What's Inside? Decoding Product Labels

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on March 03, 2009
4 min read

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.

“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.”

Although the Food and Drug Administration regulates cosmetics and personal care products (as well as food and medicines), its authority over cosmetics in the marketplace is surprisingly limited.

The FDA requires that makers of cosmetics and personal care products list all ingredients on the package label. Ingredients must be listed in descending order according to their amounts, in general.

But as Rebecca Sutton, PhD, senior scientist with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group points out, “labels rarely list all the ingredients inside.”

The most common example: seemingly simple ingredients like “fragrance” or “flavor” can actually contain hundreds of different chemicals, Sutton tells WebMD. The FDA agrees with companies that listing all the ingredients would be unreasonable, says Sutton, so they aren’t required to.

This “fragrance mystery” regularly stymies dermatologists and their patients, says Leon Kircik, MD, a dermatologist and spokesman for the American Association of Dermatology. “The fragrance is often what people are allergic to, and it can be extremely hard to identify the exact ingredient,” he says.

Manufacturers can also get exemptions from labeling law for trade secrets, in which case a chemical will only be listed as “…and other ingredients,” Sutton adds.

Skin Deep at cosmeticsdatabase.com is a safety guide to cosmetics and personal care products from researchers at the Environmental Working Group. Skin Deep pairs ingredients in more than 41,000 products against 50 toxicity and regulatory databases, making it the largest integrated data resource of its kind. Just enter a product name or ingredient to find out if there are any known toxic effects.

While it may be hard to find out what’s in your body spray, discovering the ingredients in most cleaning products is nearly impossible. Some companies do list all ingredients on their product labels. But for others, what are gray areas in the labels on personal care products turn into black holes here.

The Consumer Products Safety Commission regulates labeling for most hazardous household products. This includes cleaners, car wax, battery acid, drain opener, and the like.

These products are required to list their main ingredients that are known to be hazardous; and what not to do (e.g., don’t spray in eyes), along with first aid information. But other ingredients need not be listed.

“These products can contain virtually anything, without mentioning it on the label,” says Sutton. “Most people assume that if it’s on a store shelf, it’s gone through some kind of review. But in fact, we don’t have the health and safety review to know these products are safe. Most of the time, you really have no idea what you’re spraying around your house.”

To find out what's inside the products you're using, visit the National Library of Medicine's Household Products Database.

You can also do some careful label reading. There are safer, "green" cleaners available if you know what you're looking for. Opt for "non-toxic," "biodegradable," and "petroleum-free" products and ones that list all ingredients. Beware of labels that say "fragrance" without specifying the ingredients in the fragrance, or that list a few specific ingredients and then use catch-all categories like "inactive ingredients."