Children’s and adults’ jewelry are known to contain toxic substances including heavy metals like lead and cadmium, as well as PVC and other plastics. This is exacerbated by the fact that kids commonly put jewelry in their mouths.
All jewelry carries a risk of contaminants unless you know 100 percent of the composition for every single part of the piece.
Toxic substances can be found in costume jewelry and jewelry making kits. Retailers across price points, from dollar stores and high-end department stores to inexpensive jewelry retailers can carry toxic jewelry. Wearables with batteries – like sport watches and light up jewelry – can also contain concerning materials.
There have been over 180 million recalls on jewelry in the US in recent years, including jewelry making kits and products found in major retailers. Jewelry, including kits and costume jewelry, are not labeled with their components so parents need to be aware of the risks. Jewelry explicitly labeled “Not for Children” is more likely to contain a toxic substance, as this warning indicates that the product contains something potentially dangerous to children.
In additional to toxicity concerns, fast-fashion plastic and metal jewelry and wearables contribute to pollution. Metal and gem mining can contribute to environmental degradation and human rights violations.
Top Substances of Concern
Lead: Lead is a potent neurotoxin with a quantifiable linkage to reduced IQ. This metal is associated to developmental issues, and learning, language, and behavior problems. Whether it’s within an amalgam in the metal itself, only in some parts of a piece of jewelry, or mixed within colored paint or finishes, lead is commonly found in wearable jewelry. And it’s not just in the cheap stuff. Antique jewelry, particularly cloisonné pieces, can also contain lead. Doctors agree that there is simply no safe level of lead and yet, lead can be found on children’s jewelry without a warning.
Cadmium: Cadmium is a known carcinogen. In 2018, a student testing 159 pieces of jewelry found 16 percent tested positive for cadmium. Cadmium can also be a skin irritant, and is associated with reproductive and developmental toxicity.
Nickel: Nickel is a well-known skin irritant and sensitizer. It’s also the most common allergen in both children and adults.
PVC & Other Plastics: PVC, often called vinyl, is a type of plastic that is widely known as the most toxic plastic for health and the environment. Normally, PVC is a hard plastic, so in order to make it soft, manufacturers add plasticizers, which are a group of individual or chemical compounds designed to make the plastic softer and more flexible. Phthalates, a group of chemicals associated with endocrine disruption, are some of the most commonly used plasticizers. In its production, PVC releases a number of harmful chemicals. Finally, PVC has the ability to leech harmful chemicals like endocrine disruptors.
Other plastics also have the ability to leech toxic substances. Plastics are generally not biodegradable and contribute to plastic pollution.
Additional Substances of Concern in Jewelry
- Antimony: associated with cancer
- Arsenic: linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and developmental toxicity
- Brominated flame retardants: may be linked to various health impacts including reproductive toxicity, cancer and more
- Chromium: Linked to skin irritation
Safer Jewelry Materials
- 100 percent gold
- 100 percent sterling silver
- Vermeil: a specific type of plating using gold and silver metals only
- Non-metal materials like thread, macramé, and fabric
- Surgical implant grade stainless steel (note that this is not the same as less-regulated “surgical grade”)
Environmental Degradation & Human Rights Issues
Choosing pure gold and silver is a solution to avoid exposure to toxic substances; however, it can introduce a set of environmental and human rights issues. Upcycled and vintage gold and silver is best for the environment; select them only when you know they are pure metals. Vintage and upcycled jewelry also avoid contributing to any issues regarding the health and safety of workers in the supply chain.
Safe Jewelry Tips
- Shop for jewelry and jewelry kits that contain the safer materials listed above.
- Wash your hands immediately after using craft kits. And make sure no pieces are left behind to avoid a child placing them in their mouth.
- Be careful with antique or heirloom jewelry (even if it’s not valuable) and keep it out of children’s hands.
- Be especially aware of jewelry explicitly labeled as “Not for Children,” as that’s a likely indication of the presence of a known toxin.
- Watches and wearables with batteries should not be given to small children, even to play with. Batteries can be deadly if swallowed and small parts are also choking hazards.
- Skip plated jewelry, as there are no rules or disclosures for what metals can be used, unless it’s labeled as “vermeil” which only uses gold over silver.
- Consider quality over quantity. For some children, one gold or sterling silver piece may be worth investing in over multiple inexpensive pieces made of low-quality materials.
- For younger children who are not yet ready for special jewelry or for more affordable options, consider materials like thread, macramé, and fabric over plastic and metal.
For more on jewelry, see our fact sheet: What’s in Jewelry: Toxic Substances in Kids’ and Adult’s Jewelry. And read Made Safe Founder (and mom) Amy Ziff’s blog on why shopping for nontoxic jewelry for her kids (and every one of us) is so important, and how to shop safer and smarter!