Have you ever come back from a day at the beach or the pool with a painful sunburn? Not that long ago, coming home sunburned wasn't unusual.

When your parents were kids, the public didn't know that sun exposure during childhood increases the risk of developing skin cancer.

But times have changed and many Americans today are being careful in the sun. According to a telephone survey conducted last year by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), three out of four U.S. parents take steps to protect their children aged 6 months to 12 years from sunburn. That's important because experts say that a person accumulates 80 percent of his or her sun exposure during the first 18 years of life!

Seventy-four percent of adults surveyed said that their children use sunscreen. Thirty percent reported that they have their children stay in the shade, and 27 percent ask their kids to wear hats while they are out in the sun.

Doctors say anyone who will be out in the sun should use sunscreen. Sunscreens contain chemicals that either deflect or soak up the sun's harmful rays, which helps prevent changes in the skin that can lead to cancer. There are three types of skin cancer that experts have linked to being out in the sun. They are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.

Basal cell is the most common type, but it is almost never deadly. Squamous cell cancer, which begins in cells close to the skin's surface, can reach deeper tissue under the skin and spread to other parts of the body. It is generally easy to treat successfully, but if it is not treated it can kill.

Melanoma is the deadliest kind of skin cancer, but it also the least common. Researchers report that melanoma develops in melanocytes, cells that produce a pigment called melanin that produces color in the skin. When these cells change they can enter the bloodstream and cause a deadly cancer. Although it remains the rarest form of skin cancer, the number of people getting melanoma is growing. In fact, the rate at which people get this disease has doubled in the past 20 years.

People who got bad sunburns when they were children are discovering that their skin is in trouble now. "More than 1 million new cases of skin cancer were diagnosed in 1998," says Darrell Rigel, a doctor who is also president of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Luckily, all three types of skin cancer can be treated effectively if discovered early. Today, many doctors make a skin check part of their patients' annual physical checkups.

The people who are at highest risk for developing skin cancer from the sun have fair skin that burns easily and light-colored hair and eyes. But everyone's skin--including that of black, Asian and Hispanic people--can be damaged by sun exposure. Here are some ways to protect yourself, recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology:

* Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the rays are strongest.

* Cover up. Wear long pants and shirts with sleeves.

* Wear a hat with a four-inch brim to protect your face and neck.

* Use sunscreen every day. If you'll be outside for any length of time, use a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30, and no less than SPF 15.

* Reapply sunscreen often. Even waterproof sunscreens need to be reapplied every two hours for maximum protection.

In Australia, where powerful sun rays have caused a lot of skin cancer, health experts started a program designed to remind people to take care of their skin. It's motto is "Slip, Slop, Slap": Slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen and slap on a hat. It's a good reminder for Americans, too.

Tips for Parents

Valuable--and potentially lifesaving--information about the skin is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week from the American Academy of Dermatology's information line. Dial 1-888-462-3376, to order pamphlets on all skin, hair and nail conditions. Need to see a dermatologist? You can also choose an option on the phone line that will give you a list of dermatologists near you.

For You to Do

It can be tough to stay out of the sun during the midday hours--but it's good for your skin. To make staying in the shade easier, make a list of the top 10 reasons to stay in the shade. Here's two suggestions to get you started:

1. A shady spot is the best place to read a good book.

2. A shady, sheltered spot is a good place to hide from my little brother.