Read the Label!

by Annie Deutsch, Agriculture Educator, Extension Door County

As we all know from grocery shopping, product labels carry some pretty important information. Last year, for example, I needed to buy chocolate milk for a meeting I was holding. I stood by the coolers, reading about and comparing each type of milk, then finally made my selection.

After the meeting, I was rather disappointed that the milk was almost untouched. Then I realized I had accidentally bought chocolate drink, not chocolate milk! The bottle was identical; the color was the same; it was the same brand … but when reading the ingredients list, I found out that one was milk, and the other was whey solids and corn syrup. No wonder it wasn’t touched!

When reading pesticide labels, the temptation is often to just look at the brand name, the bottle and maybe the pictures; grab it off the shelf; dump it on our plants; and call it good. Although there are occasions when that might turn out all right (there are probably people who love chocolate drink, for instance), the vast majority of the time, using pesticides in that way will lead to frustration from poor results at best, and could be dangerous at worst.

I won’t go into every facet of a pesticide label, but there are a few key things you should know before you even think about using one – and this goes for organic products as well.

First, the label is the law. It’s not included on pesticides just to give you some bedtime reading. It’s a legally binding instruction manual about how to correctly use the product so that it’s effective and safe and doesn’t deliver any unintended consequences.  

One problem with labels is that the print is tiny, but luckily, they’re all available online. Google the product; make sure you find the exact one that you have; and then zoom in to your heart’s (or eyes’) desire. Reading labels online can be helpful, too, because you can search specifically for the information you need.

Second, pesticides have three names: a trade name, a common name and a chemical name. The trade name is like the brand: it’s the fancy, eye-catching name on the front. Some common trade names are Sevin Concentrate Bug Killer and RoundUp Weed and Grass Killer. Those names can be helpful because they give an indication of what’s inside, but the actual ingredients can change without that name changing. Likewise, two products can contain the exact same ingredients but have different trade names.

Common names are the ingredients themselves. They’re broken up into the active ingredients (the part that actually kills the pest) and “other ingredients” (solvents, emulsifiers and, well, other ingredients). Some examples are carbaryl, glyphosate, captan, sulfur and mineral oil.

The chemical name is the name chemists use for the active ingredients.

If you learn nothing else from this article, be sure you can identify the active ingredients in a pesticide. This is so important because the active ingredients determine whether the pesticide works, and that’s the way to compare products. It may take more work to figure out what you need for your situation, but the results will be better.  

If you’re in a store looking at pesticides, you should be able to find the active ingredients on almost every label without needing to turn the bag. Most often, they’re listed on the lower side of the front panel in smallish type. Look for the word right in front of “…………” and then a percentage, and you’ll have spotted the active ingredients.  

Finally, these definitions should guide you through your pesticide-label reading:

• Signal word: standardized designations of the pesticide’s toxicity level. From least to most toxic, they are Caution, Warning, Danger and Danger-Poison.  

• Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): required or recommended apparel worn to protect the body from contact with the pesticide or its residue. This includes preventing exposure to the skin, eyes or lungs.

• Restricted Entry Interval (REI): the amount of time after a pesticide has been applied until it’s safe to reenter the area.

• Preharvest Interval (PHI): the amount of time required between the last application and when the crop can be harvested.

Do you have questions about where to use the pesticide? How to mix or apply it? How much to use? Whether it will kill beneficial insects? I’ll answer all those questions right now: read the label!

For more information about pesticides and reading their labels, visit the National Pesticide Information Center at, or call the Door County Extension office at 920.746.2260.

References to pesticides in this article are for your convenience and are neither an endorsement nor a criticism.

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