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HomeRead the Label - Every Time!

Read the Label - Every Time!

Contributed by David Clopp, Master Gardener


While attending several classes last year, I noted that a common question for many of the lecturers was if Neem Oil was toxic to bees. The answers were always varied, but no one ever said, “Just read the label”. The best advice is, if you are going to use something commercially available in a bottle, whether it is organic or not, always read the label – and repeat as often as necessary.


What is the label? It is not just the large label on the front of the bottle describing the trade name and why you should buy the product. The real label bearing all the important information is located on the back of the product and you must peel it open to figure out if this product is going to safely handle the problem you have in your garden.


When should you read the label? Before you buy it, when you go to store it at home, before you use it, before you apply it, and before you dispose of the bottle or leftover mixture.


It is not my hope that this article will make you ready for pesticide certification. It is my hope that if you do decide to use a pesticide to solve your garden problem, you will be able to safely buy and use over the counter pesticides.  There are several sections of label to pay attention to: Name Brand, Ingredient Statement, Signal Word, Hazards, Storage and Disposal, and Directions for Use.


So let’s start with the front label of the product. This will primarily tell you the Name Brand of the product, e.g., Roundup. Listed under the brand name in general terms is some indication of what the product is designed to do. Here are two examples:

  • Herbicide for the control of grass and weeds
  • Insecticide for control of certain insects on fruits, nuts, and ornamentals.


There is typically an Ingredient Statement, which provides the common and/or chemical name and amount of each active ingredient and the total amount of inert ingredients in the container. The active ingredients are the chemicals that are responsible for controlling the pest. There may be a shortened common name that is easier for recognition, like glyphosate, or the full chemical name may be given. The label will also indicate the presence of inert ingredients (usually the largest percentage of any product), not by name, but by overall percentage.


The next important item is the Signal Word that provides an idea of how acutely toxic the product is to humans and animals. For example, this section will typically read “Keep out of the reach of children” followed by a code word. The code words are: DANGER/POISON—Highly toxic by any route of entry into the body, DANGER—Can cause severe eye damage or skin irritation, WARNING—Moderately toxic either orally, dermally, or through inhalation, or CAUTION—Slightly toxic either orally, dermally, or through inhalation; causes slight eye or skin irritation. Even organic compounds have these signal words. Pick the least toxic pesticide that will accomplish your task.


On the back of the bottle, you will typically find some cautionary statement about the hazards to humans and domestic animals, as well as the environmental hazards.  These items will tell you what type of protective clothing you need to wear, how long your animals must stay out of the affected area, and how the product may affect wildlife. Here you must be careful to read how close to wetlands the product can be applied or when it should be applied with respect to wind or rain which may carry it to a spot it was never intended to be used.


Next, you are going to have to open the little pamphlet that is attached to the back of the bottle. It peels open and will list each and every specific application that the product is approved for, how to mix and apply the product, and how to store and dispose of it. Storage and Disposal will explain where the bottle needs to be kept, how to keep the unused portion, and how to properly dispose of the packaging when completed.  Be aware that temperature significantly affects the product quality and its environmental safety.


Finally, we come to the most important aspect of all, the Directions for Use. It is here that the EPA trusts that you the consumer will only use this product as it was designed and approved. It is illegal to use a pesticide in any way not permitted by the labeling. A pesticide may be used only on the plants, animals, or sites named in the directions, and it may not be used at a higher dosage, higher concentration, or more frequent application.  You may think that two ounces will work better than just one ounce, but these directions are not advice – they are the legal requirements.


The Directions for Use will tell you how to get the best results with the product without harming yourself and with minimizing damage to the environment.  The Directions for Use will describe:

  • How to apply the product, where it can be used, when it can be applied
  • How much product to use depending on what pest you are controlling or what plant you are trying to protect
  • What pests the product is registered to control
  • How often can you apply the product  
  • How soon the crop can be used or eaten after an application (also known as 'pre-harvest' interval)
  • When people and animals can re-enter a treated area after application

Please make sure that the product is labeled for the way in which you plan to use it. A product labeled for use against spiders may not be used against termites and ants. Likewise, the concentration and application rates may differ if you are using the product on roses, your lawn, or your vegetable garden. If the product is not approved for the problem you need to tackle, research to find a product that will work.


There are a great number of products that can be used safely around your yard and garden. The products that are provided over the counter are the safest to use – as long as you follow the directions. So, back to the question of using Neem Oil and pollinators – a quick review of the label would reveal a statement such as: “This product is toxic to bees exposed to direct treatment. Do not apply when bees are actively visiting the treatment area.”


Finally, read the label before you buy the product and use it. Only use the product as directed.  If you have problems reading the very fine print like I sometimes do, almost every product label is available online in a much friendlier format. Here are three such examples for Neem Oil, Roundup, and Bug B Gon: 

Here are several References that go into more detail on labeling.



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