Home » Accidental poisoning

Products that resemble foods and appeal to children Potential risks of accidental ingestion

Accidental poisoning home

Context - Some consumer products on the European market are packaged to imitate food or appeal to children. This is for instance the case of certain shower gels, shampoos, body lotions, soaps, liquid soaps and dish-washing liquids.

It is reasonable to expect that the closer a product resembles food and the more attractive it is to children, the more likely it is to be confused with food and swallowed.

Who runs the greatest risk and what properties and circumstances might increase the likelihood of serious poisoning?

The answers to these questions are a faithful summary of the scientific opinion produced in 2011 by Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS): " Opinion on the potential health risks posed by chemical consumer products resembling food and/or having child- appealing properties. (2011)" Learn more...

Cogeneris was contracted for The GreenFacts Initiative to prepare this summary by the DG Health and Consumers of the European Commission, which authorised its publication. See this publication on
Text copyright© DG Health and Consumers of the European Commission.

  • Source document:SCCS (2011)
  • Summary & Details: GreenFacts
Latest update: 20 March 2012

1. Past cases of accidental poisoning by cosmetics & liquid household products

It is hard to estimate the number of accidental poisonings by cosmetics and household products because most cases are not severe and therefore not reported.

Young children and the elderly are particularly prone to accidental poisoning. Most poisonings happen at home and the products involved, apart from medicines, are mainly cosmetic and personal care products such as shower gels, shampoos, body lotions, soaps and nail polish, or cleaning products such as bleach, toilet cleaners and detergents.

People who swallow household products by mistake usually do not come to any harm and show no symptoms. Most of the patients that do go to a clinic or hospital need no treatment; although some have their stomachs emptied or are given medication to control the symptoms. Death from these accidents is very rare.

When people do have symptoms these vary depending on the type of product they swallowed. Symptoms mostly involve vomiting and stomach pains but can also be loss of consciousness or coordination. Other symptoms that can occur are rashes, shortness of breath, coughs, difficulty swallowing, as well as low blood pressure and irregular heartbeat. The oesophagus can get burned if the product swallowed is corrosive and the lungs are at risk if the affected person vomits a toxic substance and then breathes in the vomit by accident. The latter can cause chemical pneumonia and has in some cases led to death. More...

2. What makes children and elderly people more likely to swallow such products?

2.1 For children, the risk of poisoning is the highest around the age of two, as they become more mobile and inquisitive, and tend to put things in their mouth.

The risk of accidents may be greater when children are not closely supervised or when the adults looking after them are distracted by other activities, for instance cooking or doing other chores. Children who are thirsty or hungry are more likely to drink from any open container within their reach, particularly if the smell is nice. Many poisoning cases are related to corrosive solutions that are stored in unlabelled containers or in drinking bottles which other adults unknowingly give to children. More...

2.2 There are several factors that make elderly people more susceptible to accidental poisoning.

Their sight and senses of taste and smell, as well as their memory may be impaired, so that they cannot easily distinguish edible products from others, particularly if they are disoriented because of illness or medication. Many older people experience difficulty reading warning labels or following long sets of instructions. Moreover, elderly people are often left by themselves for extended periods and may not get help in case of accident. More...

3. What makes products appeal to children or resemble food?

Some warning labels could make products even more appealing to children.
Some warning labels could make products even more appealing to children.
Credit: Wikimedia commons

The colour, shape, taste, smell or presentation of some products can make them seem like food.

Because of new trends in marketing, similar colours are used both for food and non-food products. Personal care products such as soaps can be shaped like food. In other cases, product packaging can be made to look like a fruit or a drink container. The pictures on the product can also contain food items. Some products smell like food and their names and written descriptions imitate real foods.

Products sold or stored near food are more likely to be mistaken for food.

Children are attracted by colourful patterns and products that picture familiar characters from TV or books. Warnings on labels have no effect on young children since they cannot read them. Hazard symbols such as skulls and cross bones may make a product even more attractive.

Moreover, children tend to prefer sweet tastes, and fruity and candy-like smells but it is difficult to predict what sort of fragrances will attract them. More...

4. What could make those products dangerous to swallow?

Ingesting household cleaning products is potentially more harmful than ingesting cosmetic.
Ingesting household cleaning products is potentially more harmful than ingesting cosmetics.
Credit: Sanja Gjenero

4.1 In most cases, swallowing cosmetics is unlikely to cause any serious health effects. Ingesting other household products is potentially more harmful.

Household products frequently involved in accidental poisonings are detergents, cleaners and bleaches. More...

4.2 Their most harmful ingredients are corrosive substances, such as acids and bases present in bleach or oven and drain cleaners, which can cause severe burns in the oesophagus or the stomach.

Other potentially harmful ingredients include

  • Surfactants (e.g. added to detergents and soaps to remove dirt and stains)
  • Alcohols and glycols (e.g. used in anti-freeze and windscreen wash)
  • Essential oils (e.g. pine oil, wintergreen oil and camphor)

Common reported symptoms are gastrointestinal (vomiting, abdominal pain,) or neurological (drowsiness, impaired consciousness, low muscle tone, seizures, and problems with movement, balance or speech). More...

5. What are current safety measures against poisonning?

Blister packets can stop children swallowing whole bottles of medication.
Blister packets can stop children swallowing whole bottles of medication.
Credit: GreenFacts

The safety measures introduced in the last 30 years, such as child resistant packaging and the switch to less harmful substances, have brought down the number of poisonings from household products. Today serious poisoning cases are very unusual. Education campaigns directed to parents and regulations on storage in food containers have also been undertaken but none of these is totally sufficient.

Other measures include:

  • Storing tablets in blister packets can also stop children swallowing whole bottles of medication.
  • Using warning labels and stickers, but this is no deterrent for children under 6 years of age, and labels with skulls for instance could even make products more attractive to children.
  • Using packaging that does not appeal to children may not be effective either since children are often attracted to anything within their reach.
  • Adding bittering agents can help stop children drinking significant quantities of a poison, but does not work for some substances such as strong acids or alkalis, where a single swallow is toxic. The bittering agent may even provoke vomiting and increase the risk that the poison might get into the lungs, which is even more harmful.


6. Conclusion

6.1 At the moment, there is no data available establishing a direct link between any of the marketing characteristics of a product and the risk of it being swallowed. However, it is reasonable to expect that the closer a product resembles food and the more attractive it is to children, the more likely it is to be confused with food and swallowed. Further research should be conducted. More...

6.2 In most cases, the effects of swallowing cosmetics or household cleaning products are not serious. Few people report poisonings and show any symptoms, but for those who do, common effects are vomiting, abdominal pain, neurological disorders such as reduced consciousness, low muscle tone, problems with movement, balance and speech, and seizures. Skin rashes as well as difficulty in breathing and swallowing have also been observed. Most effects are temporary, but corrosive products can cause severe burns in the oesophagus or the stomach.

Swallowing a product can lead the person to gag and breathe in some vomit, and the lung tissue can get inflamed because of the high acidity of the stomach’s contents. If the poison contains ingredients such as surfactants and emulsifiers, this can damage the lungs further and cause chemical pneumonia. The effects of accidental poisoning are similar in people of all ages but elderly people, particularly those with underlying health problems, often fare worse. More...

6.3 Accidental poisonings often involve cosmetics and household cleaning products such as detergents, toilet cleaners and bleaches.

The seriousness of the poisoning depends on the substances contained, its concentration and its corrosiveness. The most dangerous ingredients are corrosive substances, alcohols, essential oils and the surfactants added to many detergents. Some of these are toxic when swallowed but they are especially harmful if they get in the lungs. This is a particular problem for surfactants that can foam, and essential oils which are viscous and can cause gagging. More...

6.4 Circumstances that increase the risk of serious poisoning in children are lack of supervision and of awareness of carers about potential risks but there is very little direct evidence linking these factors to child injury. Unsafe childcare practices and hazards are more common in families of low socio-economic status but even affluent families take risks and have accidents.

Elderly people with reduced senses of taste or smell, and those with impaired vision, are more likely to drink a poisonous product by accident, particularly if they are disoriented because of illness or medication or lack needed supervision or assistance. More...

FacebookTwitterEmailDownload (1 page, 0.2 MB)
Themes covered
Publications A-Z

Get involved!

This summary is free and ad-free, as is all of our content. You can help us remain free and independant as well as to develop new ways to communicate science by becoming a Patron!