Sun worshipper STEPHEN LEWIS seeks advice on what sun cream to choose.

IT HAPPENS every year. After what seems like months of dreary, sunless days, the sun finally breaks through the clouds to bring a promise of spring and summer.

At that first hint of welcome warmth, millions of sun-starved Brits dash off to their nearest park or garden to stretch out and soak up some of the golden rays.

And surprise surprise, the next day high street chemists are inundated with people complaining of sunburn.

"The day after a hot snap, we get so many people coming in who are burned," admits York locum pharmacist Jonathan Hurst. "They are very vulnerable."

It seems we never learn. A little sun is good for you - it helps us produce some of the vitamins we need to stay healthy. But too much sun, too quickly, is bad - and dangerous. Escape with a touch of sunburn and you should really count yourself fortunate. Too much sun is also linked to skin cancer - and that's on the rise, killing about 1,500 people a year in the UK.

So how can you enjoy the sun and get that tan without putting yourself at risk?

By being cautious, says Jonathan.

The average fair-haired, fair-skinned Briton who hasn't yet built up a tan will start to burn within 15-20 minutes, he says. If you're going to be out in the sun longer than that, wear sunglasses, a floppy hat and a tee-shirt. And if you're really determined to get a tan, make sure you wear a protective sun cream. Sounds easy enough. But there are a dazzling array of creams on the market - lotions, cooling gels, anti-wrinkle ointments and oil-free sprays, with new variations springing up each year. How do you know how to get the right one?

The key, Jonathan says, is the sun protection factor. There is a huge range of factors, from four or five up to 50. The higher the factor, the more protection you get. A cream with a factor of five means it will take you five times as long to burn as if you are unprotected. Factor 15 means it will take you 15 times as long.

How high a factor you will need will depend on how sensitive your skin is, and whether you have already built up a tan or not, Jonathan says.

Very young children burn very easily. So if you have a toddler who is going to be playing outdoors a lot, Jonathan recommends a high factor cream - about 30.

For adults, it depends on your skin type and sensitivity. If you're fair or ginger-haired with pale skin, you'll burn more easily. If you've got a darker complexion, or have built up a tan already, you'll burn less quickly - but you'll still burn, Jonathan warns.

"So many people put a factor four on, because they've got a tan, and they still get burned," he says.

As a general rule of thumb, Jonathan recommends a factor of 15-20 for the first couple of days in the sun as you build up a tan, reducing to five-10 later. Use a higher factor if you've got a very fair or sensitive skin. Even with a high-factor sun cream, Jonathan recommends staying out of the sun at midday - between 11.30 to 2pm when the sun is at its fiercest. It's also important to remember that if you are going abroad that the sun further south is fiercer than here - and you'll burn more quickly. So use a higher factor cream.

Generally-speaking, cheaper sun creams provide just as good protection as more expensive ones, provided you get the factor right - though if you have very sensitive skin, it might be worth testing cream on a small patch of skin first before applying it all over. Some people can have reactions to perfumes in the cream, Jonathan says. It will show up within a day if you do.

Make sure, if you can, that the cream you buy isn't past its sell-by date, too. The older a cream gets, the less effective it becomes - so stock left over from last year won't give you the protection you think it's giving. It's not compulsory for creams to show a best-before date: but some good manufacturers are now starting to do so.

Finally, remember that if you're on certain kinds of medication - antibiotics like doxycycline or heart tablets such as amiodarone - you have to be especially careful about exposing yourself to the sun.

If you're unsure then the best advice, Jonathan says, is to consult your pharmacist before you buy.