How Dirty Are Baby Bath Toys, Really? Pediatric Health Experts Give Us the Low-Down

published Apr 27, 2023
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A 5 years old girl taking her bath
Credit: Catherine Delahaye/Getty Images

Have you ever gone to squeeze your baby’s favorite rubber ducky at bath time just to find that it’s covered in a thin layer of slime? Gross — but not unlikely. It turns out that bath toys can grow biofilm (the thin, slimy layer of microbes) in weeks, or even as quick as days. But before you worry, pediatric health experts said this isn’t necessarily an end-all for bath time fun; it just means you should know what to look out for, what the health dangers are, and how (and when) to properly clean those bath toys.

How Dirty Do Bath Toys Really Get?

Bath time can become harmful if toys aren’t cleaned regularly — although it isn’t all that common. And if you’re reading this, you probably already know how downright funky bath toys can get. 

But how do they get so funky? “I suspect the main reason is simply because people often don’t clean them. After all, your dishes or clothes would also get pretty funky after a few weeks without washing,” Dr. Frederik Hammes, the head of the Environmental Microbiology Department at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, said. 

“The fact is, microbes need a bit of moisture and food to grow,” Hammes said. “They get some of the nutrients from the plastic that the toys are made from — especially flexible plastic that can leach organic carbon that bacteria can use as food. But because the toys are typically also in a bath with the kids, they can get additional nutrients from dirt, body fluids, and even some degradable soaps and shampoos. Then, the result is a complex microbial community of bacteria and fungi.”  

According to Hammes, however, the safety risk for healthy kids is small, but there are some documented cases of kids getting sick from their bath toys. He noted that parents should avoid squirting water from bath toys onto their kids unless they’ve been cleaned recently, as they can cause eye, ear, or wound infections. Hammes says that while regular cleaning of toys is important, if a toy smells or is visibly dirty, that’s a good sign it’s time for a deep clean. 

How to Clean Baby Bath Toys

As careful as you should be when it comes to exposing kids to different bacteria, it’s just as important to be mindful of what types of disinfectants you’re using around your children. Vickie Leonard, R.N., N.P., Ph.D. and principal author of Green Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting: A Toolkit for Early Care and Education, notes that the methods and solutions you’re using to clean are crucial to the process.

“I think the bottom line is that you want to be very careful about the kinds of disinfectants you use on children’s toys that get mouthed and, in this case, they are bathing with them,” Leonard said. She recommends putting toys in the dishwasher if possible — although, if they’re plastic, they may leach phthalates and other plastic particles — otherwise, simply wash them well with soap and water, then let them dry in the sun. Biofilm is especially hard to penetrate, so it’s important that parents scrub them well to remove bacteria. Lastly, Leonard notes, parents should make sure to let toys dry between baths. 

“Water, especially standing water, if the toys are not dried off right away, is the perfect environment for bacteria and mold to grow,” Dr. Sarah Watkins, Emergency Medicine and Medical Toxicology physician and consultant for the Southwest Center for Pediatric Environmental Health, shared. She also suggests a good scrubbing with soap and warm water; however, for a deeper clean, you can dilute a bleach solution. Watkins recommends mixing one teaspoon of household bleach with a gallon of water, letting the toys soak in the bowl for 30 minutes, then rinsing and letting the toys dry before allowing your children to play with them.

However, it’s not just about cleaning the toys — it’s also about the toys themselves. For softer, more absorbent toys, Watkins recommends disposing of the toys altogether once they get visibly dirty. Professor and pediatrician, Public Health and General Preventive Medicine, and Pediatrics, at Mount Sinai Health System, Maida P. Galvez, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.A.P., shares her greatest tip for bath toys: “Prevention!”

“Choose bath toys wisely — specifically toys that can air-dry easily (inside and out) and don’t have holes that can keep moisture inside and promote mold growth, which is associated with allergies, asthma, and gastrointestinal symptoms,” says Galvez. Another option? “Choose natural materials like rubber toys.” Galvez suggests using soap and water, or vinegar and water, to clean children’s toys when needed.

In summary: Clean kids’ bath toys regularly and let them dry out completely between baths!

If you have any questions, reach out to the Southwest Center for Pediatric Environmental Health, the Mount Sinai Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit, talk to your pediatrician, or call your local poison center for free advice, 24/7/365.

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