The Latest Sun protection remains the best and easiest way to maintain skin health and elasticity. But aware that this advice comes late for millions of Americans, researchers continue to search for anti-aging treatments. Some new studies showed that an experimental formulation of topical vitamin C -- it does not break down as easily as standard preparations when exposed to oxygen -- helped prevent sun damage to skin.

In the absence of miracle cures, the popularity of Botox grew after Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of the injections to reduce forehead wrinkles.

Sales of Accutane dropped by 30 percent last year after the FDA issued stricter guidelines for prescribing the acne drug, an action aimed at reducing birth defects and fetal deaths involving women who used Accutane while pregnant. Claims that link the drug to depression and suicide have so far not been proven. A study in the Archives of Dermatology challenged conventional dermatological wisdom by suggesting that diets rich in breads, cakes and chips may promote acne.

Late last year the FDA proposed requiring cosmetic makers to put warning labels on products containing skin-softening alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), after studies suggested the chemicals may make users more prone to sunburn. A decision may come soon.

Several studies suggested Aldara (imiquimod), licensed to treat genital warts, may be effective in treating common non-melanoma skin cancers. Aldara's maker, 3M, is seeking FDA approval for that purpose. The cream, which stimulates the body to produce interferons that attack abnormal cells, is the only alternative to surgery for such skin cancers, which are usually not fatal. Doctors also applied a new strategy to treating metastatic melanoma, injecting patients with interleukins, synthetic hormones that prompt white blood cells to attack cancer cells. Success so far is limited.

And it's official: Duct tape appears to help remove warts. Doctors had been advising patients to place duct tape on their warts for years, but in October a study in the Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine finally proved its efficacy -- and superiority over traditional liquid nitrogen. Applying duct tape to growths for two months appears to irritate the area, stimulating the immune system to attack warts.

The Next Thing Look for more dermatologic use of lasers as a treatment for severe acne and the repair of acne scars, applications that began last year. And a new laser treatment called narrow band laser phototherapy offers hope for millions of patients with psoriasis.

Pharmacia Corp. is testing its pain-relieving drug Celebrex as a possible candidate for "chemoprevention" -- drugs that may prevent non-melanoma skin cancers in people with precancerous lesions. And two large studies are underway on an experimental cancer vaccine that may help patients with metastatic melanoma.

In the vanity department, tazarotene (Tazorac), a cream approved for acne and psoriasis, is jockeying for approval as an overall skin rejuvenator. Doctors say it could give Retin-A a run for its money in 2003. Look for the buzz to build about ThermaCool TC, the first noninvasive technique for lifting eyebrows and smoothing crow's feet. The newly approved procedure tightens the skin, essentially by cooking it with radio frequency energy. Dermatologists are also enthusiastic about non-ablative skin rejuvenation, a nonsurgical facelift alernative that heats the face to stimulate new collagen growth and smooth out wrinkles.

Recommendations Science has shown that, while some sun exposure is beneficial as a source of vitamin D, too much exposure damages skin. Doctors continue to recommend daily application of sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher for everyone who ventures out into the sunlight for more than 15 minutes. Sunscreens should contains avobenzone, titanium dioxide or zinc oxide to block ultraviolet-B (UVB) radiation.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends at least annual screening for skin cancer by either a primary care physician or a dermatologist.

Worry Index According to the American Cancer Society, 53,600 people were diagnosed with melanoma in 2002, up from 51,400 in 2001. On a more hopeful note, melanoma deaths dropped to 7,400 in 2002, from 7,800 the year before. Doctors attribute both the increase in prevalence and the drop in deaths to more people seeking treatment earlier. In 2003 more than 1 million new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed, according to the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery.

Hype-O-Scope Don't look for the Botox party to break up any time soon. As it continues, more doctors from other specialties will look to cash in. Last year, the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery found that half its 2,400 members reported seeing an increase in complications from laser procedures like hair and wrinkle removal which can legally be performed with little supervision by spa aestheticians or cosmetologists.

For More Information American Academy of Dermatology: www.aad.org

American Cancer Society: www.cancer.org (search for melanoma and skin cancer)

American Society for Dermatologic Surgery: www.aboutskinsurgery.org

American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery: www.aslms.org (click on public health information)

Skin Cancer Foundation: www.skincancer.org.

-- Suz Redfearn

Demand for cosmetic Botox injections grew following FDA approval.