A woman applying UV protection in the form of sunscreen

After a long, cold winter, nothing feels better than the arrival of those first few warm, sunny spring days. Suddenly, everyone is stripped down to short sleeves—kids on the playground, people planting their gardens or exercising outdoors. But before you trade in your parka for a T-shirt, be sure to spring into sun protection mode. Here's why it really matters.

It Doesn't Have to Be Hot for You to Burn

"People have a misperception about how outside temperature affects the intensity of the sun’s rays,” says Joel L. Cohen, M.D., director of AboutSkin Dermatology and DermSurgery in metropolitan Denver. "The reality is that UV radiation is present regardless of temperature"—as anyone who’s ever gotten sunburned during a ski trip can attest.

More on Sun Protection

Spring sun can also be intense. The sun is at its highest angle in the summer—which means that’s when the strongest UV rays are hitting our skin. But by late spring, UV rays can be summer strength in many areas of the country.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average UV Index (a measure of the sun’s intensity) in April is at moderate to high levels in the mid-Atlantic, Midwestern, Southern, and Southwestern states. That’s nearly as high as you’ll find in August in those areas.

More Daylight Means More Hours Outdoors

One of the benefits of springing the clocks forward is that the days are suddenly, and increasingly, long. And while that means extra hours of daylight to play and work outdoors, it also adds up to more sun exposure. Remember that exposed skin—like your face, neck, and arms—needs sunscreen before you head outside. And it needs a second application if you stay in the sun for more than a couple of hours. Although the type of rays that cause burning, UVB, are strongest between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the UVA rays that cause wrinkles and skin cancer are present whenever the sun is out year-round.  

Spring Travelers Need Sunscreen

If your spring vacation takes you to the beach or a ski resort, you’ll need plenty of sunscreen to keep your skin protected.

That’s because water, sand, and snow all reflect damaging rays. Your skin gets a double whammy of UV rays—directly from the sun, and again as the rays bounce back up. According to the World Health Organization, flat water reflects less than 10 percent of UV light; sand reflects about 15 percent; the foam in a choppy ocean reflects 25 percent; and snow reflects nearly 50 percent.

If you’re at the beach or someplace warm, you’re also likely to have more skin exposed that needs to be covered in sunscreen. In the mountains, it may be just your face that’s seeing the sun, but remember that being at higher altitudes (most of the ski resorts in Colorado, for example, are over 8,000 feet above sea level) means more intense sun. For every 1,000 feet you gain in elevation, the sun’s rays are about 10 to 15 percent stronger, according to Douglas Grossman, M.D., Ph.D., professor of dermatology and oncological sciences, University of Utah.  

Summer Sunscreen Rules Apply in Spring Too

Practicing smart sun protection should be a year-round habit. That means applying sunscreen (about a teaspoon-sized blob per exposed body part) 15 to 30 minutes before heading outdoors—and reapplying it every two hours or immediately after being in the water.

And consider buying a new bottle instead of reaching for last summer’s leftovers. Sunscreen does remain ­­effective for about three years, but not all containers have an expiration date, and sunscreen can go bad before that time if it hasn’t been stored at room temperature.

Finally, don’t simply slap on sunscreen and think you’re good to go. It’s also smart to seek shade (especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when rays are strongest), wear a wide-brimmed hat, and cover up with clothing.

Below are some of CR's top-rated sunscreens.

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