Cleaning Label Signal Words

When walking down the cleaning or laundry aisle, we may instinctively reach for the brand we have always known without so much as a second look. But, information on that bottle could help you to decide if this is truly the right product for you and your family.

Signal words: Caution, Warning, Danger indicate the product's level of toxicity.

We may ingest the product through at least one of three exposure routes: swallowing, absorption through the skin, or inhalation. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers all three absorbtion routes when determining toxicity levels. To keep things simple, the toxicity levels found below are in regards to oral ingestion. Lethal dose applies to a person weighing 150 pounds. Children and smaller adults will be affected by a smaller dose.

  • Danger-Poison: Highly toxic: lethal dose is a few drops to a teaspoon. Typical label statement will read: "Fatal if..." Category may include such products as: oven cleaners, drain openers, rust removers, and toilet bowl cleaners.

  • Warning: Moderately toxic: lethal dose is a teaspoon to a tablespoon. Typical label statement will read: "May be fatal if..." May include such products as: floor cleaners and disinfectant sprays.

  • Caution: Low toxicity: lethal dose is an ounce to more than a pint. The lethal dose within the Caution category is very broad. Thus, products within the Caution category have varying degrees of safety. Some products are very safe, while others may still contain one or more ingredients of concern. Typical label statement will read: "Harmful if..."

  • No Signal Word: Least toxic: No precautionary statements are required. "Caution" signal word is optional.

View examples of signal words and statements on product labels

Opt for products labeled "Caution" or products not requiring a signal word, whenever possible. Take all safety precautions advised on the label. Ventilate and open windows whenever possible. EPA also recommends removing and washing clothing "contaminated" with cleaners before reuse.

Other cleaning label signal words:

Flammable: Product is inherently more dangerous due to flammable nature. Also indicates product likely contains VOCs (volatile organic compounds). VOCs are carbon-based chemicals that evaporate readily (offgas) at room temperature. Many VOCs are linked to cancer and other negative health effects.

Corrosive: Will appear on products labeled “Danger” if the product causes permanent damage to the eye or if the product damages or scars the skin beyond the surface layer where nerve endings and blood vessels occur.