What You Should Know About Toxic Chemicals in Children’s Toys

Every parent wants what is best for their child. Unfortunately, making decisions for the health and future of your child is not always a simple task. Many manufacturers market their products towards children without any regard for the potential health and safety hazards they may pose. So, just how hazardous can children’s toys be, and how can you tell which toys have harmful components?

Why VOCs are bad for children

When toys and other products are manufactured, potentially harmful chemical compounds can sometimes become trapped inside them. These volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can then be emitted as particulate matter and gases during the life of the product, especially when the toy is new. Your child may be exposed to the volatile organic compounds that are offgassed by their favorite toys, especially if they like to put their toys in their mouths. Moreover, your child may even be exposed to VOCs through inhalation, so it is best to stay away from high-VOC toys altogether.

Top 10 children’s toys with VOCs

You may be surprised to learn of the broad range of children’s toys that have high levels of VOCs. Exposure to these VOCs can cause a wide range of health effects, especially for children. Filling a toy box with safe, no or low-VOC products requires more research than you might expect, and it is not always the cheapest option. However, the time and effort is worth it to protect the health of your child. Below, we list ten popular toys and toy components that are likely to expose your child to VOCs.

Paint

That “new paint smell” that comes with putting a fresh coat of paint on your walls is caused by VOCs being “off-gassed” by the paint after it leaves the can. Unfortunately, house paint is not the only type of paint that can contain VOCs. Children’s craft paints can contain VOC levels that vary depending on the cost and quality of the paint. Acrylic paints typically have significantly less VOCs than enamel and latex paints. There are even some paints on the market made with plant-based dyes that have low or no VOCs.

Tents and tunnels

The plastic tarp used to make children’s tents and tunnels can off-gas VOCs throughout the life of the product. When children interact with these toys, they are in enclosed spaces, and their faces are usually close to the VOC-emitting products. A 2014 report published by the Washington State Department of Ecology found VOCs, including ethylbenzene, styrene and formaldehyde, in tents and tunnels created for children’s use. For a safer alternative, try making tents and tunnels at home using organic cotton fabric instead.

Glue

The EPA lists craft materials, including glue and other adhesives, as potential sources of VOCs. Fortunately, high-VOC paste can be easily replaced with alternatives made of flour, cornstarch and other natural ingredients found in the kitchen.

Soft plastic

Soft plastic is used in many different types of children’s toys, including dolls, bath toys, and even sippy cups. Many plastic toys contain phthalates—a class of chemicals used to soften plastic and known to cause adverse health effects such as hormone disruptions, developmental problems and asthma. Eco-Healthy Child Care, managed by the Children’s Environmental Health Network, recommends preventing phthalate exposure by avoiding plastic toys marked with recycling codes #3 (polyvinyl chloride [PVC]), #6 (polystyrene) and #7 (other, which can sometimes include bisphenol A [BPA]). Wooden toys are also a great alternative to high-VOC plastic toys.

Electronics

Electronic toys are more popular than ever, but the fun that they bring may come at a cost. For example, remote controlled cars and children’s bake ovens have been found to emit high levels of harmful organic compounds such as formaldehyde, toluene, benzene and styrene, according to an indoor air quality report by the safety organization UL (formerly Underwriters Laboratories).

Wooden toys

Though wooden toys, such as blocks, play furniture and puzzles, are a popular safe alternative to plastic toys, their manufacturing process (including the type of wood used and the way that the wood was treated) can sometimes cause them to have comparable VOC levels to their plastic counterparts. Toys made with pressed wood, such as particle board and plywood may contain formaldehyde. Additionally, the paints and sealants used in production may cause a wooden toy to off-gas VOCs.

Cosmetics

Cosmetics manufactured for children are usually much cheaper and brighter than products marketed towards adults. Unfortunately, these products contain chemicals that can be harmful to your child’s health. A 2016 report by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found one or more VOCs in 20% of the 39 children’s makeup items tested.

Perfume in toys

Whether it is a scratch-and-sniff sticker, a scented marker or a children’s make-up product, the fragrances used in toys can contain VOCs that you probably want to keep away from your child. The Washington State Department of Ecology report listed above found VOCs including benzene, styrene, toluene and n-Butanol in the perfume used in children’s toys, perfumes and body washes.

Slime

Slime is currently one of the most popular toys among school-aged children, and the chances are that your child has already asked you to buy or help them make it. The consumer safety group Which? Released a report in 2018 that stated that many brands of slime on the market contained harmful levels of boron. The most popular way to make slime at home involves Borax, which can also be harmful to children. Fortunately, there are other recipes available online that use safer alternatives such as chia seeds, gelatin and cornstarch.

Balloons

Though balloons are one of the most common celebration decorations in a child’s life, they can also emit harmful pollutants such as benzene and carbon disulfide, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology report. Colorful streamers and paper pom poms are a balloon alternative that can pack just as much excitement into the party decor.

What should you do if your child’s toys already have VOCs?

If you are like most parents, there are probably at least a couple of toys in your home that are currently off-gassing. For some products, such as cheap goodie bag toys or children’s cosmetics, the best answer is usually to get rid of the toy and replace it with a safer alternative. For other toys, including those that your child has grown attached to (or those that were too expensive to throw away) you can try the following tips to help speed up the off-gassing process and reduce the concentration of harmful VOCs that enter the air inside your home.

  • Unwrap new toys in a well-ventilated space, such as your backyard or garage with the door open. If you cannot avoid opening the toy indoors, try placing it in a warmer room to help it expand and release VOCs faster.
  • Increase the ventilation in your home by opening windows, turning on fans, or using air filtration systems to help lower the concentration of airborne pollutants.
  • Consider placing an air purifier in your child’s bedroom, or in whichever room they store the majority of their toys. Not all air purifiers are effective against VOCs, but the Molekule air purifier has been tested and shown to reduce VOCs in the air.
  • Try buying used toys that have already completed most of the off-gassing process.

How can you find toys with low or no VOCs?

Before you buy a new toy for your child, you can check what it is made of to avoid buying products that will off-gas VOCs in your home. Not all toy companies are completely transparent about the components that make up their products, but there is a growing range of toy manufacturers who focus on selling safe toys with low or no VOCs. Some of these manufacturers include:

No parent would relish the idea that their child’s favorite toy may be emitting harmful pollutants into the air. Fortunately, you can still take action to control the concentration of airborne pollutants in your home by choosing new toys carefully and protecting your child from the off-gassing of old toys.