Decoding Product Labels

Decoding Product Labels

Posted on 17. Jan, 2010 by in Green Living

If you’ve browsed the cleaning aisle of your market lately, you may have noticed that the selection of “green” and “all-natural” products is growing, thanks to consumer demand for healthier alternatives. But when you see those claims on a cleaning product, what do they really mean? Most of the time, turning the product around and reading the label doesn’t help. Unless you’re a chemist, it’s not easy to even pronounce—never mind comprehend the effects of—each ingredient in the list. Fortunately, there’s a convenient (and portable!) way to decode the ingredients in cleaning products and determine their safety for you, your children, and the environment.

The Problems with Labels

If a product was dangerous or contained hazardous ingredients, you’d think it would say so, right? Or that it wouldn’t be allowed on the market on the first place. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. The majority of the time, only the manufacturer knows what’s really in the product, and is not legally obligated to provide full disclosure of ingredients or any hazards they represent.

The law only requires that cleaning product labels warn consumers of “immediate” dangers when a product is used incorrectly (if it’s ingested, for example). Any ingredient that poses chronic health effects (a confirmed or probable carcinogen, neurotoxin, or developmental or reproductive toxin) must be considered “toxic” and is subject to the same labeling regulations as ingredients that pose an immediate risk.

However, manufacturers can combine their warnings about different hazards. For example, if one ingredient in a household cleaner can cause sudden poisoning and another causes cancer, the manufacturer simply has to include “do not take internally” on the label. Although that’s good advice in any case, it’s nearly impossible to discern whether the risk to your health is obvious or chronic.

In addition, manufacturers of cleaning products are not legally required to submit their products to an unbiased third party for safety testing before they can be sold. Manufacturers themselves are responsible for assuring their products’ safety, and the standards are voluntary.

Children at Risk

Symptoms of chronic chemical toxicity appear over time and can include damage to the endocrine, reproductive, and nervous systems, asthma, allergies, cancer, and developmental disorders. Perhaps the most troubling is that the smallest members of the family face the biggest risk.

Children are particularly vulnerable to hazardous chemicals for a variety of reasons. Aside from their normal behavior (crawling around and playing on the floor and often putting things in their mouths, including their hands) putting them at an increased risk, their small size also makes them susceptible. Kids’ developing systems aren’t able to respond to environmental chemicals the way an adult’s would, so they have a decreased ability to detoxify once they’ve been exposed to harmful chemicals.

Also, organ systems are developing rapidly during childhood. Exposure to toxic chemicals during development could permanently damage these systems. The brain and nervous system are particularly vulnerable, and exposure to certain toxins can lead to intelligence and behavioral challenges.

A Useful Tool

There are so many reasons to choose the safest household cleaners available, and now it’s easier than ever to get a handle on what you’re actually looking at when you examine a label. Seventh Generation recently introduced “Show the World What’s Inside,” a campaign that educates consumers about the importance of knowing what’s inside our cleaning products and how these ingredients impact the health and well-being of our families and the environment.

To help educate all of us on how to read labels to understand the potential risks, Seventh Generation is offering the Label Reading Guide. At the campaign web site,, you can download the Label Reading Guide to a mobile phone or desktop. This unique guide provides an interactive glossary of commonly used terms and ingredients. While you’re in the aisle at the store, you can type in an ingredient you see on a label or use the index to learn what it is, its purpose, and its effect on your health and the environment. If you can’t find an ingredient in the Label Reading Guide, you can choose to “Submit an Ingredient” and the folks at Seventh Generation will do the research and add it to the guide.

There are plenty of household cleaners that are safe and legitimately eco-friendly. These products don’t contain ingredients that are toxic to the human body or the earth. The Label Reading Guide and the trained staff at your natural products store can help you determine which cleaning products are the safest for you and your family.

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- who has written 7 articles on Health e Times.


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