How To Read Labels

How To Read Labels

Welcome to Second Nature, a Q+A series with Jute founder, Ali Davin, that explores all things healthy living, with a fond emphasis on that thing she does best—interior design.

Chances are you’ve been reading food labels for years and know which ingredients to avoid. You might also choose clean beauty products. But did you know that many of the items in your home can impact your indoor air quality—and your health?

While it may seem overwhelming at first, a little education and a few smart choices can make a big difference. Here’s what to look for when reading labels on household items.


Why should you pay attention to ingredients in household items?

People already know to read labels when they go to the grocery store and what ingredients to avoid. The problem is the lack of knowledge that many household items, like furniture and paint, contain VOCs and formaldehyde which can off-gas toxic chemicals into the air inside your home. And your skin and lungs absorb just as much as your digestive tract does.


Why should we be worried about VOCs?

There’s not much awareness about them or how they can affect your health. VOCs and formaldehyde can cause all sorts of problems, from allergic reactions and headaches to autoimmune disorders and even cancer.  What’s frustrating is that there’s very little government regulation of these chemicals in the US, so unfortunately you need to assess the risk yourself.


Are there no-VOC products out there?

Yes, but in many cases, it’s more of a marketing term than an actual designation. “No VOC” means that two weeks after you’ve used a product—not while you’re applying it—certain toxic chemicals are imperceptible in the air. In addition, there are many chemicals that are banned in other countries but are still totally legal to use in the US, and those are often present in “no-VOC” products.


What can you do to protect yourself?

The labor-intensive approach is looking at all the ingredients in every product and researching each one to educate yourself on the risks. That can be very overwhelming, plus you don’t know the exact ratio of chemicals in the product and their half-life. For example, you can have a toxic ingredient present, but if it’s such a small quantity that it only off-gasses for a day, that’s actually ok. To make things easier, I advise buying a VOC/Formaldehyde meter and testing everything yourself—that will give you a more accurate baseline.


What are the worst offenders?

Look closely at the paints you’re using. We’re constantly being sold on the idea of a quick refresh, but even with the safest paints, I recommend waiting several weeks before you move back into your space so they have adequate time to off-gas. There are healthier paints—I recommend the brand AFM, which I used in my own home, as well as Ecos, which we’ve found to be ok. Limestone-based paints are also safer.


What else should you look out for?

Floors are the other big culprit. You can elect not to use OSB or MDF in your home, but the problem is the solvents that are used in conjunction with wood—any sort of liquid like glue, caulking material, putty, primer, or sealant—tend to be incredibly toxic. The funny thing is that the “eco” products can often be just as bad as the regular ones. That’s why I recommend testing everything yourself.


Are there any other alternatives to using toxic chemicals?

There’s been a resurgence of artisanal craftspeople, who use traditional techniques that have been around for hundreds of years and don’t require chemicals. Seek them out. Also, you can investigate alternative ways to do things, like using silicone off-label as an adhesive. It’s like cooking and substituting an ingredient that you’re allergic to—we need to start thinking of building and designing that way.


Read the labels on everything that goes into your home, educate yourself on their risks, and figure out where to draw the line.

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