Tips for Choosing Weed Killers That Won't Harm Kids or Pets

Jun 5, 2018

After a long winter, endless cold forecasts and day after day spent cooped up indoors, it's no wonder you look forward to spring. It's that time of year when warmth returns to the air, the sun returns to the sky and — of course — green returns to our lawns. Yet when you take one glance out your windows into your springtime yard, what you see disappoints you.

Instead of a soft sprawl of luscious grass, budding flowers and enviable landscaping, you see weeds. And lots of them.

Balancing the yard of your springtime dreams with the safety concerns of pesticides and plant feed can seem daunting. After all, yards aren't merely for admiring. They're where your kids play, your pets lounge and where family and friends gather.

Yes, you can have a beautiful, green, weed-less yard and still keep your loved ones safe. Use the tips and tricks below to pick the right weed-killing, yet safe, yard pesticides, and never have to worry about the health of your pets or kids again.

What Are Pesticides?

The word pesticide tends to evoke strong responses in people. However, knowing what pesticides are and how they work is key to understanding child-safe and pet-safe weed killers.

Pesticides refer to an umbrella term for agents that effectively target and rid greenery of harmful insects, fungi, plants or other life that damages them. There are dozens of substances that are classified pesticides, all with a range of uses and functions — though only a handful cut it for safe residential purposes like yards and gardens.

1. Herbicides

Herbicides are substances that kill undesired plants or control overall vegetation. They come in a variety of plant-substance quantities and types. When applied to an area, most herbicides will target unwanted plant life, such as those pesky lawn weeds, while leaving a desired plant or seed unharmed.

Herbicides work by attacking the tissue and cell cycles of undesired plants. They can stop plant cells from producing specific enzymes, resulting in that plant's deterioration. They can also chemically alter the reproductive hormones and signalings of a plant, halting its ability to produce new, healthy cells to flourish.

2. Insecticides

As you can likely gather from the name, insecticides target unwanted bugs or insects. Common insecticides prevent the adverse effects insect populations can have on your garden, such as bugs eating your plants. Likewise, insecticides can also be used to kill target insect populations, removing any potential threat or damage.

Insecticides work using a similar chemical process as herbicides. They affect insects' nerve behavior or even target their exoskeletons, depending on the desired result of their application.

3. Fungicides

Last but not least, some plants and grasses are more susceptible to disease-causing fungi. Fungicides are applied beforehand to prevent these fungi from developing. For residential households and uses, certain fungicides will remain on a plant's surface, while others get soaked into the soil and root system. Unlike other pesticides, however, fungicides must be applied before a problematic disease occurs. They cannot be applied retroactively as a treatment.

Why Are Pesticides Harmful?

Pesticides' ominous reputation stems back to their early years of manufacturing and use. When first introduced to the commercial market, pesticides were relatively new and underresearched. Many were made up completely of harsh chemicals, synthetic materials and manipulated lab agents — the very things you should be cautious of when doing your research into safe weed killers for your lawn or garden.

While many strides have since been taken to lessen toxicity and tighten regulations on pesticides — including all-out eliminating some kinds — there are a few health concerns to keep in mind for your planting needs.

  • Unintended spreading: Many cite the concern that, although meant for a specific application area, pesticides can quickly spread. From water and soil runoff to pesticide sprays that catch and blow off-course in the wind, pesticide pollutants have caused many unplanned environmental issues.

  • Soil health: Not only are your loved ones at risk if they come into prolonged contact with certain pesticides, but your soil itself may be. Some chemical-based pesticides deplete the nutritional makeup of the soil, as well as linger there for years.

  • Negative impact on non-target life: Unintended runoff, combined with depleted soil, can create widespread problems for life outside a pesticide's target. Some pesticides pull so much from the ground, it makes it difficult to grow even desired plants for years to come. This has a domino-like effect on an environment, ranging from disrupting healthy microorganismal makeup to bug and bird life to preventing groundwater retention and plant photosynthesis.

In addition to these environmental questions, pesticides present a few human and animal health concerns. Note that these concerns are for those with repeated overexposure to chemical toxins. It's equally important to be vigilant and realistic about your use of pesticides, particularly when it comes to killing common yard weeds with children and pets nearby.

  • Cancer: Some pesticides contain chemical substances known as carcinogens. You may have heard the term when it comes to the risks associated with smoking or even eating too many grilled types of meat. Yet carcinogens exist in pesticides as well and are increasingly linked to a variety of hormonal imbalances, cell reproductive issues, tissue inflammation, and gene-strand misfirings — some of the bedrocks of cancer development.

  • Nervous-system damages: Similar to how some pesticides target an insect's nervous system, overusing pesticides has shown neurotoxic effects on humans and pets. Many of these are short-term, but mice have shown more potent nervous-system complications in lab studies working with low-dose, chronic exposure.

  • Reproductive issues: Researchers have additionally taken an interest in the links between pesticides and reproductive problems. While more studies are in the works, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists cautions pregnant women and young children, in particular, to stay away from pesticides.

Determining If a Pesticide Is Safe for Kids and Pets

It can seem daunting to pick the right fertilizer or weed killer to grow your lawn and garden. It can seem near-impossible to choose one that's additionally pet-safe and kid-safe, without gimmicks or hidden dangers.

Luckily, we've come a long way since the first batch of commercial and chemical-laden pesticide weed killers hit the market. With a little research and vigilance, you can ensure your pets' and kids' continued safety and determine the right weed killer to match your green thumb.

  • Choose the right product for the right job. The most responsible step in determining safe weed killers is knowing the exact reason behind your weed growth. Understanding this root problem — pun intended — will then allow you to pick and apply the right treatment, at the right time, in the right way. Time your application at the correct moment to eradicate your weeds, and know if a topical treatment will do, or if you must kill weeds at their root or seed source.

  • Inspect the label. Companies are now required by law to list their fertilizer or weed killer's active ingredients. This means you can read the chemical makeup of each, with a special focus on its ratios of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, or three fundamental fertilizer components, as well as other added chemical agents that make them work the way they do. What's more, look for weed killers that carry the EPA's Safer Product label for extra safety assurance.

  • Understand signal words. All pesticide labels carry "signal words," descriptors meant to convey their levels of toxicity and the care at which each should be handled. These will be printed in large, unobstructed letters on the front of a product container or bottle. On one end of the toxicity spectrum, products carrying signal words "caution" and "warning" have the lowest degree of concern associated with them. Those labeled "warning" sit in the middle, and those with words like "danger" or "poison" are the most toxic and should be handled with the utmost care.

  • Allow the product to water in. Regardless of your chosen weed remover, keep kids and pets away until the compounds have "watered in," or been drawn into soil or grass naturally through the water. This process can happen during rainfall or by using your sprinkler system to encourage soaking.

  • Do a soil test. Often, weed or insect infestations are signs there's something amiss about the quality of the soil itself. Do a soil test to find out your pH levels and nutrient makeup, whether there's something too abundant or something too low. You can adjust and add nutrients accordingly.

  • Keep products stored away from pets and children. Keep your weed killers out of reach from curious little ones, as well as away from any areas your pets are likely to access. Tightly and completely seal any partial product bags and place in a cool, dry area that won't experience temperature fluctuations. If you're anxious about storage, purchase small batches of weed killer with only enough product for single use. Never dump excess product down the drain or uncontained, straight into the garbage.

  • Follow directions to the letter. Once you've decided on a pesticide to achieve your desired green results, read and follow its directions exactly. Do not deviate from any safety precautions, including safety gear to wear or setting times for the agents to take effect. Apply the weed killer in an appropriate window of time, and pay attention to any weather conditions the label may encourage or warn against, such as excessively hot or cold temperatures. All this can affect the way your weed killer sets, as well as how quickly you can let your kids and pets return to it.

Tips for the Best Pet and Child-Safe Weed Killers

If you've determined a chemical treatment is necessary to rid your lawn or garden of weeds, you want to guarantee you're getting the best and safest product for your buck. While this includes all the steps above, like reading labels and holistically following application steps, it also means researching one key thing: ingredients.

Considering what goes into your weed killer, as well as its treatment times, cost and application steps, is critical to choosing the safest and most efficient product. Below are a selection of leading weed killers and ingredients safe for children and pets.

1. Corn gluten

Gardeners have understood and employed the anti-weed effects of corn gluten-based pesticides for years. When it comes to harmless pesticides for your gardening needs, selecting a product with corn gluten is great for pet and child safety.

Corn gluten suffocates weeds at their source, meaning you can apply it proactively, rather than just reactively. It's a natural byproduct of producing cornstarch, with an abundance and availability that makes it an ideal base for residential weed killers. Corn gluten products work particularly well against dandelions and crabgrass, have fast-acting treatments and pair well with fertilizers like bone meal and potassium sulfate to both kill weeds and nurture your lawn.

Look for products that contain both corn gluten meal, as well as these complementary fertilizing agents to get the most from your purchase — and to let your pets and kids enjoy that lawn again as soon as possible!

2. Acetic acid

Acetic acid-based pesticides control and eliminate weeds in two ways. First, these products can topically destroy a weed's leaf cuticles, which eventually kills the entire above-ground portion of the plant. Second, acetic acid can soak in and cause plant cell leakage, which also results in above-ground death.

Look for acetic acid-forward weed killers with concentrations listed in a range between 10 and 20 percent. While other conventional household products — like vinegar — contain acetic acids, their concentrations aren't nearly as high and won't provide the same effective results as products designed for weed-killing purposes.

3. Fatty acids

Fatty acids are another weed-killing active ingredient to look for in a purchase focused on safety. Labels might refer to them in several ways, from soap and potassium salts to salt lipids. These weed-killing ingredients all chemically function the same.

These fatty acids are extracted from palm, coconut, castor, cottonseed or olive oils, then get compressed and added to weed-killing formulas. They work particularly well against insects, seeping into their exoskeletons while leaving most plants themselves relatively unharmed. Fatty acids also work well against many invading fungi.

4. Combination natural herbicides

Don't let the name mislead you. These herbicides still pack the same punch as their synthetic cousins, though you're likely to find their list of ingredients containing a mix of more familiar names like vinegar, clove oil, cinnamon oil, citric acid, limonene concentrates or any of the ingredient compounds listed above.

Natural herbicides work as a greener alternative to traditional pesticides. Many brands take essential oils or plant extracts and infuse them as a concentrated base of these weed-killing products. They have a much smaller runoff risk and are always applied topically to weeds once they've emerged. Due to this treatment type, however, natural combo herbicides may be less likely to penetrate a weed's root system, increasing the likelihood they may grow back.

Garden Goods Direct goes beyond your one-stop shop for any gardening, greenery or outdoor landscaping needs. While we carry one of the largest catalogs of plant life and plant-care products in stores and online, we know those products are only as good as our consumers feel about them. Pick up one of the many varieties of child and pet-friendly weed killers we carry and consult with our green experts on any questions or concerns you may have.