Until recently, Mila has been playing with bought Play-Doh from the Warehouse. It’s cheap, colourful, soft and she really liked to squish it. She also really liked to eat it. After trialling making my own play-dough, I realised one other difference – it also never goes off. That got me thinking, I wonder what preservatives are used in Play-Doh, and what are the other ingredients?
As it turns out, the main ingredients of Play-Doh are:
You won’t find this on their website – where they are irritatingly coy about the ingredients – but Play Doh’s patent reveals that it also contains small amounts of unspecified starch-based binders, a retrogradation inhibitor, lubricants, surfactants, preservatives, hardeners, humectants, fragrance, petroleum additives and colour. Yikes.
Fragrance, petroleum additives, preservatives and colour are all problematic, especially for children. But they’re a lot more ubiquitous. Let’s look for now at Boric acid. Boric acid is a naturally occurring acid of the element Boron. You can find it in some areas as a mineral in soil, and in fruit and some veges. Sounds pretty harmless so far, right? As Paracelsus, the founder of toxicology said, it is the dose that makes the poison. Boric acid is added to Play Doh as an anti-fungal. Cut fruit will still go mouldy fairly quickly, but Play Doh never will: I’m guessing because the levels of boric acid it contains are much more than we would naturally find.
Boric acid has wide-ranging industrial uses. It’s used as a rodent and roach-killing pesticide, antiseptic, in weedkiller, anti-rot timber treatments, photography chemical solutions, disinfectants, flame retardants and in nuclear plants. Our family has recently switched to organic produce in order to avoid pesticides, so seeing pesticides turn up in her play things – especially one that she does eat bits of – does not make me a happy camper.
Information about boric acid is very mixed. You can find everything from the acid as a dietary supplement (!) to a deadly toxin. However, the majority of non-industrial sites suggest that while acute poisoning is rare, ingesting boric acid or having repeated exposure to it is definitely something to avoid. Repeated exposure to boric acid can cause sexual development problems, infertility, weight loss, skin and lung irritation and liver or kidney damage. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency classes boric acid as moderately acutely toxic, but has yet to define “safe” limits for the acid in food and edible products. My suggestion would be zero tolerance, but the EPA has yet to call me ;). In New Zealand, boric acid containing pharmaceuticals are classed as restricted medicines.
I’m not suggesting that your kid gumming a mouthful of salty dough will prevent you from having grandchildren, but there is also no way I want my kid eating this kind of chemical cocktail. Yes, the packages of Play-Doh are marketed for 3+ years, but that seems like a bit of butt-covering to me; squishing dough has long been a fun past-time for toddlers well below that age.
So we’ve swapped commercial dough for home-made. It doesn’t last quite as long, but it is far more exciting to mix up a batch of something totally different each time.
Here’s my very simple recipe, for salt-free edible peanut butter dough:
1 cup peanut butter (get 100% peanuts, or at least no salt, no sugar added)
1 cup icing sugar
1 cup flour
Add these three ingredients, then enough hot water to work into a dough.
I love the idea of sensory play doughs: adding oatmeal or rice (for eaters) and glitter or sand (for non-eaters) to home-made dough. Unlike the commercial stuff, the possibilities for home-made are endless.