In the early 1920s Coco Chanel wowed an adoring audience when she stepped off a cruise in Cannes with a deep golden tan.

Her newly-bronzed body came as a shock in a time when porcelain skin was in vogue, but fashion is fickle, and soon everyone was rushing out to turn a golden shade of pale.

By the late 1920s, heliotherapy was all the rage and a daily influx of sunlight was touted as a cure for everything from acne to tuberculosis.

A decade later a tan was a sign of health, wealth and good style plus clothes were adapting, with smaller swimwear and shoulder straps that could be lowered to avoid unsightly tan lines.

With the arrival of the bikini women's bodies were primed for total exposure, and by the 60s the sun entered living rooms, with the invention of the sun light.

By the time the fashion press got behind the idea in the 70s a tan was championed as the key to looking healthier and younger, and the nation was hooked.

But a growing body of scientific evidence began to suggest that the phrase, "a healthy tan", was in fact a dangerous oxymoron.

Years of sun worshipping were beginning to catch up with people, as deep-etched wrinkles appeared and incidents of dangerous skin cancers increased.

Today the quest for the perfect tan is as desirable as ever, with new phrases such as tanorexia' required to describe those who risk everything for that golden glow.

And it's a trend that is increasingly affecting the young, with almost half of Britain's under- 24s already showing signs of sun damage on their faces such as brown pigmentation marks and new freckles and moles.

Jane Lewis, dermatological nurse and development director at Sk:n, a national network of skin clinics, has been treating prematurely-aged and sun-damaged skin for 25 years.

She said: "Sun damage is the main cause of dry wrinkled skin and if the damage is done early the effects are much worse and the skin will look thinner and much older.

"A good sun block should be part of everyone's daily regime as even on cloudy days the UVA rays still do damage. The key ingredients to look for are zinc and titanium, which prevent these rays getting to the skin's surface.

"Many cheap high street sun creams do not contain these so are not as effective."

A recent survey conducted by sk:n showed that more the one in 10 admit they only apply sun protection when their skin is already burnt and worryingly, eight per cent never use it at all.

This is against a background of data from Cancer Research UK which shows that malignant melanoma is the second most common cancer in 20 to 39-year-olds.

Matthew Patey, chief executive of the British Skin Foundation said he was concerned by the results.

"It would appear from the sk:n survey that the younger generations are not listening to advice that could save their lives.

"Skin cancer can be prevented through good sun sense so we need to think of new ways to get the messages through to this group."

To curb skin damage, sk:n has launched its Face Facts campaign with the British Skin Foundation and is offering skin assessments for £1 which will be donated to the British Skin Foundation.

Last Wednesday, I went along to the clinic at Sutton Hospital to learn about my own skin, and how badly all those years of flippant sunbathing had affected me.

After the clinic manager, Moby Saumtally, ran me through a few simple questions, I was led into a consultation room were a dermatological nurse discussed any concerns I may have before scrutinising it under the telling UV light.

Under the harsh blue rays, I was shocked by the mottled face staring back, but lead nurse Charalyn Gore reassured me it was not as bad as it looked.

Although I was already showing areas of hyperpigmentation on my forehead, which I assumed was code for "fried", she assured me my skin was in OK condition, but it definitely gave me cause for thought.

"We treat a lot of people who are showing advanced stages of sun damage." said Charalyn. "And it's much better to prevent damage in the first place.

"I've seen people as young as 20 struck down with terminal skin cancers. Smoking and sun are by far the worst things you can do for your skin, it's better to be a bit of a Victorian lady and avoid tanning."

But for those who can't resist the allure of a tan some simple steps can help toavoid long-term sun damage.

The advice is to stay in the shade when the sun is at its strongest, usually between 11am and 3pm, wear a wide-brimmed had and sunglasses with UV protection.

Also, avoid sunbeds and check skin regularly, reporting any changes to your doctor without delay.

An assessment at the sk:n clinic normally costs £25 but for a mere pound you can now learn about your skin's condition, get advice on products tailored to your skin type, and insight on how to best protect yourself against premature ageing and skin damage, as well as improving your appearance, essentially it could save your life.

The clinic also offers a range of treatments to improve the condition of your skin, including microdermabrasion, peels and laser treatment.

To book an appointment call the clinic, at Sutton Hospital, on 0208 296 4147 or visit