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It wasn’t until I had my first child that I ever really thought about the ingredients used to make many common household objects or their potential dangers. Once I had a little one who completely relied on me for his safety, I started to really research what was in common items like cleaners, scented candles, and detergents.
Then I learned about the problems with many children’s toys… ones my baby would be putting in his mouth. Since that time, I’ve been working to find natural, organic, and sustainable alternatives to many common toys. This swap took years to make and a lot of trial and error, but we found our favorites.
While I’ll always be a big believer that outdoor equipment is better than piles of indoor toys, these are our favorite natural and non-toxic toys that have stood the test of time.
Are Toys Today Toxic?
It’s hard to believe that any toys today are made with toxic materials considering there are more regulations than ever before. Unfortunately, there are still big concerns with the materials being used by toy manufacturers and regulations are not enough to fix the problem.
A significant revelation in the awareness surrounding this issue came from a 2008 report from HealthyToys.org. According to the report, one in three children’s toys contains significant levels of toxic chemicals. For example, lead was still a major concern in toys despite the public knowing about its toxicity since the 1970s (and that there is no safe level).
They found not only lead, but other toxins in toys as well:
- Flame retardants
Many families stay away from toys made in China because they have fewer regulations, but the report showed there were similar amounts of toxins in toys from many different countries (including the U.S. and Canada).
The report also found that children’s jewelry is the worst source of contamination. Compared to other products, children’s jewelry is twice as likely to contain detectable levels of lead.
Shortly after this report, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) was set in motion which imposed new testing and documentation requirements. It also set new acceptable levels of several substances used in manufacturing.
This was a huge step forward for reducing toxins in toys (specifically lead) but experts say it isn’t enough. For one thing, the chemicals that replace banned chemicals may be just as harmful (more on this below).
In 2017, the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) published its 32nd annual Trouble in Toyland report. It found that there is still a lot to be concerned about regarding toys and toxins. Toys are still being recalled regularly, and those recalls are based on known toxins or safety issues, not on new and emerging ones. Many toxins are not yet recognized as unsafe by the government. All in all, we can’t rely on government regulations to completely protect us from toxic toys.
Plastics are a huge problem for the environment as well as the human body. PVC is a common plastic in children’s toys but is arguably the worst kind of plastic. It can contain lead, cadmium, phthalates, and volatile organic compounds. According to Ecowatch, vinyl chloride, the chemical used to make PVC, has been described as a known carcinogen. The EPA has created more restrictions on PVC building materials (like flooring) based on growing evidence of toxicity, so using PVC for children’s toys is simply outrageous.
Another concerning plastic is BPA. According to research including a 2014 study, BPA can disrupt hormones, causing sexual dysfunction, fertility issues and defects in growing embryos like feminization of male fetuses.
Many manufacturers began phasing BPA out of their products in 2008, but this chemical is often being replaces with another similar one BPS. Scientific America reports that BPS is just as harmful as BPA. It can disrupt normal cell functioning which can lead to diabetes, obesity, asthma, birth defects or even cancer.
How Do You Know If a Toy Is Safe?
The tricky thing about chemicals in toys is that you can’t tell just by looking at them whether they contain toxic chemicals or not. Luckily there is a handy website called ToySafety.org can help guide you when choosing toys. Additionally, check for recalls regularly on the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) website.
While these steps are important, it’s equally important to follow these guidelines for choosing toys:
Plastics are generally toxic for humans and for the environment, so avoiding them when possible is your best bet. Stick with natural materials like:
- unfinished, solid, non-toxic wood
- organic cotton
- untreated wool
If the wood is finished, it should be finished with natural oils and waxes like beeswax or walnut oil. If avoiding all plastic isn’t possible, choose toys made with polypropylene or ABS, which are some of the safest plastics available.
Avoid PVC and Phthalates
Because PVC is especially harmful to people and the environment, it’s a plastic I recommend avoiding specifically. Plastic softeners (phthalates) in many plastics, including PVC, often have a specific smell (think beach balls, kids plastic tents, slip and slides, etc), so they’re fairly easy to avoid. Also, consider whether the plastic smell is being covered up by fragrances (which aren’t healthy either).
Avoid Painted Toys
Avoid coatings or paints that can contain lead. Many toys made in China (and some other places) that are painted have lead in them. Stick with U.S., Canada, or European toys if you want painted wooden toys (and, of course, research the company).
Best Non-Toxic Toy Brands
It’s still not easy to avoid toxins in toys, that’s why it’s important to find companies you can trust. Many companies have pledged to keep harmful chemicals out of their toys. Here are some of the best ones and the ones that have stood the test of time for us:
Blocks, Building, and Figures
PlanToys – These toys are made from natural rubberwood trees that no longer produce latex. The dyes they use are free of heavy metals as well.
Grimm’s – A great selection of painted wood stacking and building toys.
Haba – This company produces most of its wooden toys in Germany and uses sustainable wood harvesting practices. They also use non-toxic paint.
Petit Collage – All these toys are made with recycled paper and without PVC. This company also makes great puzzles and magnet sets.
Cloth and Fabric
Cloth and fabric toys are often a baby’s first toy, but choose a company that uses non-toxic, untreated fabrics.
Under the Nile – This company uses 100% GOTS-certified organic cotton for its cloth toys and teethers.
Finn and Emma – The fabric toys are made with organic cotton and the wooden toys are made with natural wood. I also find their prices pretty reasonable.
Arts and Crafts
Arts and crafts are a favorite around my house so I’m glad to have some choices:
Eco-Kids – This art supply company uses natural materials for its products including natural wax, mineral pigments, and 100% pure beeswax.
Natural Art Supplies – This company is very open about where the materials they use come from.
“Safer” Plastic Toys (Gasp!)
Here are some of the VERY few plastic toys that have made it into our stash simply because they are such favorites:
Legos – These are made with ABS plastic which is one of the safest plastics.
Magnatiles – Made in China but without toxins like BPA, phthalates, and PVC. They do contain magnets though, which can be dangerous if the pieces break, so consider using these with supervision.
Our Favorite Non-Toxic Natural Toys (Kid-Tested and Mom-Approved)
And the Kids’ Choice Awards go to the following toys that are totally worth keeping around:
Basic Wooden Natural Toys
Wood toys are by far my favorite toys, especially for little ones. I love finding handmade wooden toys at farmer’s markets or on Etsy. As I mentioned, I love Haba brand toys for babies and little kids and they are made to European standards, which are stricter than U.S. standards for safety and avoidance of chemicals. These natural Montessori-inspired baby teething toys are also a big hit with my babies.
I’m a huge fan of toys that encourage creative play. Legos are one of the only plastic toys we have, and I make the exception because they encourage hours of imaginative play. For little kids, plain wooden blocks are a great thing to have on hand. We still have some blocks that my husband’s father made for him when he was young, and I also got these all-natural lead-free blocks.
We have a variety of play silks that the children use for dress-up and imaginative play, as well as many homemade costumes. I’ve found that these encourage hours of creative play at our home. Melissa and Doug also makes a great line of dress-up costumes.
A huge favorite at our house. I’ve found some great wooden trains and tracks on Craigslist and at yard sales and we also have this set.
I love having pre-made activity and craft bins that I can pull out and do with the kids. i’ve chronicled many of our favorites on Pinterest. We also have a wooden tabletop easel for drawing and painting.
This one isn’t for the faint of heart. Seriously. If you have more than one child, musical instruments can quickly turn a room of otherwise quiet children into a rock band that rivals a crowded stadium in sound levels. Instruments are, however, really fun for children. We have these simple wooden instruments and the children love creating their own songs with them.
Dolls & Dollhouse
One of my most fond childhood memories is playing for hours with the dollhouse she and my grandfather made when I was young. Instead of plastic dolls with fake faces, I had five rooms of wooden doll furniture and a little wooden family with yarn for hair. I redecorated that dollhouse, rearranged furniture, made miniature books for them and took them on vacations in the backyard. My children may not all remember my grandmother, but I have a heck of a dollhouse to pass on to them one day and some great memories to share.
If you don’t have a handmade dollhouse, a friend has this solid wood dollhouse from Hape and loves the quality.
Bow & Arrow and Slingshots
Support Your Natural Toy Maker!
It’s wonderful to see companies making toys more like they used to be: simple, interesting, and made of natural materials. Let me know if I forgot some of your favorite non-toxic or natural toys!
What toys are favorites at your house? Share below!
- Raymer, M. (2008, December 3). Ecology Center’s Healthy Toys guide lists worst toys.
U.S. PIRG Education Fund. (2017, November 17). 32nd Annual “Trouble in Toyland” Survey Finds Dangerous Toys on Store Shelves.
- Chen, S., Ma, Y., Wang, J., Chen, D., Luo, X., & Mai, B. (2009). Brominated Flame Retardants in Children’s Toys: Concentration, Composition, and Children’s Exposure and Risk Assessment. Environmental Science & Technology,43(11), 4200-4206. doi:10.1021/es9004834
- Brominated Flame Retardants. (2012, January 17). Retrieved from https://cfpub.epa.gov/si/si_public_record_report.cfm?Lab=NHEERL&dirEntryId=226582
- Why You Should Avoid PVC Products. (2019, January 31). Retrieved from https://www.ecowatch.com/why-you-should-avoid-pvc-products-1881927242.html
- Manfo, F. P., Jubendradass, R., Nantia, E. A., Moundipa, P. F., & Mathur, P. P. (2013). Adverse Effects of Bisphenol A on Male Reproductive Function. Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology Volume 228, 57-82. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-01619-1_3
- Bilbrey, J. (2014, August 11). BPA-Free Plastic Containers May Be Just as Hazardous. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bpa-free-plastic-containers-may-be-just-as-hazardous/