Read Between the Lines

Read Between the Lines
Read Between the Lines


Get in the habit of reading the labels of food products and personal care products, and learn how to decipher misleading claims. Claims like "natural" are not legally defined. Healthy Child, Healthy World also offers Labels 101: How to Read a Cleaning Product Label.

Join efforts to make labels more transparent, consistent, and easily understood. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, for example, lobbies for better labeling of personal care products.

Everyday consumer products—such as shampoos, sunscreens, and laundry detergents—contain a range of potentially harmful chemicals that product labels fail to disclose.

Silent Spring Institute researchers tested products for the presence of hormone disruptors that raise concerns for breast cancer, growth, and reproduction, as well as chemicals associated with asthma. They tested for 66 specific chemicals in both conventional products and alternative products marketed as containing safer ingredients than their conventional counterparts.

The scientists found that product labels did not identify all of the products that contained phthalates; monoethanolamine, or MEA; diethanolamine, or DEA; alkylphenols; parabens; glycol ethers; or fragrance. Fourteen alternative and 12 conventional product types contained a natural fragrance that was not indicated on the label. DEA, found in alternative shampoos, is not allowed in cosmetics in Europe.

Consumers can avoid some chemicals of concern—including antimicrobials and some fragrances—in some products by reading labels. But other chemicals cannot be easily avoided, because they are not listed on labels or in online rating systems, which are based on product labels.

“Our study adds to the evidence that safety testing for consumer product chemicals needs to be improved, and that consumers need better information about what, exactly, is in the products they use every day,” said Julia Brody, PhD, a study author and the executive director of Silent Spring Institute. “Vigilant consumers often rely on product labels and safety ratings to protect their health, but even vigilance can’t fully protect us.”