated and may bleed easily upon slight injury," the society says. The less serious basal and squamous cell cancers generally are characterized by "a pale, waxy, pearl-nodule which may eventually ulcerate and crust, or by a red, scaly, sharply outlined patch."

Excessive sun also can age the skin, particularly for women, according to Dr. Peter N. Horvath, clinical professor of medicine (dermatology) at Georgetown University School of Medicine. At 40 the woman who insists on baking herself will look 45, he says. "Our Victorian grandmothers wore hats and gloves, and they had lovely skin."

Still, say the specialists, you can enjoy the sun relatively safely and even acquire a tan. Just take some precautions:

Use a good sunscreen or sunblocking agent, depending on your skin coloring, and reapply often, particularly if you are swimming or sweating. Many products this year are labeled with a "sun protection factor" number - the higher the number the greater the protection against the sun. SPF 2 offers minimal protection and is for the person who rarely burns and tans deeply. SPF 15 or higher provides "ultra" protection for those who easily burn.

Avoid the midday sun. If you're sun sensitive, try the beach before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.

Don't forget you can get a burn under a beach umbrella or on a cloudy day.

Wear a wide-brimmed hat and loose, long-sleeved shirts or blouses.

Keep moving, you're better off cycling than basking on a beach towel. "A moving target is harder for the rays to find than a motionless one," the society says.

Avoid sun reflectors. They expose the delicate facial areas under the chin, eyelids and earlobes.

Build a tan gradually.Don't try to do it all in one day, even if that's all the sun we see this summer.