Walk into Home Depot, Lowe’s, or any hardware store during fall and winter, and you’re likely to be greeted by a pile of ice melts and other products designed to de-ice your walk and driveway.

You’ve seen the bags and buckets of salt blends, typically including calcium chloride and magnesium chloride—with names such as Blue Heat, Latex-ite, Safe-T-Salt, and Snow Joe Melt. But is there any real difference among the bins and bags and shakers?

“They’re all salts,” says David P. Orr, director and senior engineer of the Cornell Local Roads Program. And in certain ways, that’s all that matters.

“Ultimately they all have the same effect on ice, and when it comes to concrete, they’re all going to do some damage,” Orr says.

There are, however, a couple of important distinctions among the various ice melts you’ll find in stores. Here, a quick rundown of what you need to know to prep for a storm, along with tips from Consumer Reports’ experts on how to maximize effectiveness of these products—and minimize any potential damage.

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If the temperature is above -5° F, regular salt is just as good as anything else. Salt lowers the freezing point of water. Standard sodium chloride—regular rock salt—can lower that freezing point to -5° F. As long as the outdoor air is above this temperature, rock salt should work as well as anything to melt ice on your driveway.

For temperatures below -5° F, use a salt blend. “Different salts can lower the freezing point of water to different degrees,” says Breann Chai, a chemical engineer and lab technician at Consumer Reports.

A de-icing blend will usually include two or three types of salt. Magnesium chloride can melt ice in temperatures as low as -25° F. Calcium chloride is effective down to -65° F. That’s obviously well beyond what you need, but if you see magnesium chloride or calcium chloride on the ingredients label, you know you’re covered for extreme cold.

Be sure to take specialty claims with a grain of—ahem—salt. Some manufacturers tout their ice melts’ “environmentally friendly CMA” (calcium magnesium acetate). CMA is a substance sometimes used as a coating on rock salt; manufacturers claim it’s less damaging than other ice melts. But the coating melts off, and when it does, you’re left with salt.

There are also de-icing pellets marketed as “pet friendly.” These options, as well as CMA products, are a little more expensive than standard ice melts, and there’s no proof of environmental or pet safety from those that make the claim. There’s one de-icer category—products that utilize “waste carbohydrates”—that has earned an Environmental Protection Agency Design for the Environment label. Products in this category include Magic Salt by ProMelt and Beet Heat. Consumer Reports has not tested these products or their claims.

Go light on the salt. Whatever the mix, salt seeps into porous pavement (asphalt is protected by the oil in its composition) and can cause trouble. “Chlorides go after the rebar in concrete blocks,” Orr says, “causing them to rust, crack, and deteriorate over time.” So use a gentle hand when you apply any ice melt. If you know a storm is coming, lay down a small layer before it hits.

Then, if you’re able to, add another light layer (measured according to the manufacturer’s instructions) during the storm. Orr recommends mixing salt with an abrasive that creates friction, such as sand, so you can reduce the amount of salt you put on your concrete.

Scoop up salt and throw it away once it has done its job. Grass and other plants can be adversely affected by salt. In high concentrations, salt can interfere with their ability to soak up the nutrients they need. So you don’t want to shovel salty mush onto your lawn—but you also don’t want to leave it sitting on your concrete. Scrape up what’s left after the ice has melted, and throw it in the trash.

Walk pets through a “rinse tray” on their way in. “Salt irritates dogs’ feet,” explains retired veterinarian Robert Sharp of Hillsboro, Ohio. “It can cause burns and inflammation. Licking can worsen irritation.” Sharp recommends a water-filled rinse pan at the entry to your home, with a towel nearby for wiping. In consideration for pets (and your floors), be sure not to track in salt yourself; paws will pick up whatever makes it into the house.

Store ice melts away from children. Salts can be dangerous to kids and pets. Store out of reach, and in a cool, dry place to prevent decomposition or clumping between seasons.