Consumer Products: What Do You Think About When Looking at the Manufacturers, Product Names and Labels, and Online Descriptions?

A look into the eye of the consumer by guest post writer, Bert Hakkinen

Guest post by Bert Hakkinen

The statements below are not intended to be recommendations for or against any manufacturer and its products (in fact, I use products from several consumer product manufacturers and some “store brands” from selected retailers). Rather, what follows is intended to be a “things to think about” or “things to consider” when looking at a product, its labeling, and a description such as you might find while doing online shopping.

How often do you look for products from a particular company? Do you have a level of trust that the company is committed to selling safe products that perform well? Do you feel that they consider human and environmental health, e.g., is the use, storage, and disposal or a product going to be safe for me, my family, my pets, and the environment? Hint, a company’s web site is likely to have content about its commitment to safety and regulatory compliance, and what is being done to achieve that safety and compliance.

How often do you read the label of a product, including any that you are considering buying? Studies of various types of products show that (not a surprise!) not all consumers read product labels and even those who do don’t always read them. Also, do you look for an indication of approval from some organization, e.g., EPA’s Safer Choice program in the U.S. or the Nordic Swan Ecolabel if you are in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Sweden? Speaking of Finland, did you know that Henkel for many years has marketed a “Mini Risk” brand of liquid and powder detergents, softeners, and hand dishwashing products? They were developed with Finland’s Allergy and Asthma Association and “do not contain perfumes or colorants. They are especially developed for families with kids, allergic people, sensitive skin, and for consumers who prefer detergents without perfumes.” Also, do you look for certifications such as the OEKO-TEX® one from the textile and leather industry with the mission “to create trust in textiles and leather and in their production”?

If shopping online, how often do you try to find details about a product, e.g., by clicking on the product’s details? Even if you seek such information, does it make sense once you read it? I thought about this recently when I noticed online statements like this (I won’t identify the companies): (Shampoos, deodorants, and other products) “our products are clean, safe, pure, and 100% organic. No chemicals. No toxins.” and
(Door mats and rugs) “It is important to emphasize that no chemical materials used during the production process.” I think I know what these companies are trying to state about the compositions of their products; however, these statements reminded me of a 2012 Los Angeles Times “Chemical Free Nonsense” opinion piece ( ).

I will end this commentary by discussing a well-known brand I worked on early in my career at Procter & Gamble i.e., the “99 44/100th Pure” one named Ivory. If you are interested in advertising history relevant to some of what I have stated above, here is a story about vintage ads for Ivory Soap, including one from 1941 that included “Recently a leading medical journal wrote every doctor in the United States asking which soap they advised. For both babies’ and grown-ups’ skin, more doctors replied “Ivory” than any other brand of toilet soap.” (More labels and ads for Ivory over the years are noted on this Procter & Gamble web site: ).

Pertti (Bert) J. Hakkinen, Ph.D., F-SRA
Permanent Home: Kailua, Hawaii

The comments above are my own and do not reflect the official opinions of the organizations that I am affiliated with. My undergraduate and graduate degrees are from two University of California campuses (B.A. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from UCSB and Ph.D. in Comparative Pharmacology and Toxicology from UCSF). I retired from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2020 after being the Senior Toxicologist and Toxicology & Environmental Health Science Advisor at the NIH National Library of Medicine (NLM) since 2008. I am now an “NIH Special Volunteer” in toxicology and environmental health sciences at the NIH NLM’s National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). Also, I have served for many years as an Adjunct Associate Professor in Preventive Medicine and Biostatistics in the F. Edward Hebért School of Medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) in Bethesda, Maryland, focused on toxicology and online toxicology and exposure resources. Also relevant to this commentary are my three years on the auxiliary staff of the Institute for Health and Consumer Protection’s (IHCP’s) Physical and Chemical Exposure Unit (PCEU) at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) in Italy, and 19 years as a product safety toxicologist at the Procter & Gamble Company (P&G) in the U.S. and Japan.

In addition, I am a longtime member of the Society of Toxicology (SOT) and the International Society of Exposure Science (ISES), and a longtime member and Fellow of the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA). I have authored and co-authored numerous publications, including ones on consumer product exposures and risk assessments, toxicological interactions, respiratory tract and other aspects of toxicology, consumer risk perceptions and risk communication, and computer software and databases. Examples of my publications include “New Studies About Everyday Types of Chemical Exposures: What Readers Should Consider,” “Risk Management Measures for Chemicals in Consumer Products: Documentation, Assessment, and Communication Across the Supply Chain,” and being one of three co-editors of the 2019 “The Practice of Consumer Exposure Assessment” book. One example of my professional awards is SRA’s 1996 Outstanding Service Award “in recognition of devoted and distinguished service to the Society.”