A label (as distinct from signage) is a piece of paper, plastic film, cloth, metal, or other material affixed to a container or product, on which is written or printed information or symbols about the product or item. Information printed directly on a container or article can also be considered labelling.
Labels have many uses, including promotion and providing information on a product's origin, the manufacturer (e.g., brand name), use, safety, shelf-life and disposal, some or all of which may be governed by legislation such as that for food in the UK or United States. Methods of production and attachment to packaging are many and various and may also be subject to internationally recognised standards. In many countries, hazardous products such as poisons or flammable liquids must have a warning label.
Labels may be used for any combination of identification, information, warning, instructions for use, environmental advice or advertising. They may be stickers, permanent or temporary labels or printed packaging.
Permanent product identification by a label is commonplace; labels need to remain secure throughout the life of the product. For example, a VIN plate on an automobile must be resistant to heat, oils and tampering; similarly, a food label must endure until the food has been used. Removable product labels need to bond until they are removed. For example, a label on a new refrigerator has installation, usage and environmental information: the label needs to be able to be removed cleanly and easily from the unit once installed.
Labels for food and beverages typically include critical information pertinent to the contents or ingredients used in a product, and may also state allergy risks such as the presence of gluten or soy. For example, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides standards to regulate the information provided on the labels and packaging of wine and spirits. These labels include information like brand name, class and type designation, and alcohol content.
Packaging may have labeling attached to or integral to the package. These may carry pricing, barcodes, UPC identification, usage guidance, addresses, advertising, recipes, and so on. They also may be used to help resist or indicate tampering or pilferage.
In industrial or military environments, asset labeling is used to clearly identify assets for maintenance and operational purposes. Such labels are frequently made of engraved Traffolyte or a similar material. They are usually tamper-evident, permanent or frangible and usually contain a barcode for electronic identification using readers. For example, the US Military uses a UID system for its assets.
The storage locations in shelves are often marked with a shelf label (possibly also with a barcode or numbering). They can be self-adhesive, magnetic or slide-in.
See also: Laundry symbol
Garments normally carry separate care/treatment labels which, in some regions, are subject to legislation. These labels typically indicate how the item should be washed (e.g., machine washed vs. dry cleaning), whether bleach can be used. Textile labels may be woven into the garment or attached, and can be heat resistant (so survivable in hot-air dryers and when pressed), colorfast (so does not bleed onto the garment), washable, leather or PVC/Plastic. Printed labels are an alternative to woven labels. Some upholstered furniture and mattresses have labels that are required by law, describing the contents of the stuffing.
Textiles containing pesticides as an ingredient may also require government approval and compulsory labeling. In the USA, for example, labels have to state the pesticide registration number, statement of ingredients, storage and disposal information, and the following statement: "It is a violation of Federal Law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling”. A label including a company name or identification number and a material content list may also be required.
Mailing labels identify the addressee, the sender and any other information which may be useful in transit. Many software packages such as word processor and contact manager programs produce standardized mailing labels from a data set that comply with postal standards. These labels may also include routing barcodes and special handling requirements to expedite delivery.
Label "stock" is the carrier which is commonly coated on one side with adhesive and printed on the other, and can be:
The stock type will affect the types of ink that will print well on them. Corona-treating or flame-treating some plastics makes them more receptive to inks, coatings, and other substrates by reducing surface tension and improving the overall adhesion of the plastics.
An alternative method of labelling is weaving the text directly into the fabric.
See also: Printing
Labels can be attached by:
Pressure-sensitive label adhesives are commonly made from water-based acrylic adhesives, with a smaller volume made using solvent-based adhesives and hotmelt adhesives. The most common adhesive types are:
Labels may be supplied separately or on a roll or sheet. Many labels are pre-printed by the manufacturer. Others have printing applied manually or automatically at the time of application. Specialized high-speed label printer applicators may be used to apply labels to packages; these and other methods may be subject to recognized standards. Some labels have protective overcoats, laminates, or tape to cover them after the final print is applied. This is sometimes before application and sometimes after. Labels are often difficult to peel and apply. A label dispenser can speed up this task.
Aspects such as legibility, literacy and interpretation come into play for users of labels, and label writers therefore need some degree of professional writing skill. Depending upon country or region, international standards may be applied. Where literacy may be an issue, pictograms may feature alongside text, such as those advanced by CropLife International in their Responsible Use manual. Labels or printed packaging may include Braille to aid users with visual impairment.
Criticism of label readability is not uncommon; for example, Canadian researchers found that medicine labels did not consistently follow legibility guidelines. In some countries and industries, for example the UK (food) and EU (medicines) label guidelines are not legally binding (the latter using phrases such as "The type size should be as large as possible to aid readers...") and thus are unenforceable. On the other hand, countries may stipulate legal minima for readability, such as the USA's FDA on nutritional information and Australia/New Zealand's code for food labels and packs.
Labels of sustainability standards and certification such as organic food and energy efficiency class labels are often intended to confirm compliance with relevant social and environmental considerations, enabling consumers and other purchasers to make more ethical decisions in terms of the environmental impact of products.
Labels such as the European Eco-label and those issued by sustainability standards organisations may be used by businesses and public bodies to confirm compliance. Public procurement regulations in the European Union and the United Kingdom require that label requirements only include those which are "linked to the subject-matter of the contract".
In June 2023, the Scientific Advice Mechanism to the European Commission concluded that the effectiveness of food labelling related to health impacts was "low to moderate" according to available evidence, and that "shaping the information environment through labelling is necessary but not sufficient to advance healthy and sustainable diets".
The approach of labels can involve a trade-off between financial considerations and higher cost requirements in effort or time for the product-selection from the many available options.
Labels may affect the environment during manufacture, use, and post-use. Choice of backings, coatings, adhesives and liners can be strong factors. Environmental regulations and guidelines can come from many sources. Users of labels on packaging may consider some of the sustainable packaging guidelines. Based on the solid waste hierarchy, the quantity and size of labels should be minimized without reducing the necessary functionality. The material content of a label should comply with applicable regulations. Life cycle assessments of the item being labeled and of the label itself are useful to identify and improve possible environmental effects. For example, reuse or recycling are sometimes aided by a label being removable from a surface.
If a label remains on an item during recycling, a label should be chosen which does not hinder the recyclability of the item. For example, when labeled corrugated boxes are recycled, wet strength paper labels do not hinder box recycling: the PSA adhesive stays with the backing and is easily removed. Paper backings without wet strength may release their adhesives, potentially contaminating recycling efforts. Labels can aid in recycling and reuse by communicating the material content of the item, instructions for disassembly or recycling directions. An eco-label is used on consumer products (including foods) to identify products that may be less damaging to the environment and/or humans than other related products, such as sustainable seafood encouraged by Friend of the Sea.
Ink and base stock color choices commonly conform to the Pantone Matching System (PMS) colors. The Pantone system is very dominant in the label printing industry. Additionally, specialty inks such as metallic, UV ink, magnetic ink, and more are available. Ink is usually transparent however it can be made opaque. It has been known for certain companies to patent "their own" color. Digital labels use process colors to replicate Pantone solid colors.
Collecting labels is a worldwide phenomenon, from labels used on matchboxes and foodstuffs (e.g., cheese), wine, to printed packages. Collectors are attracted to labels both for their influence on artistic design and the history of retailing.