It's that time of year again! The time when clients tell me how great it makes them feel have a "little bit" of color – a sun-kissed tan. We think a tan makes us look healthy and younger – it appears to hide skin imperfections, it makes cellulite dimples less noticeable and it seems to erase spider veins.

Do we love the look of bronze skin because the Barbie doll of our youth set a life-long precedent for summer color that we continue to chase? Come on. Admit it. How many of you began tanning with the ever-present bottle of baby oil mixed with iodine in your beach bag? How many of you still lay tracks to the tanning salon to achieve a "base" tan before vacation?

It's finally time to get skin smart about tanning.

What is a Tan?

A tan is the skin's natural reaction to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The body produces brown pigment, called melanin, as a way of protecting the skin cells from UV damage. The sun's UV rays are strong enough – even on cloudy days – to travel deep into the cellular layers of the skin and damage the DNA. This damage causes elastin cells to mutate (change). A tan may look great, but the damage is cumulative and significant. Over time, you end up with unhealthy skin that is wrinkled, saggy and leathery.

In addition, experts link sun exposure directly to skin cancer. The National Institute of Health now designates both UVA and UVB as causes of cancer. Unfortunately, for you tan-seekers, there just is no such thing as a healthy tan from sunbathing or tanning beds.

UVA and UVB Rays

The sun emits three kinds of rays: UVA, UVB and UVC. UVC rays have the shortest wavelength. The Earth's ozone layer absorbs UVC rays – making them less dangerous than UVA or UVB rays. UVB rays are longer and affect the surface of the skin. These rays are responsible for tanning, burning and skin cancer. UVB rays are strongest in the summer months between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

UVA rays have the longest length and the same strength all year. These rays have the ability to go through windows and windshields and penetrate the skin more deeply – damaging the skin's support structure. As a result, UVA rays are responsible for skin aging and can exacerbate skin cancer.

Sun Protection

When choosing a sunscreen, look for a product labeled "broad spectrum" that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher. Choose products formulated with titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, avobenzone (known also as Parsol 1789) and Mexoryl. These are the longest-lasting, broad-spectrum sunscreen ingredients available. Apply your sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going into the sun and make sure you apply enough – one ounce (picture a full shot glass) for your body and a full teaspoon for your face. Remember to reapply every 2-3 hours and after swimming and exercising. It's also a great idea to wear a wide brimmed hat, sit in the shade and avoid the strong mid-day sun.

Sun protection is not just for a day at the beach or pool, applying it needs to become part of your everyday routine. Most of our sun exposure is incidental – a result of gardening, walking or driving. For your face, try a tinted moisturizer or moisturizer with an SPF 15 or higher. Don't just rely on the SPF in your make-up. Most women do not wear enough make-up to get the full amount of SPF listed on the label. For foundation, mineral make-up is a fabulous choice. Most brands contain titanium dioxide, which acts as a physical sunblock.

And, don't forget your lips! Choose an opaque-colored lipstick or a gloss with at least an SPF 15.

But I Like to Look Tan!

Think bottles and sprays! Self-tanning has come a long way and is the easiest and safest way to get that golden glow. Self-tanners contain the active ingredient dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which is the only FDA-approved sunless tanning ingredient. This sugar molecule reacts with the amino acids in your skin and creates a tanned appearance on the outer skin layer. Many new products now contain the added ingredient erythrulose, a natural sugar that adds a bit more red to the self-tanning color – making it appear more natural.

It's important to apply these products evenly to prevent streaking and give them ample time to dry before getting dressed. Once the product is absorbed in your skin, some users may notice an unpleasant smell. This is one challenge of self-tanning products, so many cosmetic companies are now adding odor neutralizers to their formulations. 

Enhancing Your Sunless Glow

Once you achieve your desired level of self-tan, enhance it with a lotion containing a subtle shimmer. This reflection highlights the look of the tan and gives your skin a healthy glow. For your face, break out the bronzer – my favorite product! – applying it to the apples of your cheeks, your chin, nose and forehead. Add a champagne-colored highlighter to the upper cheekbones and under the eyebrow. Complete your look with light shades of lipstick or lip gloss with a bit of golden sparkle.

Summer is a great time of year! Enjoy it safely – for the sake of your skin. Play outdoors. Swim. Vacation. Garden. Just don't forget your sunscreen. One painful sunburn, a tanning-bed jumpstart to your vacation or a summer of tanning in the sun can result in irreparable damage to your skin – the largest organ of your body.

Ask yourself: Are wrinkles, age spots and skin cancer really the souvenirs you want to accrue from all your outdoor activities and family vacations this summer?