If this week’s news about mold hiding in popular baby teether Sophie the Giraffe has you freaked out about your own child’s toys, we don’t blame you. (Those pictures were pretty frightening.) Even if you don’t have a Sophie, any house with kids—or pets, even—likely has at least a few rubber or plastic figurines with the same potential to get totally gross inside.
So what’s the right thing to do? Should you throw away any rubber teething toys? What about soft plastic toys, bath toys, or dog toys, for that matter? We were definitely concerned—but before we cleaned house, we ran our worries by Janna Tuck, M.D., an allergist in Cape Girardeau, Missouri and spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
Here’s Dr. Tuck’s advice on the matter. Thankfully, it doesn’t involve a full-on playroom purge.
First, mold is everywhere
“Mold is pervasive in our environment—it’s outside and it’s in our homes, even if you have a clean house,” says Dr. Tuck. “We live with it every day, and the vast majority of us have absolutely no problem with it.”
That includes tiny mold particles that get filtered through our noses as we breathe, and even small amounts of mold that we occasionally eat in food. It is possible to get sick from toxic forms or huge amounts of mold, she adds, but for the most part, our immune systems protect us pretty well.
For most babies, a little mold isn’t a big deal
Because rubber is a soft, porous material, it’s easy for mold to stick to it, says Dr. Tuck. And it’s not surprising to her that saliva could get inside a hollow teething toy and trigger run-of-the-mill mold growth.
“And when a baby squeezes that toy, does she potentially get exposed to a little mold? Yes,” says Dr. Tuck. “But for most children, that small amount is not going to be toxic.”
Unless they have an allergy
The two exceptions? If that baby has a mold allergy or an immune deficiency; in these cases, mold exposure can indeed be harmful. It’s not common for children under 2 to have a mold allergy, says Dr. Tuck, since it usually requires exposure to a substance over time for someone to become allergic to it. Because of that, she says, a parent may actually be more likely to have a reaction to a moldy toy than their baby would.
But if your little one has frequent colds or sinus infections, or “always seems snotty compared to other kids,” mold or another allergen could be to blame, she adds. If you do suspect an allergy, ask your doctor about getting your child tested.
Keep toys clean and use your best judgment
“If a toy stinks or it’s visibly contaminated, I don’t think any of us with a parental instinct would want our child to play with it,” says Dr. Tuck. “We’re hardwired not to like mold, because we can get sick if we’re exposed to too much of it.”
But you don’t have to throw away all of the hollow toys or rubber teethers in your house, either. Just inspect and clean them regularly, and make sure they dry thoroughly before putting them away, she says. If the material allows it, add a small amount of bleach to your cleaning solution (and then rinse well with plain, hot water) to kill invisible bacteria.
Bath toys and dog toys need regular cleanings, too
The same goes for the toys your kids use in the bathtub, or the toys your dog plays with—especially ones that are meant to hold treats or pieces of kibble. “If a piece of dog food gets stuck in there, yes, it will probably get moldy. No, it probably won’t hurt the dog, but it’s still a good idea to clean it out.”
Overall, the saga of Sophie the Giraffe should be a good reminder to keep a close eye on your kids’ toys—not just for signs of mold, but for other risks, like small pieces that could break off and be swallowed or aspirated, as well. “If you think a toy is massively contaminated or unsafe, you’ll probably sleep better if you get rid of it,” says Dr. Tuck. “But really the best thing you can do is to regularly clean and monitor these toys, to make sure they’re in overall good shape.”