Here's what the hazard symbols mean on cleaning products, as shown by a man spraying cleaner on a kitchen counter

From drain cleaner to windshield washer fluid to cooking spray, you likely have a variety of chemical products in your home and garage. While you may not think much about these products until you need to use them, every chemical product can pose a unique risk to you or your home if used or stored incorrectly. In Canada, household chemical products are labelled using a hazard symbol system to warn you about the dangers each product may pose. Here’s what each symbol means, as well as how to protect yourself by properly storing and disposing of each type of product.

How to read hazard symbols on household chemical products

Many household chemical products can be dangerous and cause explosions, burns, fires, or can even poison you if they’re used or stored incorrectly. Chemical products with these potential dangers will be labelled with a hazard symbol, and each hazard symbol is made up of three distinct parts.

The first part of a hazard symbol is the picture, which tells you the type of danger a product may pose. There are four different pictures you might see on a product label:

Explosive This product is explosive. The exploding symbol means the container is under pressure and may explode if it’s heated or punctured. If the product explodes, it can send pieces of metal or plastic from the container flying, which could seriously injure anyone nearby. Examples of explosive chemical products include aerosols like hairspray, cooking spray, and spray paint.
Corrosive This product is corrosive. The skeleton hand symbol means the product can burn your skin or eyes if you touch it, or it can burn your throat and stomach if you swallow it. Examples of corrosive chemical products include bleach, drain cleaner, and toilet bowl cleaner.
Flammable This product is flammable. The flame symbol means a product or its fumes may catch fire easily if used near heat, flames, or sparks. Examples of flammable chemical products include paint thinner, lighter fluid, and aerosol cans.
Poison This product is poisonous. The skull and crossbones symbol means you can become very sick or even die if you eat, drink, lick, or smell the chemical. Examples of poisonous chemical products include antifreeze, bleach, and all-purpose cleaners.

Look out for these symbols on household chemical products to make sure you understand the dangers each product may pose to you or your home.

The second part of a hazard symbol is the frame, which tells you what part of the product is dangerous. There are two different frames you could see on a product label:

Triangle The container is dangerous. If a hazard symbol is in a triangular frame, it means the container can become dangerous if the product is stored improperly or misused. You’ll usually see an explosive symbol within a triangular frame.
Octagon The contents are dangerous. If a hazard symbol is in an octagon frame, it means the product inside the container is dangerous. You’ll usually see a corrosive, flammable, or poisonous symbol within an octagon frame.

The third and final part of a hazard symbol is the caution signal, which explains the severity of the danger a product may pose. There are three different caution words you might see below a hazard symbol:

  1. Caution means a product may cause temporary injury or even death if you have extreme prolonged exposure to the product.
  2. Danger means a product may cause temporary injury, permanent injury, or death.
  3. Extreme danger means exposure to even very small amounts of a product may cause serious injury or death.

While we rely on the hazard symbol system to keep us safe around potentially dangerous products, the symbols themselves may change over time. To see the most up-to-date information and the official description of each symbol, check out this page about household chemicals on the Government of Canada’s website.

How to safely store and dispose of hazardous household chemicals

To reduce the potential risks that can come with using chemical products, it’s important to follow the instructions on a product’s label, wear protective gear when necessary, and wash your hands with soap and water after use. But proper storage and disposal of hazardous household chemicals are equally as important. Keep these tips in mind for chemical storage and disposal:

  1. Store all household chemicals out of reach of children and pets. While keeping household chemicals under the sink or in the linen closet may be convenient, they can easily be found by curious kids or animals. Always try to store household chemicals on high shelves, in locked cabinets, or in other areas of your home or garage where your children or pets aren’t able to find them.
  2. Make sure you’re storing chemicals in ideal conditions. When you first buy a new chemical product, check the label for specific instructions outlining how to safely store the container. For example, flammable products like paint thinner and gasoline should be stored outside of your home in an unheated area and kept away from open flames or sparks. Corrosive products like drain cleaner and bleach should be placed in a plastic tub where the product can’t spill if the container leaks. To protect yourself and your home, always follow the storage instructions outlined on the label.
  3. Regularly check containers for signs of leaks. Over time, containers can weaken and become brittle, creating dangerous chemical leaks. It’s important to regularly check containers for leaks, especially if you haven’t used a product in a long time. If a container is damaged, don’t try transferring it to a new container. For your safety, it’s best to dispose of the product.

When using a household chemical product, always follow the instructions on the product’s label, wear protective gear when needed, and wash your hands with soap and water when you’re done.

When it’s time to toss out hazardous household chemicals, you’ll need to follow your municipality’s guidelines for waste collection and recycling. Since hazardous waste like cleaning products may be harmful to groundwater and soil, several programs exist across Canada to make sure they’re disposed of safely. To find a program near you, check your provincial or territorial government website.

Share this article on Facebook or Twitter to help your friends properly use, store, and dispose of hazardous household chemical products.