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Video: Rossen Reports: Are sunscreen labels misleading you?

updated 8/17/2012 7:43:17 AM ET 2012-08-17T11:43:17

A day at the beach ... and the sunscreen that’s supposed to protect you. But does it really? And what about those super-high SPF numbers: Are they really worth the extra money? TODAY National Investigative Correspondent Jeff Rossen reports.

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We've all been to the store this summer, shopping for sunscreen. And it’s confusing: SPF 70, 80, 100 .... I saw 110 the other day. And the higher you go, in many cases, the more money they charge you.

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But some doctors say the sunscreen companies are misleading you — and they know it.

“You want to buy the very best for your kids,” mom Angie Malone told us at the beach. “The highest number, the sweatproof, the waterproof.”

But hang on: Some doctors call these ultra-high SPF numbers a misleading marketing ploy. If you buy SPF 100 over SPF 50, you may think you're getting double the protection. But you're actually only getting 1 percent more — which, doctors say, doesn't make a real difference.

And the FDA agrees: There's no evidence that anything over SPF 50 protects you any better. Yet the SPF 70s, 80s, 100 — even 110 — often cost you more at the store.

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“I tell my patients SPF over 50 is useless,” said Dr. Ellen Marmur, a dermatologist specializing in skin cancer at Mount Sinai Medical Center. “Save your money; stick with the 30 to 50 plus.”

Marmur said ultrahigh SPFs can even be dangerous. “The harm of buying these higher SPFs is this false sense of security — that you're completely protected all day long.”

Yet the sunscreen companies keep making it and selling it. Some of the products are even marketed for kids. We went straight to the industry group representing the sunscreen companies and asked: “Isn’t that deceptive?”

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“I think as a consumer you make a choice based on what you feel you need,” said Farah Ahmed of the Personal Care Products Council.

She said that not even the sunscreen companies agree on the science.

“Have you seen evidence that anything over SPF 50 plus gives you better protection?”

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“Well, because we are not part of that dialogue, that's not an area that I have gotten into,” Ahmed said.

“But you're sitting here representing the industry,” we said. “Have you seen any science that shows over SPF 50 better protects you?”

“That's a scientific door I have not opened because there is a debate going on,” Ahmed said.

Read more investigative journalism from Rossen Reports

Some companies, like Neutrogena and Banana Boat, say the higher SPFs do work better and can offer better protection; setting a limit on the label would only hurt consumers. But the FDA isn’t convinced. Now, the agency is proposing new rules that would ban the sky-high SPFs on labels. The limit would be SPF 50+; that’s it.

And FDA isn’t done yet. Experts say those big promises of “waterproof” and “ultra sweatproof” are misleading too, making you think that you don't have to reapply.

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“‘Waterproof’ and ‘sweatproof’ are not true,” Dr. Marmur said. “If you go in the water and you swim, or in the ocean or pool, and you come out, you've lost that sunscreen.”

Dizzying labels, confusing SPFs: What's a beach lover to do? “You're going to buy the highest number and the one that's waterproof and the one that says ‘this is the very best,’” Angie Malone said. “They're kind of playing on your emotions as a mom.”

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The federal government put a deadline on the sunscreen companies: Change your testing, change your labels, get rid of the terms “waterproof” and “sweatproof” by this summer. But the companies said they need more time, and got it pushed back. So when you go to the store, it’s still there. Doctors say: Don’t believe it — stick with sunscreen between SPF 30 and 50 and reapply at least every two hours.

Video: Rossen Reports: Are sunscreen labels misleading you? (on this page)

As for the “waterproof” claims: Some companies are already switching over to the new labels, and the new ones will say “water resistant” and tell you to reapply every 40 to 80 minutes. But the old labels are still out there too, adding to the confusion. So if your sunscreen still says “waterproof,” doctors say, reapply every 40 minutes to be safe. The same goes for your kids.

To read statements from sunscreen companies in response to this report, click here .

Have an idea for a future edition of Rossen Reports? We want to hear from you! To send us your ideas, click here.

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