Swabbing teddy bears

Swabbing teddy bears

Key takeaways:

  • Roughly 1 in 10 American parents do not believe sanitizing their children’s toys is necessary.
  • Building blocks are the germiest toys, with 31 million CFUs.
  • Slime contains three times the bacteria of a kitchen sink.

Key takeaways

  • Roughly 1 in 10 American parents do not believe sanitizing their children's toys is necessary.
  • Building blocks are the germiest toys, with 31 million CFUs.
  • Slime contains three times the bacteria of a kitchen sink.

Lurking in plain sight

Which has more germs: your pet's food bowl or your kid's doll? Is their kiddie kitchen set dirtier than your kitchen? The answers may surprise you. We swabbed the most common kids' toys, from teddy bears to hot wheels to building blocks and more, to reveal how many germs (and what kinds) were lurking on them. Then, we asked American parents how often they disinfect their kids' toys. Let's see how contaminated these items are and how they compare to other household objects.

Playing dirty

We started our study with a close look at what is growing on your kids' toys and determining what it might mean for your family's health.

Bacterial analysis of toys.

First, let's talk about which bacteria are the most harmful. Generally, gram-positive bacteria are helpful, but they can also cause infection if left unchecked. Gram-positive cocci and gram-negative rods can both cause nasty infections in humans. Bacillus, on the other hand, includes the organisms used to make antibiotics but also the ones responsible for causing food spoilage and certain diseases. And lastly, yeast are fungi found everywhere in nature (on healthy humans and plants, for example), but they can overgrow in moist environments and cause infections.

After swabbing a handful of different kids' toys, we sent the swabs to a lab to find out how many colony-forming units (CFUs) of each microorganism were on each one. The number of CFUs measures the number of units (organisms) on a given surface area, telling us how dirty (and potentially infectious) each item might be. Building blocks came in with the highest amount of infectious bacteria: 31 million CFUs. They had even more than sticky slime, which came back with 30 million CFUs of the same gram-negative rods.

The doll had the most diverse array of microorganisms (an average of 13 million CFUs overall), and each type was potentially dangerous. The tiny toy car had by far the most bacillus on it than any other toy we swabbed and only a small amount of any other organism. The next dirtiest items were the toy kitchen set with 17,000 CFUs (about an eighth of which were bacillus) and the bouncy ball with about 1,400 CFUs. Lastly, stuffed animals clocked a surprisingly low amount of bacteria at just 70 CFUs.

Contamination comparison

Comparing the number of microorganisms on kids' toys versus pet bowls and toilets might have you sending the kids to wash their hands and toys before playtime. Let's see how these objects and surfaces stacked up.

Toys vs. household objects bacterial comparison.

You might as well let the kids play in the bathroom. Remember that bouncy ball? It had three times more bacteria than the average toilet seat. And their toy car is likely twice as dirty as the bathroom faucet. Even building blocks can have a staggering 13 times the germs of a toothbrush holder.

Every time you take out your wallet, you're probably only touching about half the germs your child does when they pick up their fluffy stuffed animal. Speaking of animals, a pet bowl can be far less dirty than a kid's doll — around nine times less! And it turns out that their toy kitchen set likely contains quadruple the CFUs as your actual home kitchen.

While a kitchen sink has plenty of places for bacteria to hide. Still, the one we tested contained only a third of the bacteria of the sticky slime toy — a germ magnet if there ever was one, especially since you can't clean it without destroying it. Finally, your pet's toy ball, slobbery as it is, might only have about half the bacteria on it as the average gaming controller. At least that's something you can sanitize.

Sanitation sentiments of parents

In addition to testing samples, we surveyed 1,000 Americans to find out how often parents sanitize their children's toys. We also asked how dirty they think certain items are and what they use to clean them.

Sanitation survey sentiment.

Right off the bat, about 10% did not believe they needed to sanitize toys. Of those who said they do sanitize them, doing it weekly was nearly as prevalent as doing it daily (42% and 44%, respectively). Mirroring our findings, our respondents overwhelmingly thought dolls to be the dirtiest toys. Conversely, building blocks — the toys with the most germs — got only 11% of the vote for the filthiest playthings.

The sanitation method used by most parents was an all-purpose spray cleaner, while Babyganics, Seventh Generation and Grove Co. were the top trusted brands. Many also said they use homemade cleaners, like diluted bleach (60%) — a great way to sanitize hard surfaces. But if you're concerned about colors fading or can't stand the smell, a vinegar solution (34%) is an alternative that's less effective overall, but it does kill some pathogens. Clean hands are just as important as clean toys, and there's no better way to sanitize hands than good old-fashioned soap and water. More than one-third of respondents have also used this combination to sanitize toys.

Keeping playtime clean and safe

Learning that your child's building blocks might be teeming with more than 10 times the bacteria of your toothbrush holder might have you running for the disinfectant. But an alarming number of respondents either did not sanitize their kids' toys at all, or didn't know which ones were likely to foster the most bacteria. While kids are known to be bundles of germs, you should still reduce their chances of coming into contact with viruses and diseases to keep them from getting sick. A little bleach, vinegar or soap once in a while can go a long way in protecting your family's health.


We conducted three gram stain culture swab tests across children's toys, swabbing each surface three times and averaging CFUs per swab for each surface type. It is possible that with a larger sample size of surfaces, we could have gained more insight into CFU levels. No statistical testing was performed, and the claims listed above are based on means alone. As such, this content is exploratory. Bacteria and fungi definitions were sourced from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, germup.com, sciencedirect.com, and medicinenet.com.

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