Tips for Safer School Supplies

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.

Binders & Pencil Holders

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.

Backpacks & Lunchboxes

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.

Hand Sanitizer

Problem: Hand sanitizers are often made with synthetic microbial chemicals like triclosan. Triclosan is a registered pesticide and is associated with endocrine disruption, increased risk of breast cancer, and toxicity to aquatic animals.

Solution: Look for hand sanitizers that forego chemical microbials like triclosan and kill germs with alcohol and essential oils instead. 

Water Bottles

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 were recently found in plastic.

Solution: Ditch plastic altogether. Instead, choose reusable stainless steel or glass. We like the MADE SAFE certified Pura Stainless Sport Mini. This lightweight, non-insulated bottle is easy to drink from. Pura Stainless grows with your kids too! A single bottle can transform from a sippy cup to a sport bottle.


Problem: A 2015 study found asbestos, a known human carcinogen, in crayons. Not all crayons in the study contained it, but some did, and the manufacturer was not required to reveal it.

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.

Lice Treatments

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 normal 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.

Fragranced Products

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.”

Action Steps: 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:

  • Get your school involved in the Healthy Green Schools movement to convert your school to a healthier environment.
  • 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 our Banned & Restricted List to help educate fellow parents and your child’s teacher about toxic chemicals in everyday products.
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