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Pesticide Buying Guide

Pesticide Buying Guide

Caring for your lawn and garden can be rewarding, but keeping them free of insects, disease and other pests is a challenge. There are many products to combat pests around the home and lawn. Choose the right pesticide and deal with your problem safely and effectively. Learn how to read pesticide labels, identify pesticides and find the right pesticide for your lawn and garden.


What is a Pesticide?

A common misconception about pesticides is that they're bug killers. While partly true, insect control is only one use for pesticides. Here is the definition of a pesticide from the Environmental Protection Agency:

"A pesticide is any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling or mitigating any pest."

All pesticides must be tested, registered and carry a label approved by the EPA. Despite the agricultural community's regular use of pesticides, homeowners are the number one users. Pests take many forms besides insects.

The family of pesticides includes:

  • Insecticides - insect attractants and repellents, flea collars for pets
  • Herbicides - plant defoliants and desiccants
  • Rodenticides - rat and mouse killers
  • Germicides - bathroom disinfectants
  • Algicides - including some pool chemicals
  • Mildewcides - contained in some cleaning products
  • Fungicides, miticides, larvicides, ovicides, and more.

There are others that are not common to everyday consumers such as commercial chemicals that sterilize and regulate plant or animal growth.



Finding the Right Pesticide

Before you purchase or use any pesticide:

  • Recognize the type of damage. Is it caused by insect, animal, disease or fungus? Example: The leaves are curled on your plant. Is it a virus or a sucking insect? If you don't actually see the pest, look for the type of damage that's being done. Holes in leaves usually indicate insect damage. Spots on leaves often mean disease.
  • Identify the pest properly. Use your local Cooperative Extension Service or other resource. A guidebook with illustrations of pests, weeds and plant diseases is a good investment and a valuable tool for a home gardener.
  • Determine how extensive the damage is. Did you see one bug or spot or is the plant covered?


Types of Pesticides

There are several variations of pesticides.

Selective pesticides are formulated to deal with a specific problem.

Non-selective pesticides indiscriminately kill anything that they contact.

Systemic pesticides are meant to be ingested by the target pest, working from the inside out.

Topical or contact pesticides are applied to the outer surface of the pest, working from the outside in.

Pre-emergents deal with weeds in the dormant or seed stage before germination.

Post-emergents kill weeds after they've sprouted and are actively growing. Contact herbicides are post-emergents.

Liquid, Powder or Granules

  • Liquids are easy to apply and stick to the surface when dry.
  • Powders or dusts are applied in their dry state. Wettable powders are mixed with water before application.
  • Granules are applied like powders, usually to the soil, but cause less dust.


Concentrates are mixed with a delivery medium (usually water) and sprayed.

Synthetic pesticides are chemical compounds formulated to attack certain pests.

Organic pesticides serve the same purpose as synthetics, but are formulated from organic or other natural sources.

The application method varies depending on the composition of the pesticide. The most common means of application are:

  • Aerosol or non-aerosol pump trigger sprayer
  • Spreader
  • Duster
  • Compression sprayer
  • Backpack sprayer
  • Hose end sprayer
  • Bait trap


Reading the Label on Pesticides

The label isn't just for safety's sake, it tells all about the product: how efficiently the product works, where, when and how it should be applied, plus how to store and dispose of it properly. In the event first aid is necessary, the key information for treatment is there.

Read the label before you buy and read it again before each use. Follow all manufacturer's instructions. The information on the label is mandated by law and approved by the EPA. On the label you'll find:

Common Name/Brand Name - Common names are simplified versions of the usually much longer name of the chemical compound. Brand names vary by manufacturer. When comparing brands, the shared information is the chemical name found on the label.

Active Ingredient - The ingredient that "deals" with the pest is called the active ingredient. It appears as either a common or chemical name on the label along with the percentage by weight in the container.

Inert Ingredients - Additional elements are added to enhance the application, handling, storage or other characteristics of the pesticide. Also called "other" ingredients on the label, these components are not specifically named on the label. Being labeled as inert does not necessarily mean that these additional elements are nontoxic. They are merely not active in the compound. Other additives, called adjuvants, are included in the mix to help the pesticide stick or spread, keep it from drifting in the wind or to increase penetration.

EPA Registration Number - The number tells you that the pesticide has been reviewed and approved by the EPA. The number is not an endorsement of the product.

Signal Words - These important notices tell the level of toxicity. Toxicity is rated on a scale that separates pesticides into three levels:

  • Caution identifies the pesticides that are the least harmful.
  • Warning tells you it is more poisonous than a pesticide with a Caution label.
  • Danger on the label indicates that the pesticide is very poisonous or irritating. Use these with extreme care.

Precautionary Statements - The directions here refer to special safety measures you'll need to take. The need of protective clothing and safety equipment, as well as notes about use around pets and children, are in this section of the label.

First Aid - Instructions are here for dealing with swallowing, inhaling or contact with skin or eyes. If the pesticide is toxic, the label will give you emergency first aid instructions. Remember that first aid is exactly that - a quick remedy until medical assistance or advice can be obtained from a doctor or poison control agency. If you must call for medical assistance, have the container or label at hand.

Directions for Use - The pesticide is effective only if you follow the application instructions carefully. In addition to directions on the amount to use, you'll see information on when, where and how to apply. You can also confirm that the pesticide is the correct one for your pest and determine what other plants or animals it can be safely used on or around. In addition, the label states how soon you can pick and eat fruits and vegetables after application.

Storage and Disposal - These are the instructions for safe storage and disposal of leftover pesticide and empty containers. Because state and local ordinances vary, check with your local County Extension Office for more information.

Toxicity and Exposure determine the degree of possible injury. Exposure can occur in one of three ways:

  • Dermal exposure occurs when the pesticide comes into contact with the skin. Some pesticides are highly corrosive to eyes and skin.
  • Inhalation exposure occurs from breathing fumes or vapor when applying.
  • Ingestion is less common, but still a concern if the user eats, drinks or smokes after applying a pesticide without first washing thoroughly.


Always keep pesticides away from the reach of children.

When using lawn treatments or lawn care products, always follow package directions regarding proper clothing, protective equipment, application procedures and safety precautions.