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This content is from an educational collaboration between WebMD Editorial and Healthy Child Healthy World.

What's Inside? Decoding Product Labels

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WebMD Feature provided in collaboration with Healthy Child Healthy World

Ever rubbed on a fragrant lotion, or aimed a cleaning spray at a smear of grime, and wondered, “what’s in this stuff, anyway?” Don’t rely on the product label to tell you -- at least, not without some digging.

In an increasingly chemically dependent age, it can be surprisingly hard to know what’s inside all the bottles we bring into our homes. Some product labels are more complete than others, but few list every ingredient -- and some barely list any.

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“People are surprised to find that dozens of toxic chemicals are in the [conventional] household products we use every day, and go almost totally unmonitored and unregulated by our government,” says Alan Greene, MD, clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University and author of Raising Baby Green.

Many of these chemicals are inhaled, absorbed through the skin, or ingested (if you don't wash your hands before you eat). Then they can enter the blood and body tissues, potentially causing health risks. In a CDC study, researchers found at least 148 chemicals in the bodies of most Americans. A separate study by the Environmental Working Group found 287 chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies.

Industry and government representatives say that minute levels of these chemicals pose no realistic risk to people. Others contend that although single exposures may be small, we are all exposed to a complicated mixture of chemicals all day, every day. No one knows what the long-term risks may be. Environmental and health advocates say the safest bet for consumers is to reduce unnecessary exposures and make informed purchasing decisions.

Still, ordinary consumers who want to know about the ingredients in their household products “start out at a disadvantage,” according to Greene. Labels are not as revealing or simple as one would hope. However, “people have more options than they’re usually aware of,” he tells WebMD. “You just have to know where to look.”

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Do you check ingredients in personal care products like shampoo and toothpaste?