» Accidental poisoning
Products that resemble foods and appeal to children Potential risks of accidental ingestion
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?
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
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.
2. What makes children and elderly people more likely to swallow such products?
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
There are several factors that make elderly people more
susceptible to accidental
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.
3. What makes products appeal to children or resemble food?
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
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.
4. What could make those products dangerous to swallow?
Ingesting household cleaning products is potentially more harmful than ingesting cosmetics.
Credit: Sanja Gjenero
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
Their most harmful ingredients are corrosive substances, such as
bases present in bleach or oven
and drain cleaners, which can cause severe burns in the
oesophagus or the
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
- Essential oils (e.g. pine oil, wintergreen oil and
Common reported symptoms are gastrointestinal (vomiting, abdominal
pain,) or neurological (drowsiness, impaired consciousness, low muscle
tone, seizures, and problems with movement, balance or speech).
5. What are current safety measures against poisonning?
Blister packets can stop children swallowing whole bottles of medication.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.