Trott: How to read a pesticide label

Labels tell you what clothing to wear while applying, how to dispose of pesticide, and more.

It’s that time of year, the pest control questions are beginning to roll in! Homeowners want to know when to treat for crabgrass; what to use for spider mites; how about spotted winged drosophila and creeping Charlie…the list goes on and on.

But before we get carried on the tide of pesticides used in our lawn and garden, let’s go back to the basics.

What is a pest? For our purposes, a pest is any unwanted organism that causes problems in the home and garden. An organism isn’t inherently a “pest,” and only falls into that category under certain conditions.

Some pests compete for our food; some can destroy buildings, limit recreational use of an area, or decrease aesthetic appeal. Others can transmit disease or be a nuisance.

Pesticides are the tools we sometimes use to manage or eradicate the pests that we find in our living spaces. Pesticides fall into a wide range of categories: disinfectants kill bacteria; fungicides kill fungi and mildew; herbicides kill unwanted plants; insecticides kill/repel insects, ticks and mites; rodenticides kill rats and mice; wood preservatives protect wood from insects and fungi; and vertebrate repellents keep deer, raccoons, rabbits and other critters away from your garden.


With all of these categories, and all of these choices, how do we know which to use, when and how? The label is the key to understanding all of this.

I know, pesticide labels are long and complicated, but they are your best guide to using pesticides safely and effectively. They are written to help you achieve your desired outcome with minimum risk. Remember that use of any pesticide in a way that does not comply with label directions and precautions is illegal.

Using a pesticide inappropriately may also be ineffective on the pests you wish to control, and could pose risks to the users or the environment.

So, let’s review what’s on the label, and how to decipher all those instructions. The label includes these sections:

  1. Ingredients: this includes active and inert ingredients. The active ingredients are the chemicals in the pesticide that kill or control the target pests.
  2. Signal words: Caution, Warning or Danger indicate the pesticide’s potential for causing harm to you. CAUTION—pesticides that are the least harmful to you; WARNING—more toxic than those with the Caution label; DANGER—very poisonous or irritating and should be used with extreme care. Most are restricted use.
  3. Precautionary statements describe the protective clothing you should wear when applying the pesticide.
  4. Environmental Hazards tells you if the product can cause damage to wildlife, fish, plants or wetlands.
  5. Directions for use. Make sure that the product is labeled for use against the pests that you are trying to control, and lists the specific application plant or site.
  6. First Aid instructions tell you exactly what to do if someone has been accidentally poisoned by the pesticide. These instructions are only FIRST aid; always call the emergency number listed on the label, a doctor or your local poison center. If you have to go to the hospital, remember to take the pesticide label or container with you.
  7. Storage and disposal: Follow all directions for safe storage and disposal of pesticide products. Always keep products in original containers and out of reach of children, in a locked cabinet or locked garden shed. Disposal of pesticide containers in a manner not listed on the label could be harmful to the environment or other people.
  8. Other parts of the label provide additional important information about use of the product. Be sure to read the entire label before each use of the pesticide.

For additional information on understanding a pesticide label, visit:
Until next time, happy gardening!

*** “And all the insects ceased in honor of the moon.” ~ Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler


Robin Trott is a horticulture educator with University of Minnesota Extension. Contact her at 320-762-3890, or at trot0053@umn.

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