When I first became a mother in 2016, my eyes were opened to the toxins in everyday products.
My heightened awareness went into over-drive when my daughter began putting everything in her mouth. She’s a toddler now so I can relax a bit. But my infant son has me on high alert yet again.
In this article, I’ll explain the criteria I developed for buying non-toxic toys: toys I could feel comfortable having them gnaw and gum to their heart’s content.
If you want the quick and dirty, jump to the print-out, a simple checklist for buying non-toxic toys. This is an ideal format to share with well-meaning family members who regularly buy for your baby.
Why I Researched Non-Toxic Toys
Babies’ natural instinct is to explore the world with their mouths. It exposes them to taste, texture, and other sensory perceptions.
But it can also expose them to toxins that are harmful to their developing brains and bodies.
Certainly, agencies like the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) are in place to regulate and ensure all children’s toys are safe.
You would think that’s enough.
However, re-calls happen regularly, and by then it’s too late. In some cases, the CPSC’s standards may not go far enough (more on that below).
Being a researcher, I decided to research the materials used to manufacture toys. I then developed a list of toy materials that are safe, and those that aren’t.
Because knowledge about natural living doesn’t come naturally.
But I Couldn’t Just Keep It to Myself
Sure, it’s a handy resource when I’m purchasing toys for my kids.
But what about receiving toys from other people?
Being conscious of waste, I couldn’t in good conscience accept gifts I had no intention of keeping.
My daughter was born in the month of May. So I had a few months to prepare for the flood of gifts that would be upon us come Christmas.
Her grandparents, like most, would want to spoil her. But I knew we wouldn’t feel comfortable accepting them unless I made our concerns clear.
So I crafted an email to send to her grandparents and close relatives that included my list of safe, non-toxic toy materials.
Now, giving full-grown adults rules about what they can and cannot buy? You can see how anyone would feel condescended.
The message needed to be carefully crafted to come across tactfully. This was my attempt (feel free to borrow from it)…
The Letter to My Family
You recently asked what baby S might like for Christmas. She really has all she needs, but we appreciate that you want to spoil her a little.
While we don’t have any specific requests, below are a few pointers related to the kinds of toys we feel comfortable letting her play with.
Over the past few decades, the number of chemicals we are exposed to has grown enormously.
And children are more sensitive to these toxins.
We now know that exposure plays a role in cancer, developmental disorders, behavioral issues and chronic diseases.
Now that she’s putting everything in her mouth, we want to be especially cautious.
We know that we can’t completely avoid these toxins, but we’re hoping to limit it with the help of the people who love her… like her grandparents!
Below is a list of materials safe (and unsafe) for her. We greatly appreciate you referring to it when you’re looking for gifts for her.
Know that by doing so, you’re helping us keep her safe and healthy for many years to come.
PS – If you’d like to read more about these issues, check out this article in The Atlantic: The Toxins That Threaten Our Brains
The email then listed the toy materials I consider safe, based on my research.
Now, I’m sharing them with you. I’ve included an explanation of each one, along with a few example toys.
For those preferring the abbreviated list of safe and unsafe materials, jump to the checklist below.
Non-Toxic Toy Materials (Based on My Research)
Wood is a beautiful, natural material for baby toys. But it’s important that wooden toys are made from solid wood.
In other words, no pressed wood, such as medium density fibreboard (MDF) or plywood.
Pressed wood is bound together using glue. The glue often contains harmful Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), such as formeldahyde (National Library of Medicine).
And as you probably know, formeldahyde is a known human carcinogen according to the National Toxicology Program.
Unless the toy is labelled low or no VOCs, I recommend avoiding products that are not solid wood.
Like wooden toys, silicone is a safer alternative to plastic toys.
We are now well aware of the dangers related to BPA in plastic (Fenichel, et al). But evidence continues to emerge around the dangers of its substitutes. In fact, they may even be more potent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
In other words, plastic continues to be a poor choice.
That said, the soft, malleable nature of plastic is appealing. Enter silicone.
Silicone has these desirable characteristics. And although it is synthetically-derived, it doesn’t carry the health risks associated with plastic.
Because silicone is resistant to temperatures and chemicals, it does not react with other things it encounters. As a result, it does not release byproducts the way plastic does.
For this reason, we prefer using silicone toys. They are particularly helpful as teethers when a wooden one isn’t doing the trick.
From a waste perspective, silicone does propose challenges. Being a synthetic product, silicone doesn’t biodegrade.
That said, it’s extremely durable and therefore lasts a long time. It can also be recycled, if your jurisdiction has the appropriate facilities.
Fewer baby toys are made from natural rubber. But if you find one, I do consider it a safe choice.
Toys marked 100% natural rubber are made from an entirely natural material (sap harvested from the rubber tree) that doesn’t leach toxins.
Books are a fantastic gift for children of any age.
The downside is that you can’t leave babies alone with them. I first realized this when I left my daughter in her playpen with books.
Returning to her after just a few minutes, she had bits of paper all over her mouth.
And since most books for babies are board books coated with plastic, I don’t consider them safe to chew on.
The only books we felt comfortable leaving her with are soft, 100% cotton books, like the one below from Petit Collage.
Another option is a book line called Indestructibles. The books don’t tear, so your little ones can have at them. Plus, they repel water, meaning you can even wash them with water and soap.
These children’s books are made of flashspun high-density polyethylene fibers.
This is a synthetic material that is BPA-, pthalate-, lead- and PVC-free, according to the company.
According to Tyvek, a brand of this type of material, flashspun high-density polyethylene fibers do not off-gas anything toxic, even under heat.
However, I would caution that there is limited independent research on how this material interacts with human health. Personally, we own about 5 and our babies love them.
Cotton Plush Toys
Many stuffed toys are made with polyester fabrics.
But polyester is a plastic. The Weston A. Price Foundation believes, based on studies researching how the skin absorbs chemicals, it could leach chemicals into our skin (Weston A. Price Foundation).
Not to mention, polyester also has a number of other ecological issues. Recycling polyester is a challenge and the tiny microfibres are wreaking havoc on water systems (Bruce, et al).
For this reason, it’s best to choose plush toys that are 100% cotton, especially if you intend for your little one to snuggle up with it for the night.
If you can, choose certified organic to limit exposure to chemicals that may have been used in the production of the cotton.
Most stuffed toys are stuffed with a polyester filling. The outer fabric could act as somewhat of a barrier between the skin and filling. But if possible, choose one that has been filled with natural fabrics as well.
Organic Farm Buddies, for example, are 100% organic cotton and stuffed with corn fiber fill.
Corn fiber fill is made from corn sugar and is naturally hypo-allergenic.
Natural Paints & Coatings
You might be surprised to know that lead is not entirely banned from being used in children’s products, including paint and surface coatings, toy components, and plastic.
The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission requires manufacturers to limit the total lead content in the product to 100 parts per million (CPSC).
It’s invisible to the eye and does not have a smell. But it is extremely dangerous to children’s development.
In fact, the cognitive and behavioral damage exposure to lead can cause is irreversible, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
And although all toys are tested by a third-party for lead content, the Consumer Product Safety Commission continues to issue recalls.
In 2008, almost 100 toy products were re-called due to lead paint or lead components exceeding 100 parts per million. The CPSC’s safety system reduced the number of toys recalled due to lead by 97% since then (PIRG).
But as recently as August 2018, the CPSC recalled 30,000 units of a critter toy containing high amounts of lead.
And some institutions believe the CPSC’s lead restrictions don’t go far enough.
The American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2016, calling for stricter regulations:
“Because lead exposure is cumulative and there is no apparent threshold for the adverse effects of lead exposure, all sources of lead exposure should be eliminated.” (Pediatrics)
The best treatment, they argue, is preventing exposure in the first place.
So how can you avoid exposure to lead and other heavy metals?
- Ensure your baby isn’t using toys manufactured before lead was regulated to today’s standards. That means toys purchased prior to 2011.
- Ensure toys have natural paints and coatings, such as water-based inks and plant-based oils like jojoba or castor oil.
- If you want to play it really safe, avoid toys that were manufactured outside of the United States and Canada, where lead is not always well-regulated (CDC).
How My Family Reacted
I’m lucky to have an understanding family. Her grandparents were open-minded, even if it seemed a bit strange to them.
Their biggest challenge continues to be finding gifts that meet our criteria… “just tell us which damn toy you want”.
I’m kidding, no one specifically said that.
Jokes aside, one set of grandparents has us choose the toys we want in advance.
Sure, it ruins a bit of the fun and spontaneity, but it works for them… and us.
I also shared the message with her aunts and uncles who regularly purchase gifts for her.
The ones with children didn’t bat an eye. They happen to share similar values, so we knew they’d be a receptive audience.
In fact, I actually included an apology when I sent the email to them.
Before I had kids, I was vaguely conscious of these issues, but not entirely. Some of the gifts I made or bought for my nieces might have included materials I now consider to be unsafe.
Print-Out: A Checklist (for Well-Meaning Family Members)
Sometimes this type of request is better received when it’s coming from someone else. So by all means, share this article with your family.
However, I realize there’s a lot of information here to digest. And not everyone needs (or wants) the details.
For this reason, we’ve made a simple checklist that anyone searching for non-toxic toys can refer to.
If there’s anything we’ve missed, or you have your own unique criteria, we’ve included space for you to make additions.