Let’s get one thing straight: I’m no germophobe. I think that there’s an element of truth to the old saying that we all “must eat a peck of dirt before we die”. Still, those of us around small children are often uncomfortably aware of how easily germs may pass from one child to another (think of chickenpox going round a kindergarten classroom, for example). Small children tend to have sticky fingers, do often mouth their toys, and may resist handwashing — all recipes for an abundance of germs.
We are often asked, by parents who are understandably concerned about hygiene but who are loath to ruin a favorite plaything, how to clean toys safely and thoroughly. And, of course — as in so many things — the answer is: it depends.
Many well-made small plastic toys such as Lego bricks or Playmobil pieces may be cleaned in a basin filled with a squirt of liquid dish detergent dissolved in hot water. (Of course, this method does not work for any pieces containing electronic parts or batteries.) Simply let the pieces soak for 30 minutes, swishing them round occasionally in order to encourage the dirt to lift. Drain carefully into a sieve or colander (some of those pieces can be pretty small and you don’t want them going down the drain) and rinse in two or three changes of warm water. Air-dry on a towel till completely dry.
Larger toys made of plastic; painted, stained, or natural wooden toys; or those which you suspect might be difficult to dry if immersed can be cleaned using a regular white vinegar (5% acetic acid by volume) and water solution. I use one part vinegar to three parts water (1:3). Spray it on, let it sit for a moment, then wipe with a soft dry cloth till no more dirt is visible. The vinegar’s mild acidity helps to kill bacteria and other germs, but will leave no harmful residue as can other commercial cleaners. Really caked-on goo may be gently scrubbed off with a dampened cloth dipped into baking soda, then wiped again with the cloth rinsed in clear water. Any baking soda residue that may be left is harmless, and will disappear once the toy is completely dry.
Stuffed animals and dolls are probably the most problematic category as far as cleaning is concerned. Many stuffed animals can be carefully laundered, by tying them into a pillowcase and washing them on a gentle or “hand-wash” cycle in the washing machine. Use a gentle detergent, as well, such as Woolite Zero or Ivory Snow. Give the item a second (or even a third) rinse in order to make sure that all the soap is removed, then hang to dry or dry flat. I don’t recommend washing any jointed stuffed animals or dolls, or anything manufactured using mohair, porcelain, or wigged hair, as they may be irreparably damaged by water. Even with robust, everyday stuffed animals, the nap of the toy’s fur may be damaged slightly by the washing process, but sometimes it’s that or throw the thing out. Bear in mind, too, that sometimes children reject their beloved blankies or stuffies once they have been washed because the smell has changed.
Some plush animal and doll companies such as Kids Preferred are now producing items that stand up well to repeated stints in the washer and the dryer; these are great for families who suffer from allergies or asthma, as the dust mite population, dust, and pollen levels in the fabric can be controlled through frequent washing. This feature is usually announced loudly on the item’s tag, using terms such as “asthma-friendly” and “washable”.
Dirt and small children may be inseparable companions, but using these low-tech and eco-friendly techniques can at least help you as a parent reduce the number of germs your little ones will meet in the playroom.