Most cleaning product labels are a very quick read because they usually contain very little information. If you’re lucky you might learn what the product is, how to use it, safety information, and any storage and disposal guidelines.  What you won’t find is a list of ingredients.  Why?  Oddly cleaning product formulas are currently considered government-protected trade secrets. Manufacturers aren’t required to disclose their contents to consumers. So they don’t.

While there are organizations working hard for label disclosure as well as chemical reform , at the moment it’s really up to consumers to self educate and seek out cleaning products from companies that willingly disclose ingredients (and use natural ones). Alternately you can make your own from safe household staples with ingredient lists.

In Planet Home, I explain how best to read cleaning product labels when there is no ingredient list. Here’s an excerpt:

LABEL LITERACY 101

1. Look for warnings. Avoid any product that has the words “danger,” “poison,” “toxic,” “hazardous,” or “flammable” printed on the label.  They are dead giveaways that there are harmful chemicals inside.  Be sure to check the front and back labels, including the fine print.

2. Check the listed ingredients. Avoid anything with no ingredients listed or that lists chemicals with known or probable chronic or acute toxicity.

3. Check to see if the product is fragranced. Stay away from synthetic fragrances, which may contain hormone-disrupting phthalates.  Most products claiming to have the “fresh scent” of “morning air” contain synthetic Fragrances.  Fragranced products (including perfumes, air fresheners, cleaning products, and candles) can also release harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into your home environment.  Many VOCs from cleaning products, such as formaldehyde, are known to be hazardous air pollutants and can have short- and long-term health effects.  Look for labels that read “VOC-free” or “free from dyes and fragrances.”  If you want a fragrance, seek out products that are scented naturally with essential oils.

4. Think about what the performance claims are telling you. These are the selling points clearly stated on the front label.  Products claiming to “whiten” likely contain bleach, and products claiming to “brighten” usually contain optical brighteners.  Use the Ingredients Guide to see what you’re really getting with that “streak-free shine,” and to learn why an ingredient is or is not hazardous.

5. Do a sustainability check. Choose products in packaging made with the highest PCR (post-consumer recycled) content and that can be recycled or reused.  As for the products themselves, buy ones that are biodegradable or compostable and claim to be “petro-chemical-free,” “non-toxic,” or “septic-safe.”

6. Go to SeventhGeneration.com and download the Label Reading Guide. It will help you better understand the ingredients in cleaning products and their risks.