The sun. We soak it up. Bask in it. We love the warmth and how our skin becomes tanned and buttery. But doctors and writers and broadcasters and teachers have been telling us for a few years now that the sun is truly not our best friend or our natural beautician. It can ravage us, make us look old. It can even make us sick.

Most have taken the warnings seriously. It's actually become chic to compare sunscreen SPF ratings in the same way we rattle off our cholesterol counts. We rarely hear of anyone going out in the sun unprotected. And it's even more rare to find the traditional beach setting -- chair, book, radio and towel -- without a coverup or hat close by.

Cara Shaley, 27, of San Francisco, was on the beach last week in Rehoboth, covered up nicely in a Ralph Lauren raspberry-and-white-striped oxford-cloth chemise. She always has a wrap of some sort on the beach now, she says, "because I want to live a long life. I spent too many summers uncovered. I'd be out here morning, noon and night -- no sunscreen -- until three or four years ago."

Then she read, and learned, and changed her ways.

Mary Alfonse of West Chester, Pa., chose a woven straw hat to protect herself from damaging rays. "When I was a kid," she said, "I would blister. Now I realize what all the effects of the sun on the skin are -- that it can hurt your skin -- so I wear a hat all the time to keep the sun off my face."

In the past, we thought it was only the fair-skinned types who had to be concerned about burning or premature aging. However, we have learned the sun affects even those with dark complexions.

"I don't think it matters what shade you are," agreed Rochelle Ghee of Cheltenham, Pa. "You need to protect yourself from the radiation."