Ask the Chemist Mom: How to Clean Toys

Health & Wellness on 03.28.11
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Photo: barockschloss/CC BY 2.0


Your first baby or toddler probably changed the way you think about dirt. Since children consider their mouth to be a perfectly acceptable sensory organ for exploring the world about them, you may find you have gone from relaxed, semi-organized housekeeper to complete hygiene freak -- when you are not so exhausted that a week in bed with the flu starts to look like a well-deserved vacation.

So it comes as no surprise that in one of the first comments on parentable's ask the chemist mom facebook page, Chris asks: "How do you recommend cleaning toys? I've heard of parents spraying stuff with Lysol, which seems crazy since most everything a kid touches will go in their mouth eventually."

How to clean toys: Four simple words, simmering with complex nuances. Which toys? The antique hand-crafted fabric doll handed down through generations? Or the stacking blocks? And which clean: free of dirt and dog-hair, or suitable for a surgical theatre? "How to" varies depending upon the answers to those questions.

Easy Cleaning

So let us start with "which toys?"  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, we parents are oft quoted. In this case, that means if the toy cannot be thrown into the dishwasher or Laundromat, keep it on a shelf where it makes the kids' room merry but stays out of their mouths. If buying toys, look for quality toys with dirt management in mind. And don't be afraid to throw away toys that are collecting water through small holes or that are dirty beyond salvation. (We know that is not always easy. One of my daughters had a stuffed doggie that was such a favorite, she loved his ears off. Literally. Mom knit on a new pair of ears -- fortunately extra-floppy style, because after the first run through the washing machine, those new ears shrank to fit that puppy just fine!)

With the right choice of toys, the question is half-answered! Skip the Lysol, and run toys through the dishwasher or washing machine when the grunge-level passes your tolerance point. For larger items or stationary equipment, a good rubbing with a soapy cloth followed by a thorough rinsing will do. In case of unpleasant odors, sprinkle toys with baking soda and rub it a bit into the surface before washing. But don't make yourself crazy: kids are designed to take a bit of dirt!

Surprising Sanitizing Strategies

There are a couple of competely natural and incredibly effective ways to clean that require little effort and don't seem to pop up in the average housekeeping how to list. One uses the power of sunlight. The ultraviolet rays in sunlight are increasingly being put to industrial uses to sanitize water, food, and for other purposes. You can get the same benefits simply by putting teddy out for a suntan. Leave soft toys out in the bright sun and fresh air for an afternoon to see for yourself!

Even non-harmful bacteria, micro-organisms, and mites can cause odors or allergic reactions. And, heaven forbid, what can you do with junior's favorite stuffed animal after a bout of bedbugs? Pack the precious toys up in a plastic bag, and stick them in the freezer overnight. Cold is a real killer. This tactic is especially effective if your child suffers dust-mite allergies, and can be used for pillows and bedding as well as toys.

Cleaning Beyond Just Dirt

If you have had a recent bout of communicable diseases and want to disinfect as well, hot water should be your first line of defense. Pop small toys intended for teething or that seem to always find themselves in your toddler's mouth into boiling water for a couple minutes. Or set the water temperature on your washing machines in accordance with the following guidelines (time should be counted starting after the items being cleaned have reached the temperature indicated):  

  • 75°C (167°F) for thirty minutes;
  • 80°C (176°F) for ten minutes; or
  • 90°C (194°F) for one minute.

For surfaces that cannot endure the heat treatment, alcohol is a great disinfectant. Be sure the dirt and grime is washed or wiped away, then use at least 62% alcohol, in enough volume that the surface stays damp with alcohol for at least 15 seconds. The alcohol evaporates, leaving behind only germ corpses (hmmm, another swish with a cloth? When is clean clean?)

Products like Lysol should be a last resort, to be used with the advice of your pediatrician if you are fighting some really troublesome organisms. You will be doing the environment a big favor, because the active ingredient in Lysol (benzalkonium chloride) is very toxic in the aquatic environment (although biodegradable, so less dangerous for the environment and for making antibiotic-resistant superbugs in the long term). Benzalkonium chloride is also harmful to humans by contact with skin or if swallowed. When the risk of germs are high, the benefit of using these chemicals to protect your loved ones is worth it. Just don't put them at risk using these products when it goes beyond what is needed.

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