Product Labels in Canada

What's hiding in the ingredient list

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We all want to make safe shopping choices for our families. But whether it’s your child’s favourite scented bubble bath or lip balm, too often product labels don’t really tell you what’s inside. That’s why we need better labelling rules that help parents spot and avoid toxic ingredients.

What's Missing?

Recent focus groups commissioned by Environmental Defence showed that long-term health risks like asthma or cancer are not on the top of consumers’ minds when shopping for cleaning or personal care products. That’s because the Canadians we talked to were confident products sold by major retailers are tested and proven to be safe. Unfortunately, the reality is quite different as manufacturers don’t have to test chemicals before adding them to a product. And even known hormone disruptors like parabens are still allowed in everyday products.

There’s another gap. Manufacturers are not required to disclose fragrance ingredients on cleaning and personal care products – including baby products – because of an outdated legal exemption that deems scents a “trade secret”. Fragrances may contain a myriad of harmful chemicals like phthalates which have been linked to hormone disruption, behaviour problems in children like ADHD, and even cancer.  And it’s not just perfume or cologne. Fragrance ingredients are found in a wide range of products – from baby shampoo to face cream.

Additionally, household cleaning products are not required by Canadian law to list any product ingredient on the label. The result is that parents often have no idea what chemicals their children may be exposed to from their home cleaners. They may even be tricked by misleading statements or unsubstantiated environmental claims on the package.  

Our focus group participants showed broad support for improvements to Canada’s product labelling rules:

  1. Full ingredient lists should be required on all personal care and cleaning products. That should mean ending the exemption for fragrance ingredients. Cleaning product labels should also show the complete list of ingredients so that Canadians can make safe choice for their families.
  2. Easy-to-understand textual and graphic health warning labels, similar to the ones used on tobacco products or on cleaning products in the European Union, should be used to warn consumers of the presence of harmful chemicals linked to cancer, hormone disruption or infertility.

Our study also showed that Canada is falling behind other jurisdictions when it comes to labelling rules. California and the European Union require health warning labels on certain consumer products to warn consumers of chronic health risks

Change is coming

California has mandated warning labels on products for over three decades. Not only do California’s labelling rules provide consumers with crucial information whether a product contains unsafe chemicals, they also encourage manufacturers to remove toxic chemicals from their products to avoid the use of warning labels. For example, in 2013 the state updated its upholstered furniture flammability standard to require disclosure of toxic flame retardants on labels. These harmful chemicals are not just found in couches and upholstered chairs, but also in baby changing pads, strollers and kids’ mattresses. This rule change allows consumers to actively avoid flame retardant chemicals that are linked to hormone disruption and lowering IQs in children. As a result, the use of some of the most harmful flame retardant chemicals declined significantly across the U.S. in recent years.   

Policies in the European Union require the use of graphic health warning labels on cleaning products to caution consumers of possible skin irritation, chronic health hazards and if a product may be toxic to aquatic life.

Be the change!

Canada still has a long way to go when it comes to transparent, easy-to-understand product labels and banning toxic substances. However, you can reduce your and your children’s exposure to harmful chemicals in everyday products with a few helpful tips:

  1. Look for products that list all ingredients (including fragrance) and opt for eco-certified cleaning, personal care, and baby products when possible.
  2. Watch out for ingredients listed in our Toxic Ten Pocket Guide when shopping for products for your family.
  3. Learn more about our study and ask the Canadian government to improve our toxic chemical regulations and product labelling policies by signing this petition.

*Originally published February 23, 2017