Avoid These Toxic Holiday Toy Traps

Tips for choosing non-toxic toys for your family and friends this holiday season.

‘Tis the season! With so many choices, it can be difficult to select gifts that satisfy our family and loved ones but are also free of dangerous ingredients and contaminants. It is important to do your due diligence as a consumer, since our system for ensuring toy safety is mostly reactive—toys aren’t tested for safety before they come on the market. Education and vigilance can help keep your family and friends safe this holiday season.

Smart toys are becoming more popular. These are toys that can speak to a child, play music, and perform a variety of other functions. But there are also risks, like data being collected on a child, a hacker gaining access through a Bluetooth connection, children being exposed to inappropriate content, or a toy having the capability of recording information about your home and family. One karaoke microphone Bluetooth toy doesn’t require any pin code or verification to connect, which means that anyone within a certain radius can pair their phone and play an explicit song or a voice recording telling a child to come outside. Hackers could use the toy to talk to other smart devices like Amazon Alexa.

Wireless headphones are becoming increasingly popular, but there are reasons to be concerned about the health effects they can cause. We’ve written before about the health dangers associated with the radiation emitted from cell phones. Wireless headphones emit a similar type of radiation to cell phones (though generally at a lower power), and they are designed to be positioned in your ears, which is adjacent to the brain. Note that cell phone manuals usually instruct users to keep phones away from your head when using them. What makes wireless headphones concerning, then, is their positioning (right next to the brain) and the cumulative exposure time—it is becoming common for people to have wireless headphones in their ears for almost the entire day. Regularly using wireless headphones is substantially increasing our overall exposure to harmful radiation.

Lead in toys is unfortunately still something to watch out for. The use of lead in plastics has, outrageously, not been banned, so this heavy metal can still be found in toys produced in the US, not to mention toys produced outside the US. By law, toys produced in the US are not allowed to have a concentration of lead greater than 90 parts per million (ppm) in surface coatings and no more than 100 ppm in total lead content. Keep in mind, though, that there is no safe level of lead exposure. To avoid lead in toys, experts advise not to buy nonbrand toys, antique toys, or toys from discount shops or private vendors unless you can be absolutely sure they do not contain lead. Costume jewelry should not be given to young children. Consult recall lists to be sure you haven’t bought any toy recalled for lead.

Phthalates are chemicals used to soften plastics. As with lead, the government has set permissible levels of certain phthalates in children’s toys at 0.1 percent rather than banning them outright. These chemicals come with a long list of risks: they’ve been linked with asthma, ADHD, breast cancer, obesity, type II diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioral issues, and altered reproductive development. A recent study found that children exposed to phthalates before birth and shortly after had reduced lung function at 6 and 12 years old. Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors that can have profound effects on (particularly male) fertility. Avoid products that have recycling codes 3 (which is PVC, often softened with phthalates). Avoid products made before 2009 when phthalate limits went into effect; reports from before that time show scary levels of phthalates in a wide variety of products. You can also email a toy company directly to see if their products contain PVC or phthalates. Aside from toys, it’s best to use glass and stainless steel instead of plastic for water bottles, storage containers, and baby bottles. 

Bisphenols are used to make hard, mostly transparent plastics. Many consumers are familiar with BPA and the health problems, like endocrine disruption, with which this chemical has been associated. This has led to marketing ploys of products being “BPA-free,” but as we’ve reported elsewhere, BPA is often replaced with another bisphenol that is just as dangerous. It can be difficult to avoid bisphenols altogether unless you avoid all plastic toys, but certain precautions can be taken. You can choose toys made of alternative materials like responsibly sourced wood. Recycle plastic toys that look worn or when the clear plastic becomes cloudy; avoid placing plastic toys for extended periods of time in the sun or in heat. Try to keep your child from putting plastic toys in their mouths. Avoid products marked with a 1 or a 7 recycle symbol and try to opt for containers marked with 2, 4, or 5 to avoid bisphenols.

Formaldehyde is a carcinogen that can be found in some children’s products, such as toys made of composite wood that contain adhesives that release this chemical; it can be used in products to achieve wrinkle resistance, so if a toy’s label makes this claim investigate how it is achieved. To avoid formaldehyde, opt for solid wood toys rather than composite wood, choose organic fabrics for dolls, and buy water-based paints rather than oil based paints for kids, as acrylic paints can give off formaldehyde.

PFAS, referred to as “forever chemicals” since they persist in the environment and accumulate in the human body, are used in a wide array of consumer products, including clothes in order to make them waterproof and stain resistant. As we’ve reported previously, PFAS are associated with a wide range of negative health effects like cancer, thyroid disorders, developmental problems with fetuses, kidney disease, and more. Check clothing labels for the presence of Teflon or Gore-Tex, which can signal the presence of PFAS.

Flame retardants are chemicals that are added to products to prevent fires. They have been added to children’s pajamas since the 1970’s when rules were written requiring them to either pass certain flammability tests or be tight fitting. To comply, manufacturers began adding flame retardants to pajamas, and the most popular, brominated tris, was banned a few years later when scientists found it was carcinogenic. Flame retardants have been linked to many negative health effects such as thyroid disruption, cognitive problems, lower IQ, cancer, and advanced puberty. Many manufacturers have switched to polyester, which is not treated with flame retardants, but is made out of petroleum and has been found to leak antimony, a heavy metal that is toxic to humans. Concerned parents can instead opt for tight-fitting, organic cotton pajamas that have “not flame resistant” on the label.

We hope this information can help you shop smart and choose gifts that are fun and safe for children this holiday season!


  1. Thank you! The daycare way of sterilizing toys. Throw them in the dishwasher and run them thru the entire cycle. Then, put them out on a cloth towel to dry on a table. Hope that helps.

  2. You are wise to include the PFAS and the wireless headphones (although lower powered compared to a mobile phone but used for a much longer duration) in your warnings.

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