August is fast-approaching, which means you might be prepping for your kids to head back to school. You’ve likely been given a long list of school supplies to buy. Unfortunately, many common back-to-school items can contain toxic ingredients.
As a team comprised of mostly mothers, we know that there just isn’t enough time in the day to research nontoxic products. So we’ve put together our favorite tips for choosing safer school supplies. Remember that every small step you take to help reduce your child’s exposure to harmful chemicals lowers levels of toxic chemicals in their bodies and can weight the scale toward good health.
Problem: Phthalates are a class of chemicals used to make plastic more flexible so that it can be molded into products like binders and pencil holders. Phthalates are linked to a wide range of health concerns, including hormone disruption. Phthalates can off-gas, or be released in the form of a gas, from some plastic products.
Solution: Look for binders, pencil holders, and other plastic school supplies in more natural fibers: fabric pencil cases made of cotton or canvas; binders made from paperboard; and uncoated paper folders are good choices.
Problem: Backpacks and lunchboxes are often made with PVC (polyvinyl chloride), sometimes called vinyl for short, which is widely known as the plastic most toxic to our health and the environment. In its production, PVC releases a number of harmful chemicals including dioxins, phthalates, ethylene dichloride, lead, cadmium, and more. Phthalates can off-gas from the final product.
Solution: Look for backpacks made of canvas, cotton or other natural materials. Check the inside to make sure it’s not lined with plastic. Without the plastic coating, you might have to wash your child’s backpack more often, but the extra effort is worth minimizing chemical exposure. Choose reusable lunch boxes made from stainless steel or canvas.
Problem: Hand sanitizers are often made with PEGs (associated with harmful contaminants), parabens (linked to endocrine disruption and cancer), and undisclosed fragrance (linked to development and reproductive harm). Read our product profile to learn more about hand sanitizers.
Solution: Look for alcohol-based hand sanitizers that contain simple non-active ingredients such as water, plant oils, and glycerin. Shop MADE SAFE Certified hand sanitizers.
Problem: Many reusable and single-use water bottles are made with plastic. Most of us have heard to avoid BPA, but be wary of BPA-free plastics too. These are often made with other bisphenols – like BPS and BPF. BPA-free plastics are known to leach endocrine disrupting chemicals, just like BPA. And, in addition to BPA, at least 148 highly hazardous substances have been found in plastic.
Solution: Ditch plastic altogether. Instead, choose reusable stainless steel or glass. We like the MADE SAFE Certified options from Pura Stainless. Pura’s lightweight bottles are easy to drink from – and they grow with your kids too! A single bottle can transform from a sippy cup to a sport bottle.
Solution: Because asbestos isn’t something you’re going to find on the crayon label, the best way to avoid it is to buy soy, beeswax, or natural-based crayons as an alternative.
Problem: Conventional lice treatment products often contain pyrethroids, a class of pesticides containing over 1,000 insecticides. Pyrethroids are one of the most common lice treatments. Because pyrethroids can easily pass the blood-brain-barrier, they can become toxic to the central nervous system. The chemical class may also adversely impact behavior in children.
Solution: The best solution is prevention. Teach your children not to share clothing that might spread lice – like helmets, hats, brushes, combs, towels, and hair ties. Check your children’s hair regularly and consider a shampoo meant to prevent head lice using natural solutions like tea tree, thyme, and rosemary.
If your child gets lice, choose treatments that do not contain harmful pesticides. Opt for products containing oils that may kill lice like tea tree, peppermint, and rosemary, and wet-comb your child’s hair with an appropriate lice comb. Be patient and comb often. Sanitize brushes and combs. Research the right treatments for your family and consult a doctor if necessary. Read our guide for more information on safer lice treatments.
Problem: Many school supplies come in scented options: markers, soaps, erasers, crayons, stickers, hand wipes, hand sanitizers, and more. The package might contain the word “fragrance” but likely it’s not listed at all, and the product will just be labeled as “scented.” Fragrance can be made of dozens of different ingredients that make up scent, all of which companies are allowed to keep secret – even ones linked to cancer, hormone disruption, reproductive harm, and ADHD.
Solution: Look for fragrance-free school supplies. Products containing the word “unscented” can still contain fragrance ingredients, so look for “fragrance-free.”
Problem: The majority of wipes are actually made with or from plastic! They may feel soft against your skin, but they’re made of the same materials used to make plastic water and soda bottles, food packaging, diapers, and so much more. Wipes are an item that can’t be recycled, which means they end up in landfills where they can be carried to the ocean and degrade into microplastics, contributing to plastic pollution in our oceans. As scientists and environmental advocates call for urgent action to slow down our use of plastics – especially single-use plastics like wipes – now is the time to switch to safer options.
Solution: Skip plastic wipes by avoiding those made from PET, polyester or polypropylene. Instead, look for wipes that are made of natural fibers and are labeled as biodegradable and compostable at home. Organic cotton wipes are an excellent option. You can also consider 100% bamboo wipes, if you know they’ve been processed without toxic chemicals. Shop for MADE SAFE Certified wipes to ensure you’re getting the best of the best. Want to learn more about wipes? Read our report.
Get your school, child’s teacher, and other parents involved
Use this as an opportunity to talk with your child’s teacher, administrators, and other parents about ways the community can come together to protect your kids from harmful chemicals in everyday school supplies. Here are some ideas:
- Discuss with your child’s teacher about converting their classroom to a fragrance-free space. Even better: ask your child’s administrator about this possibility school-wide.
- Share the tips you’ve learned with fellow parents. Encourage them to buy safer supplies to help protect their children too and make the classroom and school healthier as a whole.
- Many teachers purchase their own supplies for their classroom. Organize a team of parents willing to come together to purchase safer supplies to donate to your child’s teacher.
- Share MADE SAFE resources with fellow parents and your child’s teacher to help educate them about toxic chemicals in everyday products.