Toddler Art & Craft : A Guide To Choosing Non-Toxic Products
It seems like only yesterday that Isabella was a tiny baby in my arms and now I have a running, dancing, chatting 19 month old toddler! The change has been exponential and I’ve felt at times like I’ve been racing to keep ahead with my research of products before it is necessary to introduce them into our home.
Isabella’s been ready to experiment with art and craft products for a while now. We jumbled through for a few months with some homemade playdough that was so salty it would dry your hands out, trying homemade finger paint – yogurt and turmeric (not quite the great experience I was looking for!) albeit with some lovely crayons which tided us over… but the time had come where I really wanted to diversify Isabella’s art and craft experience. After all, art is important for the development of eye/ hand co-ordination as well as stimulating for the brain. Art is also a wonderful way to encourage imagination and expression.
Non-toxic art supplies is a huge area to research as there are so many different types of products. These products also don’t have ingredients lists on them! Companies are allowed to keep their ingredients under wraps because it’s a ‘trade secret’. Unfortunately, this makes it much more difficult to evaluate them… although definitely a very worthy effort given there are plenty of stories of product recalls of children’s paints and crayons which have been found to have lead and asbestos in them, amongst other toxic ingredients.
Isabella is at the age where she wants to explore and investigate everything… I’ve seen her sneakily lick playdough, nibble a crayon, rub paint all over her arm… and that was while I was watching! There’s no stopping those little experiments and so it is therefore really important to me that I make sure that the products Isabella uses are truly non-toxic. Whilst navigating the child art and craft world was intimidating to me at first, I’ve been very motivated to find safe products for Isabella to use and to be able to recommend to you all.
I’m really excited to share my great finds with you… but first let’s look at why it’s important to choose non-toxic and what are the ingredients we’re actually trying to avoid!
Aren’t kids art products non-toxic? They say they are on the label!
Regulation and testing on children’s products isn’t nearly as closely monitored by governmental bodies as it should be. Unfortunately, this means that there is the potential for untested and dangerous chemicals to end up in the products we buy for ourselves and our children. Children are particularly vulnerable to chemicals because of their small size, increased hand to mouth activity, higher metabolic rate and rapid developmental change.
Examples of toxins being found in children’s art supplies are numerous:
- In 2009, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics tested 10 face paints for heavy metals and found lead in every one of them. 6 of the face paints tested also contained nickel, cadmium or chromium.
- In 2014, the U.S FDA tested 10 face paints for heavy metals and found lead in every one of them. All of the face paints tested also contained nickel, cadmium and chromium. 9 of the paints tested contained arsenic.
- In 2015, the Australian ACCC identified traces of asbestos in 6 brands of crayons.
As companies don’t have to declare the ingredients in an art or craft product, we don’t have any way to know for sure what we are buying unless we find a company who will declare their ingredients or provide independent test results.
Colours really are a fundamental component of art products. Unfortunately, it’s coloured pigments which can contain the most harmful toxins. For centuries colours for art were derived from natural sources often containing harmful ingredients such as mercury, copper, arsenic and lead.
Synthetic colours were then developed from coal tar in order to replace the original toxic natural ones! The problem with the new synthetic colours was that their non-toxic status hadn’t been tested either! Synthetic colours have since been steadily banned as new research comes out about their negative health effects. (Some are now recognised carcinogens and some have been shown to cause migraines, anxiety and behavioural issues). Today, only 7 colours are on the FDA approved list and there is a push by many to ban all of them!
So what do we have left?
There is again a push to go back to natural colourings, except this time using safe ingredients. Yellows from turmeric or marigold, red from cochineal (a crushed insect!), blackcurrant or radish, pink from beetroot, green from spinach and nettle, blue from spirulina etc.
So what are the harmful ingredients that can be in art products? How bad are they?
Paints can be coloured with pigments made or contaminated with toxic metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium and nickel.
Oil based paints can also contain chemical solvents to dissolve pigments to allow paint to spread evenly (like toluene which is linked to kidney and liver damage or methyl alcohol which can cause blindness if swallowed) These can emit dangerous fumes.
Children should always use water- based paints instead. These do not contain solvents, though still can contain dangerous pigments.
Powdered paints can pose an inhalation risk even if they are non-toxic and so should be prepared away from a child. Spray paints should be avoided as they can be easily inhaled.
A quick summary about Lead:
Lead has been found as a contaminant in many paints and crayons. Lead is a metal and neurotoxin which has been very widely studied in relation to its health effects. Research shows that lead has the potential to cause harm and has been shown to be particularly damaging to children’s brains.
Lead does not break down in the body and so accumulates over time. This means that it has the potential to cause harm even if exposure occurs at very low levels. Due to this, experts agree that there is no safe level of lead exposure.
Exposure to lead can occur through ingestion, inhalation or skin absorption.
Different types of health problems caused by lead are linked to different levels of exposure: Low lead exposure can damage a child’s developing brain causing lowered IQ, impulsive or delinquent behaviour and attention deficits. Higher levels of lead exposure are associated with lowered fertility and can even increase the risk for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Nickel, Cadmium and Chromium:
These have been found as contaminants in paints including face paints and are believed to be amongst the top 15 most common skin allergens in children.
Arsenic is an element naturally found in soil. A type of arsenic called inorganic arsenic is a known carcinogen and toxic. Arsenic exposure has been linked to neurological effects in early life and is also associated with higher rates of skin, bladder and lung cancer and heart disease.
Asbestos are naturally occurring thin, fibrous silicate minerals. These can contaminate the common ingredient talc. Asbestos is a known carcinogen… particularly when inhaled.
Most mainstream crayons are a mix of artificial colours in a petroleum based paraffin wax. The healthiest and least toxic crayon options are made from beeswax, organic plant waxes, organic (ethically sourced) soy oil and natural dyes.
There have been numerous crayon recalls over lead and asbestos being found to be present in them. These make their way into the crayon through pigments and talc which was used as a strengthening agent (talc is now banned, but still has the potential to be present in imports.)
Conventional coloured pencils often use chemical based pigments and may be coated with varnish or paint containing toxins.
Most conventional mainstream play dough is coloured with artificial colours. It often contains borax as a preservative which is an alkaline mineral commonly used in cleaning and ant-killing products. Borax has been classed as not safe for use on infant skin in cosmetic products and is banned as a food additive in the U.S.
Play doughs can also be scented with phthalate filled artificial fragrance (even when they don’t say it’s scented- a lot of play doughs have a mild vanilla or cherry smell added).
Coloured felt tip pens/ textas:
There are three types of coloured markers- solvent based, alcohol- based and water-based.
Solvent-based markers contain toxic chemicals such as xylene (which is a kidney/ respiratory/ reproductive and neurotoxin). Alcohol- based markers also contain toxins. These are both marked ‘permanent’ and ‘waterproof’ and should be avoided.
Water based coloured markers are the safer option as well as the option that will cause the least mess as they contain ink that is able to be removed from clothes! Definitely avoid any scented pens as these can contain hormone-disrupting phthalates.
Glues can contain toxic solvents which can emit fumes and be absorbed through inhalation or skin absorption. Rubber cement, model glues and super glue should be avoided.
Water based glues and pastes which have no colouring are the safest option.
Art smocks are commonly made with PVC. PVC contains large amounts of endocrine disrupting phthalates – up to 30% of its weight! Phthalates are plasticisers which keep the plastic flexible. They are not however bonded into the plastic and leach easily. Phthalates are linked to a whole range of negative health effects.
Instead opt for art smocks made from poly-cotton or polyester/polyurethane.
Tips to further reduce chemical exposure:
- Keep your art area ventilated
- Don’t let your child eat or drink during this time
- Use an art smock
- Wash hands when finished
- Avoid excessive skin painting. (Absorption is increased with the more surface area covered… finger painting with non-toxic paints is fine! But painting arms and legs does increase the risk of absorption of unwanted toxins)
What products do I recommend?
These are my favourite non-toxic art products. I’ve tried my best to find amazing products which are Australian made so that we can support the wonderful small businesses which are really trying to do the right thing, though my list contains a variety.
Emma started Rainbow Lab as a way to make sure her own children were using toxin-free products. She hand makes both paints and playdough and uses organic and Australian ingredients wherever possible.
These paints come in powders which means that you can make up as much or as little as you want for that day of painting. The paints are made from Australian clay, coconut milk powder, Himalayan pink salt, organic corn flour and plant pigments. The pigments used are turmeric, activated charcoal, clays, beet powder, spirulina, indigo, cacao – organic and Australian where possible.
We have these at home and I find them really easy to make up. I put an art smock on Isabella when we use them as I’m not sure about their washability due to the natural pigments used like turmeric. The paint packets are generously sized and we’ve had loads of fun with them and still have lots left (though I am careful not to waste it!) I’m really happy with these.
These paint powders make either a creamy paint or a watercolour like paint depending how much water you add when you make them up. They can be used for painting on wood, paper, rocks and fabric and are 100% washable.
Earth Paint is made from organic corn starch, gum arabic & natural earth and mineral pigments. The company declares all their sources of each coloured pigment and tests each one to make sure they are non-toxic.
The company claims these are safe for all ages. Care should still be taken when making up the paint so as not to inhale the powder. It is advisable to only make up the paint that you need for that time as these paints only last 4-7 days in their made up form.
These are beautiful paints with really earthy tones. They are easy to make up and they wash easily out of clothes.
These delightful non-toxic crayons are made by two Melbourne mums and come in some wonderfully fun and imaginative shapes. Isabella loves playing with them as toys as well as using them to draw with!
A lot of care has been taken to use only safe ingredients in these crayons. The waxes that are used are beeswax and organic plant waxes which are farmed sustainably. The crayons are paraffin, palm and soy wax free and all the packaging is recycled.
To ensure the crayons don’t contain any harmful toxins, they have been independently tested. This is an expensive thing to do and just shows how much Tinta is committed to bringing a safe product to the market.
We really enjoy these crayons and I highly recommend them. They are great for the imagination (they’ve been used as toys, play dough stampers, in the sandpit as well as for drawing!) and they fit well in little toddler hands!
These fantastic crayons are made from 100% beeswax and non-toxic pigments in New Zealand. They smell quite strongly of honey which I really like. They have either thick or thin crayons in their range. We have the thick crayons and Isabella finds them easy to grip and draw with. The colours come out really well. I also found it really easy to clean off the marks these made across our white craft table which is a bonus! Highly recommended.
These crayons are made from soy wax sourced from soy grown in the U.S. (though not organic.) They are coloured with mineral pigments. They are independently tested to make sure they do not contain any toxins such as heavy metals.
Crayon Rocks are shaped in a way to get children to use the tripod grip when drawing to help with fine motor skills and early writing. They come in a variety of colours. The crayons are a choking hazard for children under 3 and so strict supervision must be carried out when using them.
They are on my must- try list for when Isabella gets a bit older.
Lyra pencils carry a range of certifications (such as the ACMI AP logo) showing that they have undergone testing by a qualified toxicologist and are non-toxic. The outside of the Ferby range of pencils are made from unlacquered wood and they have a sealed wooden end. This ensures that if/when your little one puts the pencil in their mouth, they aren’t sucking on the coloured pigments!
The pencils have the PEFC logo which means the wood used has been sourced from proven environmentally, economically and socially sustainable forestry.
Both the Ferby and Super Ferby ranges are made in Germany however the Giant range is made in China and doesn’t have the sealed wood end.
I hadn’t finished all my research when I bought our pencils and so we have the Giant range, but I am happy with them and so far Isabella hasn’t expressed an interest in sucking on the end!
These gorgeous play doughs are made by a mother of 3, Emma. The ingredients are super simple – wheat flour, canola oil, water and salt as well as natural colours and scents. The colours are created using combinations of fruits/ vegetables/ herbs/ spices and botanicals. Some of the ingredients include beetroot, turmeric, cinnamon and paprika etc. A few of the doughs contain essential oils, however some are just scented with the ingredients used to colour them. No synthetic fragrances are used. Emma is also planning to bring out a gluten free play dough at some point as well!
These are the play doughs we are using at home and absolutely love. They smell just amazing! We have spearmint, lavender, blue bergamot and mandarin. Isabella loves nothing more than getting the big glass jars out and digging her fingers into them and smelling them! As they are coloured with natural colours, they do have the ability to stain a white painted table for example, so I always make sure we use a glass surface or cardboard or something underneath. The sizes of the jars are very generous so that you can take some out to play with whilst leaving quite a lot still in the jar (free from the dangers of being mixed through all the other colours!) These are often our go-to morning activity and constantly delight… I am so glad that they have great ingredients because they’ve ended up being tasted more than a few times!
The Rainbow Lab playdough has an amazing ingredients list of organic spelt flour, Himalayan pink salt, olive oil, filtered water and cream of tartar. Plant based pigments and good quality essential oils are used to colour and fragrance them.
The pigments used are turmeric, activated charcoal, clays, beet powder, spirulina, indigo, cacao – organic and Australian where possible.
Whilst we haven’t tried these play doughs, I’ve heard great things and the ingredients are fantastic. I hope to add some Rainbow lab play doughs to our collection soon as play dough is such a big hit in our house!
Make it at home:
I’ve had luck making this playdough at home. It’s an adaptation from a recipe by Louise Fulton Keats.
For natural dyes you can use turmeric for yellow, beet juice or beet powder for red/ pink. I’ve heard of some people using blueberries and spirulina successfully too for blues and purples too! I know that it is also possible to buy some natural food dyes as well.
- 250g water
- 100g salt
- 1 tablespoon cream of tartar
- 250g plain flour
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Place water, salt, cream of tartar into a saucepan and heat until salt is dissolved. Take off heat and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Add flour and oil and mix into salt solution until the mixture is combined and thick. Knead for 1 minute. Separate into portions (however much you want of each colour) and then add the natural food dye to each portion and knead for 1 minute until evenly dispersed.
- Wooden Dough Stampers: I love the look of these patterned wooden dough stampers.
Coloured felt tip pens/ textas:
I wrote to companies (and mostly didn’t receive any replies!) and researched high and low and so far I haven’t found anything that I feel comfortable recommending! I’d love to hear from you if you have any suggestions!
This is a PVC-free art smock / long sleeved bib made from polyester and polyurethane. The material has an Oeko-Tex certification which means that it is free from hazardous health substances and allergens. It is a generous size with long sleeves and has two buttons at the back.
The smock is waterproof and can be wiped with a damp cloth or put in a washing machine. It fits from 8months to 3 years.
We have used this at home as both a bib and art smock for about a year and it is still going strong! It’s great to completely cover clothes when Isabella’s wearing something special and just about to eat or paint with something that will stain!
Make at home:
For kid’s crafts, there are some great non-toxic glue recipes to easily make at home as it doesn’t matter if the glue isn’t going to last forever… We haven’t made glue at home yet… but when the time comes, I’ll be following one of these recipes.
Water Drawing Board: B. Toys H2-Whoa!
This is the ultimate mess-free drawing set up as you are literally just drawing with water filled pens on a quick-dry fabric board. It is used almost every day in our house. All B. Toys are BPA, lead and phthalate free, so whilst the outer and pens are made from plastic, it’s as safe as plastic gets.
An eco-friendly art pad is a lovely pairing for non-toxic art supplies: These are recycled paper.
I hope you found this article useful. I learnt so much myself while researching and writing it! I’m so happy with our art collection now and it’s really added such a lovely, imaginative and colourful new perspective to our play at home.
As always, I’d love to hear your recommendations if there’s anything non-toxic which you are using and think is fabulous!
There may be some affiliate links in this list however I do only ever recommend products I truly believe in. Most of my recommend products I have bought and am currently using at home.