Nontoxic Varnish for Kids' Toys

By Kathryn Hatter
Young child playing with toy truck
Young child playing with toy truck

Simple wooden toys can be entertaining and educational for children. The varnish on wooden toys must be safe for little ones, especially if your child puts the toys in her mouth. Varnishes traditionally are a mix of drying oils and acrylic or polyurethane resins that seal and protect the wood, according to the BuildingGreen.com website. There are nontoxic varnishes on the market that seal the wood effectively and give it an attractive sheen while still being safe in your child’s hands. Just ensure to read the label carefully.

Features of Nontoxic Varnish

Varnishes that fall under the heading of “safe for children’s toys” have similar characteristics. These varnishes are water-based. Water-based varnishes don’t contain the flammable and highly toxic ingredients present in oil-based varnishes, states author and professional wood finisher Jeff Jewitt, writing for Fine Wood Working. Oil-based varnishes are toxic due to the chemicals that reduce the drying time. Another feature of nontoxic varnishes is the presence of low or no volatile organic compounds – also known as VOCs. These solvents release into the air during drying, states the ConsumerReports.org website. VOCs can cause health problems including headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation, nausea and even damage to the central nervous system, liver and kidneys, warns the Environmental Protection Agency. A newer group of varnishes on the market claim low or no VOCs, making them a safer choice for children’s toys. Although varnish can be low- or no-VOC, fumes can still be powerful during application. For this reason, follow safety guidelines and keep children away from the application area.

Acrylic Polymer Varnish

Varnishes made with acrylic polymers can be nontoxic as long as the acrylic is pure, according to the Earthpaint website. Pure acrylic is a nontoxic resin that does not add potentially harmful chemicals to the varnish. Acrylic polymer varnish contains small beads of acrylic mixed with water, according to the Matisse Derivan website, a nontoxic paint manufacturer. The mixture of water and acrylic gives this varnish a milky appearance, but after you apply it and the water evaporates, the varnish will look clear on the wood. Read labels carefully to choose a pure acrylic product described as nontoxic and VOC-free. Newer products are available with reduced and no-VOC formulations, according to a Green Seal Choose Green report.

Plastic or Polyurethane Varnish

Another nontoxic varnish option includes products containing plastic liquid, otherwise known as polyurethane. Polyurethane is a plastic resin that can be water-based or oil-based, according to Wood Menders, a furniture repair and refinishing company. If polyurethane is oil-based, it would be a toxic product. Water-based polyurethane varnish is both nontoxic and dries quickly to a clear finish on wood surfaces, states the Sculptural Arts Coating website.

Natural Resin Varnish

A varnish containing natural resins such as raw linseed oil or pure tung oil will add a protective layer to wood, while also bringing out its natural beauty. The Food and Drug Administration lists raw linseed oil as a food additive, states author and educator Jonathan Binzen, writing for Fine Woodworking. Boiled linseed oil is also available, but this is a petroleum-based product. Applying pure tung oil and raw linseed oil involves significant time and effort due to long cure times required between coats, warns Highland Woodworking. A varnish containing a combination of beeswax and natural oil can be another alternative. Choose a natural resin varnish containing ingredients such as raw linseed oil, tung oil or beeswax with a label stating it is nontoxic, no-VOC and water-based.

About the Author

Kathryn Hatter is a veteran home-school educator, as well as an accomplished gardener, quilter, crocheter, cook, decorator and digital graphics creator. As a regular contributor to Natural News, many of Hatter's Internet publications focus on natural health and parenting. Hatter has also had publication on home improvement websites such as Redbeacon.