How to Read and Understand Labels to Make Informed Choices

How to read and understand labels to make informed choices

There are over 80,000 chemicals used in the U.S. in our cleaning products, skincare and food. Most have never been tested for any sort of effect on human health.

Would it be nice to know what to look for when reading a label on a bottle of lotion or laundry detergent? Do you feel like you need a chemistry degree to read and understand labels? Do you trust the companies you are buying from or do you feel they may be saying things just to make you feel better? Industry has a lot of leeway when it comes to the terms they use and what ingredients to disclose. I want to make it easy for you to do the research, understand the ingredients and know what to look for and what to avoid. Below is my process.

How to read and understand labels – Five steps you should do before buying household or skincare products.

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How to read and understand labels

1. Read the ingredient list for specific ingredients

The first step to making the smart choice for you, your family and your home is to make sure the manufacturer is disclosing the ingredients. Without full disclosure and transparency of ingredients, you can’t evaluate the safety of the ingredients. If they aren’t on a label, look up the product online. If you can’t find the ingredients on the manufacturer’s website, then I would avoid the product. You should see each, individual ingredient listed. They should be specific and not vague.

Vague terminology includes the following: fragrance, Optical Brightening Agents (OBAs), optical brighteners, optical whiteners, fluorescent brightening agents, surfactants, enzymes, foaming agents, natural, and non-toxic (more on that below). Photos below are examples of specific ingredients and non-specific ingredients.

2. Research the ingredients.

  1. You can evaluate thousands of products on the Environmental Working Group’s Database. For each product evaluated, they provide a grade from A to F for each ingredient and explain the grading. Head to this website where you can look up the products by using the dropdown menu (in green) on the upper left to look up various categories (from air fresheners to laundry) or type in the name of the product.

More about the EWG guide: “EWG’s staff scientists compared the ingredients listed on cleaning product labels, websites and worker safety documents with the information available in the top government, industry and academic toxicity databases and the scientific literature on health and environmental problems tied to cleaning products. They used that information to create EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning, which provides you with easy-to-navigate hazard ratings for a wide range of cleaners and ingredients.”

  1. Find the EPA Safer choice logo. Products with the Safer Choice label help consumers find products with safer chemical ingredients, without sacrificing quality or performance. Before a product can carry the Safer Choice label, EPA reviews all chemical ingredients, regardless of their percentage in the product. Every ingredient must meet strict safety criteria for both human health and the environment, including carcinogenicity, reproductive/developmental toxicity, toxicity to aquatic life, and persistence in the environment.

What I like is that the Safe Choice program evaluates both products and chemicals. So you can search by a specific chemical OR brand.

Look up safer choice products. Look up safer choice ingredients.

  1. Look for the Green Seal logo. Green Seal “Certification is a process that ensures that a product meets rigorous performance, health, and environmental criteria. These criteria are listed as Green Seal Standards. Achieving certification of products helps manufacturers back up their environmental claims and helps purchasers identify products that are safer for human health and the environment.”

Find Green seal approved products and services

3. Check the label for over use of greenwashing terminology.

Green washing – misinformation presented by an organization to present an environmentally responsible reputation. Check out this useful article on greenwashing.

Greenwashing terms include (this is not a comprehensive list): natural (without any explanation), non-toxic (without any explanation), organic (without the USDA organic logo), healthy, free and clear, safe, green, and eco-friendly.

If you do see what appear to be greenwashing terms, then you should…

4. Look for specific lists on what the product does not contain.

Look for paraben free, gluten free, fragrance free, etc. OR a specific listing of what the product does not contain.

5. Confirm claims with third party certification logos.

You may see a product that claims to be cruelty free or organic but without the third party certification logs, the claims can’t be verified. Examples of what to look for:

PETA’s logo which is obtained after a company is certified as cruelty-free. From PETA’s website: “To meet individual design needs, the logo may be used in any color combination or in black and white. For companies that sell an entirely vegan product line, a version that reads, “Cruelty-Free and Vegan,” is also available.”

Search for companies that do not test on animals (and find those that do). Also PETA has a FREE app that lets you search for companies by name and tells you whether or not they test on animals.

Gluten Free. To use this logo the company must be a gluten-Free certification organization. For a product to be certified, the gluten-free certification organization (GFCO) “requires that all finished products using the GFCO Logo contain 10ppm or less of gluten.”

Leaping bunny logo. From the website: “The Leaping Bunny Logo is the only internationally recognized symbol guaranteeing consumers that no new animal tests were used in the development of any product displaying it. The Logo can be seen on packaging, advertising, and websites for cosmetics and household products around the world.”

Find brands that are certified by the leaping bunny.

 Non-GMO From the Non GMO project website: “The Non-GMO Project Verified seal gives shoppers the assurance that a product has completed a comprehensive third-party verification for compliance with the Non-GMO Project Standard. When it comes to food labeling, third-party certifications are best because they ensure the claim is unbiased, rigorous and transparent.”

Find Non GMO project verified products

ECOCERT is an inspection and certification body established in France by agronomists aware of the need to develop environmentally friendly agriculture and of the importance of offering some form of recognition to those committed to this method of production. ECOCERT SA is accredited by the USDA (Agricultural Department) for the National Organic Program (NOP). This means you may see US cosmetics or house cleaners certified by ECOCERT but without the USDA organic logo.

USDA Organic – You must see the USDA ORGANIC logo to be assured something is truly organic (or see the ECOCERT logo as discussed above). USDA organic products have strict production and labeling requirements.Rules on organic labeling. Organic products must meet the following requirements:

Also it’s important to note that if you see the USDA Organic label it also means the food is non-GMO. The use of GMOs is prohibited in organic production and handling.

Certified Vegan – For a product to use the vegan logo, the product and company must not contain animal products, must involve no animal testing and may not contain animal GMO’s. They must also provide supplier verification that animal products were not used in the manufacturing of the ingredients.

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