Labels 101: How to Read a Cleaning Product Label

Labels 101: How to Read a Cleaning Product Label

January 9, 2023

By Alexandra Zissu, Editorial Director

Few product labels are more difficult to decode than those on conventional cleaning products. This is troubling because cleaners (even those labeled “green” ) frequently contain hazardous chemicals. The information—or lack thereof—on their labels can be the difference between health and illness. Unfortunately, large loopholes in federal law allow these toxic ingredients to remain largely secret. Cleaning product formulas are considered trade secrets, and true green and eco-friendly cleaners are few and far between. 

It’s up to consumers to separate the good from the bad and the ugly, and choose the safer cleaner options. It can be tricky without full ingredient lists, but here’s how you can decipher cleaning product labels:

  • Look for the warning words “Poison,” “Warning,” or “Danger.” These indicate toxic formulas. The word “Caution,” isn’t as severe—it can appear on products that are safe but might, for example, cause minor eye irritation or gastric upset. Use your judgment.
  • Similarly, look for label statements declaring the product flammable or combustible, or instructions stating that the product not be stored at temperatures above 120°. Warnings like this generally indicate the presence of dangerous solvents and other volatile organic compounds. 
  • Another sign that hazards are present in a given product are statements regarding air quality danger or skin irritation. These are directives stating that the product be used in an adequately ventilated room, that users should avoid breathing its vapors, or that exposure can cause respiratory irritation and/or should be avoided by people with respiratory illnesses.
  • Check for State of California warnings, which are required on any product containing ingredients that state’s regulators believe cause cancer or reproductive or developmental harm.
  • Skin irritation warnings can also indicate potential hazards.

Even if you see the full ingredients listed on a product, you should still be wary. These aren’t automatically safe. 

  • Most of these lists omit key toxins or hide ingredients under generic terms like “surfactants” or “dispersal agents” that shouldn’t be trusted.
  • Inspect any ingredient lists carefully. Remember that even safe ingredients are usually listed by their chemical name so chemical mentions per se don’t necessarily indicate a hazardous product. Instead look for common unsafe ingredient tip-offs, including:
  • ingredients ending in “-ol” or “-ene,” like benzol or toulene, which usually indicates toxic solvents.
  • Look out for the presence of “chlor” in an ingredient name, which typically indicates a toxic chlorinated compound.
  • Look out for ingredients with “glycol” as part of their name, which often point to a petroleum-based ether.
  • Look out for ingredients containing “phenol,” which can point to the use of coal tar derivatives.