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Non-Toxic Back to School Supplies Guide

Written by Irina Webb

Are you looking forward to shopping for school supplies, or dreading it?  For sure, the coming school year will look a lot different for many of us.  However, be it homeschooling, distance-learning, or going back to classrooms, kids need study supplies.  Also, I think it is a good idea to buy non-toxic school supplies in advance to avoid rushed decisions under pressure.  So, this non-toxic back to school supplies guide will help you shop for school essentials from the comfort of your home.

Back to School Supplies Guide, A picture of school essentials.

Personal safety classroom supplies

To begin with, the present world health situation makes the school supply list longer by at least two items – hand sanitizer and a facemask.

Hand sanitizers

The CDC recommends using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol.  However, they encourage washing hands with soap and water when you can (source).  If you are looking for safe hand soap, check out my Non-Toxic Hand Soap Guide.

Among hand sanitizers, my favorite is Humble Suds which contains 70% ethanol and no concerning ingredients.  When we were shopping for a house, we had to use it before and after each showing, but it did not dry our skin at all.  Besides, the smell is amazing, and you can get a 10% discount if you use the code IRLFY10 on the Humble Suds website

I also recommend a hand sanitizer by Evolved by Nature (use the IRLFY10 code) because it is a gel and fragrance-free, which I think is better for kids than spray. 

In addition, I find these hand sanitizers safe and worth adding to your back to school supplies list:

With the growing demand, some of the hand sanitizers may be temporarily unavailable. Additionally, please be careful to purchase products by unknown brands. Thus, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that some hand sanitizers are potentially toxic because they could be contaminated with methanol, wood alcohol (source).

Surface disinfectants

Further, many schools have adopted very strict disinfecting protocols.  If your school suggest you bring your own disinfectant, I highly recommend looking into Force of Nature.  I have done a lot of research into disinfectants and believe their disinfectant is the safest and most kind to the planet among disinfectants that I have seen so far.  By the way, your schoolteachers can make a Force of Nature disinfectant in the classroom as a science project.  Also, Force of Nature provides me with special discounts that I can pass along to you.  Please learn more about Force of Nature and get the current discount code here.

Face masks as school essentials in 2020

It is still hard to put up with the fact that face masks are becoming “normal” back to school supplies this year. 

My favorite mask manufacturer is Humble Suds who has three types of masks: 100% linen, cotton with PM 2.5 filter insert, and kids’ masks with pockets for the inserts.  The latter are adjustable behind-the-ear cotton face masks with three layers of 100% cotton fabric. 

Additionally, I really appreciate the nose wires that help the masks fit perfectly and comfortably.  Plus, they come in small (ages 2-5) and medium (ages 5-12) sizes.  My husband, son, and I use these breathable, washable, and reusable masks and like them a lot.  What my son likes most about his mask is that it is very soft and has a fun pattern.  If you do get them, be sure to take out the filter before you wash them.

Also, you can get a 10% discount if you use the code IRLFY10 on the Humble Suds website

Another company that carries GOTS-certified organic masks is Naturepedic.  We trust this company as we have been sleeping on Naturepedic mattresses (our son used to sleep on their crib mattress, and now he sleeps on their kid’s mattress) and their adjustable pillow.  Besides, you can use IREAD15 code to get 15% off storewide.

Containers and bags on the back to school supplies list

The containers on the school essentials list are lunch boxes and water bottles, pencil cases and binders. And the bag is a backpack.

Lunch boxes

Without a doubt, conventional containers may affect food and water by leaching chemicals into them, and you want to avoid that.  Hence, my rule number one is to avoid plastic altogether.  You can read more about the dangers of this material in my post about plastic plates.

When it comes to lunch boxes, I prefer stainless steel.  Actually, I refer to it as one of the best safe cookware options, too, in my Safe Cookware Guide.  

You may also utilize reusable sandwich wraps made of organic cotton. 

Thus, my recommendations for lunch boxes as part of back to school supplies are:

Water bottles

Just as with lunch boxes, I recommend water bottles for school essentials made of stainless steel (glass is good, too, but it is heavy and can break).  One of the water bottles I own has a filter in it, which filters not only chlorine but also heavy metals, including lead, a common water contaminant. 

As a matter of fact, this report from the Harvard School of Public Health states that many schools across the country have too much lead in their tap and drinking fountain water.  What is more, most are not even testing for it.  Hence, a water bottle with a filter is a great idea because your kid can easily refill it at school and drink clean water.

My recommendations regarding water bottles are as follows:

Pencil cases and binders as school essentials

Again, the problem is that when these common back to school supplies are plastic, they may contain phthalates, a class of chemicals that makes plastic more flexible.  To clarify, scientists associate phthalates with a wide range of health concerns, including hormone disruption.  Therefore, it is best to look for plastic school supplies in more natural materials such as cotton or canvas, paperboard, and uncoated paper.

In my opinion, the following are good options:

Non-toxic backpacks among back to school supplies

Since backpacks are a necessity among school essentials, to find safe backpacks and avoid toxic ones, watch out for PVC.  Its main ingredient, vinyl chloride, is a known human carcinogen.  You can read more about PVC and its hazards in my post about PVC Yoga Mats.

Luckily, there are lots of PVC-free backpacks made of nylon, polyester, cotton, and recycled plastic.  Here are some top options:

  • Crocodile Creek: These are polyester backpacks, beautiful and with a variety of fun colors and themes.
  • Beatrix New York Big Kid and Little Kid Packs: A combination of cotton and nylon made of recycled water bottles, these backpacks look gorgeous.
  • Ecogear: They carry both adult and kids’ backpacks made of recycled plastic.  Our son had this one when he went to preschool. 
  • The North Face: They offer anything from fun patterns to more simple serious ones.  The backpack materials are nylon and polyester.

Writing and arts & crafts back to school supplies

This section is about pens, pencils, markers, and crayons.

Pens and pencils

When it comes to such school essentials as pens and pencils, here are some better choices.

Some options are as follows:

Markers and crayons

Undoubtedly, water-based markers are the best.  If, however, your back to school supplies list calls for permanent markers, make sure they are free from xylene, toluene, and other VOCs.

Further, non-toxic crayons are those that are free of asbestos and other heavy metals, such as lead.  So, avoid cheap crayons and use beeswax and soy crayons instead.

Here are some options:

Fragrance in school essentials

It should be noted that many school supplies come with a scent.  However, fragrance consists of dozens of different ingredients that companies do not have to disclose.  The worst thing about this is that scientists link many of those ingredients, such as phthalates, for example, to cancer, hormone disruption, reproductive harm, and ADHD.

Therefore, please opt for fragrance-free school supplies.  But know that products with the word “unscented” can still contain fragrance ingredients, so look for “fragrance-free” options.  You can read more about fragrance in my post about natural fragrance.

Conclusion about back to school supplies

In conclusion, I want to emphasize the importance of choosing non-toxic classroom supplies for your children because it is our kids’ health we are talking about.  Even just by ditching fragrance and reducing plastic, you will make a giant leap into a safer and healthier zone for you and your children.

For more options of non-toxic skin care, clothing, and household products, please check out my shop.  Also, join our Savvy Consumer Circle or book a consultation with me to get help with healthy choices.

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22 thoughts on “Non-Toxic Back to School Supplies Guide”

  1. Hi Irina,

    Great meeting you last night at the MOMAS meeting. I had no idea about backpacks… even though I noticed my son’s new backpack had quite a strong chemical odor when we bought it. I think I’ll look in to the Eco-Gear cotton alternatives.


    1. It was great meeting you too, Christie! Yes, unfortunately, backpacks are another thing to worry about. Currently, I have been looking into backpacks made of PET plastic bottles as cotton might not be always the most practical solution, especially for guys. I am looking to hear more from manufacturers on the subject of the manufacturing process. Christie, your subscription will help me out a lot. Thank you for your support!

  2. Cute backpacks! Wonderful news on all these chemicals-free! However, I still feel skeptical of ANYTHING that is produced in China. And these cute backpacks unfortunately ARE.

      1. Hi Irina, judging by your reply I assume you took offense to my comment. I apologize if you did, although that was not my intent whatsoever. I didn’t say I completely avoid products made in China. It’s probably impossible nowadays unfortunately. I simply implied that even if the company uses the best practices of avoiding the harmful chemicals, we cannot be sure that the factory in China complies with it. There are so many documentaries showing it out bluntly. It’s just politics. And that is a sole reason why I mentioned my scepticism about products manufactured in China.
        As far as the backpacks are concerned, I so far haven’t had to look for backpacks for my older son yet as his school doesn’t require carrying supplies yet (he is going to be in second grade in Waldorf School)

        1. No, not at all! No offence is taken! I do my best to avoid products made in China but I also try to preserve some sanity too. I think lots of my blog readers subscribe to this attitude. However, in my e-book “7 Days to a Healthier Kitchen” (did you have a chance to read it?), I think managed to stay away from products made in China, may be with one exception that comes to my mind right now. 🙂 Thank you, Nastia, for reading my blog. I hope you enjoy by Valenti skin care and urthware cutting boards! I am always happy to hear from you! ~Irina

  3. Thanks again, Irina, for your informative and important post! How depressing that manufacturers choose to use materials that are harmful, I just don’t get it. Looking at the well known PB backpacks that so many kids seem to have (including my own) – I see they are made from “water resistant ABS” which I found out more about here –> Thoughts on ABS? It looks like it’s an alternative to PVC (?) but I don’t fully understand all the technical info / health implications. I presume not great or you would have mentioned this option in your blog…. Article states “ABS is stable to decomposition under normal use and polymer processing conditions with exposure to carcinogens well below workplace exposure limits” – and mentions ABS is used in numerous household products, including Legos! Appreciate any further insight you can share on this material.

    1. Hi Joy: could you send me a link to backpacks you are talking about? As for ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), there are different types of plastics and their safety is judged based how durable/stable they are. In other words, if plastic is least likely to break down and leach its components, which are often toxic, it is considered a safer type of plastic. As I described in the post, PVC is not stable. ABS is made mainly by combining acrylonitrile and styrene. Acrylonitrile is a suspected carcinogen and styrene is an anticipated carcinogen. While the components are far from harmless, there is no evidence that ABS breaks down and leaches them out, unlike polystyrene plastic or PVC do, for example. So the long story short, I would try avoid it, if possible, in the future. However, if you already own one it is okay to use. Does it make sense? ~Irina

  4. Hi, The last time I went backpack shopping I was looking for lead free options. Now a few years later I read all these posts about needing a PVC free backpack (our last one was too) but I’m not reading anything about lead free. Does PVC Free = Lead Free or not? Thanks

    1. Hi, there! Thank you for asking. I know all this is SO confusing. Normally, the reason backpacks may contain lead is that lead is one of the building blocks of PVC. So if a backpack is NOT made of PVC, most likely it won’t contain lead. Some manufacturers claim that their PVC backpacks do not contain lead; however, we as consumers are not told what is used instead (maybe another heavy metal). In other words, I recommend avoiding PVC all together. PVC is also toxic to manufacture and dispose as well. Does it help? ~Irina

  5. Hi Irina,
    Can you please tell me if Patagonia backpacks are a good option for my kids? You included The North Face backpacks, and they are similar companies in many respects (not all). We own many Patagonia items and we like their philosophies, so I am wondering if their kid backpacks are a good option. Thanks!

  6. Hi, another question – I typically don’t buy Pottery Barn kids or teen backpacks and lunch boxes because they haven’t been clear about whether or not they contain harmful substances. I just sent them an email, but have you dug any deeper into the contents of the backpacks and found any answers? Thanks much!

    1. Hi, Sonia: The main thing you can do is to avoid PVC; the rest is like icing on the cake. I don’t have customer service capabilities anymore. I worked for the first three years for free. Now I answer questions like this in private consultations or membership website. Thank you for understanding. Let me know if you are interested in learning more about my services. ~Irina

  7. Hi Irina!

    I’m wondering if you have any recommendations on waterproof backpacks for kids? My daughter will be attending a public forest school this fall and must have a waterproof backpack, but so many waterproof children’s items are either made from PVC or coated in typical clothing waterproof barriers which tend to be endocrine disruptors and/or carcinogenic. Thanks!


  8. Hi Irina and Maria,

    Are you familiar with Maika Goods? It’s said their bags are made of vegan leather, recycled canvas and eco-friendly pigments…they’re also made in California which I know has one of the strictest guidelines regarding toxins.

    You listed North Face backpacks as an option but as another follower mentioned their items are more often than not made in China.

    Just wondering your thoughts.



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