For years, medical professionals have warned the public about the dangers of too much exposure to the sun. What used to be a focus on maintaining tanlines has now become concern over SPF levels and skin cancer. Taking steps to avoid mosquito bites by using repellents containing DEET have also entered the publicís awareness as the spread of West Nile Virus has occasionally gripped the headlines in recent years. At some stores now, it is even possible to purchase mosquito repellent with sunscreen mixed in, taking outdoor safety to new and convenient ó although possibly unsafe ó levels.

But like so much other medical news the public gets, things are starting to get confusing.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended both sunscreen and insect repellent usage for years, encouraging parents to apply the sunscreen to children and themselves first, and then the repellent. Although the CDC did not recommend the usage of a sun-screen/repellent combination product, it re-assured us that using the two in combination was not harmful to children or adults.

Like SPF levels, which stands for Sun Protection Factor, DEET also comes in varying levels for different products. A concentration of 10 percent is effective for about two hours in repelling insects, while higher concentrations can work for more than five. It is recommended that DEET-containing repellents only be applied once a day. And although the levels go much lower, most doctors recommend an SPF level of at least 15.

Today, though, comes news that a recent study would seem to indicate that danger does exist when sunscreen and DEET are used at the same time on children. According to a report on television this week, several studies have shown that applying repellent on top of sunscreen can cause symptoms like blurry vision, weakness and seizures in children. The danger appears to be greater when repellents with higher levels (more than 10 percent) of DEET are applied.

Sounds like the same type of medical advice flip-flopping weíve heard about alcohol, coffee, eggs and milk, not to mention numerous diet and fitness plans. Itís good, itís bad. Itís good, itís bad. Itís good in moderation, itís not good for most of us. It can be very confusing to try and decide what the best course of action would be.

There are several suggestions for dealing with this news, however. The first is to try and avoid being outside when the sun is most intense and when mosquitoes are most active. Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants is another solution. If you must take children outside, make sure that the DEET concentration of repellent applied to childrenís skin is less than 10 percent. Apply repellent to clothes rather than directly on the skin. A final suggestion is to wait at least 15 minutes between applying sunscreen and repellent.

Both insect bites and sunburns create a nuisance for their victims, with the immediate effect usually being itching skin. However, the long-term risks of developing skin cancer as a result of sunburns is far greater than the risk of contracting West Nile Virus. That is why it is important for parents to protect the skin of their children as well as themselves when outdoors.

Incidents of sunburn are increasing in the country, with roughly one-third of all adults suffering from one each year, according to a CDC study. Somewhat surprisingly, according to the 1999 study, Arizona had the lowest incidence of sunburns ó perhaps because the intense heat leads to a logical method of prevention that the experts are not likely to change their opinion about ó staying indoors.

Bill Crist is associate publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at