The safest options for sealing wooden toys are the all-natural food-safe options listed below. The natural oils, waxes, and soap finish would be the best options if your child is putting the toys in their mouth, and especially if they chew on them.
There are non-toxic sealers that are synthetic – acrylic sealers would be just fine by me, but the more likely it is that your child will be chewing on the toys, the less likely I would be to use a synthetic sealer.
I will mention how each type affects the color and sheen of the wood and how durable it is.
I use both food safe designation (FDA) and Toy Safe Certification (Europe) to assess the products.
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1. Natural Penetrating Oils
Linseed Oil and Tung Oil
Tung and Linseed Oil are the more durable oils for protecting wooden toys.
Penetrating “drying oils” polymerize, leaving a durable yet matte finish. They do change the color of the wood, with tung oil producing the darkest color change, followed by linseed, then hemp, then walnut.
Tung provides the most durable finish of the oils and linseed is not far behind.
Tung oil from The Real Milk Company is food safe. Tung oil is very thick so it is usually cut down with a solvent when used on wood. That can be harsh when wet, even if natural. I prefer to use this food-safe 100% natural tung oil without a solvent whenever possible. But if you need a solvent be sure to use the food-safe citrus solvent (which is all-natural) and give it time until it only has a very slight citrus aroma left.
There is a chance of allergic reaction to tung oil, though it’s very rare. It’s even rarer to have an allergic reaction if the oil is given time to fully cure.
Linseed oil comes in different formulations, for toys, I would only go with 100% linseed oil that is labeled food contact safe. This natural and pure type is called polymerized linseed oil, from Tried and True. It does not contain driers, solvents, or any other additives.
It does come in variations that have added pigments if you want to get a stained look.
Be very particular about the brands of oils you use, making sure that it is either food contact safe or Certified Toy Safe. Linseed oil with manganese driers would not be considered Toy Safe.
Hemp Oil and Walnut Oil
Hemp and walnut oil are milder in odor and are also less durable. But for wooden toys, these will work just fine, especially if they are not frequently getting soaked.
I have used hemp oil myself, as it’s still a great all-natural choice in terms of durability and mild odor. There is no risk of a nut allergy.
I also really like the Real Milk Company’s food-safe walnut and carnauba wax and have used it on many small projects like toys and decor items myself, but it’s the least durable of the natural oils. The wax gives it a bit of a satin sheen. This company makes really high-quality pure products.
Shellac is a natural resin that comes from a beetle mixed into alcohol. Shellac as an ingredient is considered food contact safe (it is also used directly on food, like to coat candies and apples).
You can buy it premixed, though those brands are not food contact safe. For toys, go with the all-natural version – buy the flakes from Wellermart which has made the food-safe claim, and mix them yourself with Everclear alcohol.
This is a shiny finish and at least slightly amber (depending on the color of the flakes that you buy).
One added benefit of shellac is that it is great at sealing in odors and sealing in questionable chemicals. If you have wooden toys with some chemicals: pesticide residue, fragrance cross-contamination, or anything else it might have picked up along the way, shellac can help add a layer of protection.
It can also form a layer of protection over synthetic paints or natural pigments.
Of course, if your child is chewing on toys, this will not encapsulate everything. But with everyday use, this can help.
You can use shellac over a penetrating oil finish, for more durability or shine. I often layer it that way.
A durable sequence that I like is Milk Paint (toy safe colors only) + tung oil + shellac.
4. Natural Wax Finish
Often a natural wax like beeswax or carnauba is mixed into a penetrating oil finish like the carnauba and walnut oil mentioned above.
Carnauba is categorized as GRAS (generally regarded as safe i.e. food safe).
I would avoid waxes that are mixed with mineral oil, as they are not food-safe.
5. Danish Soap Finish
Danish Soap finish is an unusual non-toxic way to finish wood. It is a process that uses pure soap as the finish.
You can either use just soap, or soap and lye.
Lye is quite toxic while it’s reacting, just make sure to let it dissipate fully.
When used in the making of soap the lye reacts with other components and in the end, you just have a soap finish.
Compared to the natural oils and wax finishes this option does not provide any sheen, darkening, or yellowing. Oils are always at least a little bit yellow/amber and darken the wood. Both oil and wax add various levels of sheen, depending on which product is used.
Danish Soap finish is flat and has an invisible look.
It is high-maintenance though, and not as durable as the other options.
Pure soap is food contact safe.
6. Non-Toxic Synthetic Sealant
You can go with Toy Safe or food contact safe acrylic, polyurethane, or polyacrylic finishes for wood toys.
ECOS products are Certified Toy Safe (European standard).
ECOS Paints makes great low toxin finishes, both stains and clear finishes. They are zero-VOC after curing, they have great transparency in ingredients (which is rare), and they are a favorite among the chemically sensitive.
Another Toy Safe Certified acrylic sealant is AFM Safecoat Acriglaze (matte finish).
Acrylic finishes are not quite as durable as polyurethane.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 8 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.