You can prevent sunburn by protecting your skin. Any exposed part of your body can burn.

Your eyes, which are extremely sensitive to the sun's UV light can also burn. Sunburned eyes may feel gritty and painful.

Melanin helps protect the skin against effects of the sun, such as skin cancers and premature aging. People with lighter skin color and lower amounts of melanin are more vulnerable to the sun's carcinogenic (cancer-causing) ultraviolet rays. However, that does not make people with darker skin immune to skin cancer.

The use of sunscreen by everyone, no matter what skin color on a regular basis is very important.

Damage to the skin from one sunburn can last for several years or for a lifetime. Ultraviolet rays cause premature aging and increase the risk of developing skin cancer later in life. Other skin problems that can result from excessive heat exposure include dehydration, exhaustion and heat stroke.

Although most individuals like the look of tan skin, it is important to remember that the bronze color you have on your body today might mean permanent sun damage in the future. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, mostly caused by sun damage to the skin. More than one million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year nationally, and about 500 cases are reported in the state of Oklahoma annually. Most individuals do not realize that sun damage is cumulative and thus adds up over a lifetime.

Early signs of sun or photo damage include sunburn, tanning and increased freckling, which is often followed by wrinkling, sagging skin and premature aging. Long-term effects of sun damage to the skin include more serious health problems, such as skin cancer. As much as 80 percent of lifetime photo-damage occurs before age 12.

Children are also vulnerable to skin damage. Because it is unrealistic to keep children completely out of the sun, there are steps parents can take to minimize exposure. The sun is most intense between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. A good rule of thumb to prevent children from sun damage is to keep them out of the sun when the child's shadow is shorter than he or she is. When children have to be outdoors, use sunscreen that has a Sun Protection Factor of at least 30 or higher. Information on SPF is always found on the label of the product container. In addition, sunscreen products should protect against both ultra violet-A (UVA) or ultraviolet-B (UBV) rays. The higher the SPF, the more protection you get from UVB rays. A sunscreen with a 15 SPF provides 15 times the body's normal protection from the sun.

Be sure to apply sunscreen 15-30 minutes before sun exposure and reapply every hour since water and perspiration will decrease its effectiveness. Keep in mind that even on a cloudy day one is exposed to 80 percent of the sun's rays. Wear sunglasses when outdoors and choose glasses with UVA and UVB protection. Be aware of any medications that increase your sensitivity to the sun. Be sure to throw away sunscreen that is expired or more than three years old.

Heather Winn is a family and consumer sciences educator for the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service in Cherokee County.