My mom is a total germaphobe. Taking us to the pediatrician's office was her worst nightmare—she knew exactly how dangerous the waiting room could be. Her eyes would dart from the grungy carpet to the allergen-filled upholstered chairs, and finally settle on the pile of toys in the corner. “Do. Not. Touch. Those. They’re covered in germs,” she’d whisper.
At the time, I thought she was kinda nuts. But, like always, my mom was right: toys are some of the dirtiest, germiest items in your house—and they could be making your kid sick. Just because cold and flu season is winding down doesn’t mean you’re safe; the germs that cause strep throat and staph infections can live on toys, books, and cribs for months.
Shuddering at the thought of what’s crawling around on baby’s favorite building blocks? Before reaching for bleach-filled wipes that promise to kill “99.9% of bacteria” or antibacterial soap that uses triclosan (a known endocrine disruptor) as its active ingredient, remember that the American Medical Association recommends against using these types of disinfectants at home. According to the AMA, blasting germs with bleach isn’t really effective at preventing illness, and can actually encourage the growth of antibiotic-resistant germs. Plus, it’s inevitable that those toys will end up in your kiddos’ mouths, and do you really want them to be licking bleach? Definitely not.
Thankfully, it’s actually pretty cheap and easy to clean toys at home without nasty chemicals—you probably already have everything you need!
For: Stuffed animals and soft toys
Use: Washer and dryer
Tossing that beloved teddy bear in the wash is a must at least once a month, according to Zelana Montminy, an eco-friendly mom and healthy living expert. After getting dragged around in the dirt, drooled on, and getting used as napkins during snack time, plush toys collect a lot of bacteria. If kids are sensitive to dust, it’s a smart move too, as washing gets rid of any mites hanging out in teddy’s stuffing. Hot water works on its own, or throw in a capful of your favorite all-natural detergent for extra cleaning power.
For items that are more delicate, like a blankie that’s on its last legs or anything with lace or buttons, skip the washer. Seal the item in a dryer bag and tumble dry for about 15 minutes to kill any lingering bacteria.
For: Barbies, G.I. Joes, and other dolls
Use: Tea tree oil spray
Essential oils are often the main ingredient in all-natural cleaning products—a select few are antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antifungal. Tea tree oil works especially well as a household cleaner. It’s strong—you only need a few drops—and doesn’t leave behind a film or residue when diluted with water (about 10 drops per cup). A tea tree-water solution is safe for finished wood and plastics, and leaves behind a fresh, menthol scent—but won’t be too strong for little ones if they do go in for a taste.
For: Legos, Playmobil figures, racecars, and other small toys
Use: Baby-friendly soap and water
Oh, you don’t want to individually wipe down every Lego in your house? No worries—dump the whole lot into a sink full of hot water and castile soap once a week to get rid of germs. Small plastic toys won’t get damaged if they’re fully submerged, and you can use any nontoxic soap (we like Dr. Bronner’s) because, eventually, these toys will probably end up in someone’s mouth!
For: Sticky play surfaces
Wipe down germy play tables and floor mats with lemon juice. Lemon can actually kill bacteria, mold, and mildew because of its citric acid content. Squeeze a little into warm water and sponge down the offending area, or use full-strength lemon juice for especially soiled surfaces. Just make sure to wipe down the area with water immediately afterwards to keep it from getting sticky or damaged. Lemon juice works best on plastic, glass, or metal.
So the toys are squeaky clean … But the kids destroyed your favorite lamp with stickers and markers? Press play to see how Montminy gets everything in her home—from Barbie dolls to kitchen walls—sparkling with all-natural ingredients.