Products that resemble foods and appeal to children Potential risks of accidental ingestion
- 6.1 What characteristics increase the probability of confusing a product with food?
- 6.2 What are the most common effects observed when those products are ingested?
- 6.3 What product ingredients could harm health when swallowed?
- 6.4 What circumstances increase the risk of serious poisoning?
6.1 What characteristics increase the probability of confusing a product with food?
Cosmetics and household products can be confused with food if
they are shaped like food, or have a colour, smell, taste or
packaging that make them resemble food.
Whether or not a product is appealing to children is very
subjective. Children can be attracted by nearly anything within
their reach depending on many factors such as what else there is
in their surroundings or how inquisitive they are. Research
shows that children have a preference for sweet, fatty and
fruity tastes and odours but there is no evidence that children
like products of a particular colour, shape or consistency.
Children also prefer product packages that display familiar
cartoon or other characters from TV or books but product labels
or warnings do not seem to have an effect on children up to 6
There are no studies that test whether or not products that
could be mistaken food or are appealing to children, are more
likely to be ingested by
accident than those which do not. However, until there is more
research available, the characteristics of a product can be used
to estimate how child-appealing it might be. For instance, a
product that is shaped like food, smells and tastes sweet and
displays familiar cartoon characters in vivid colours in its
packaging, is more likely to appeal to children and be confused
with food, than a product that is just shaped like food and
6.2 What are the most common effects observed when those products are ingested?
The vast majority of accidental poisonings in children
involving household consumer products cause no direct symptoms.
Drinking these products is likely to cause stomach irritation
but the effect is often very mild so cases are probably
under-reported. The most common symptoms for children admitted
to hospital after accidental poisonings are vomiting, abdominal
pain, reduced consciousness, seizures and lack of coordination.
Rashes, coughs and difficulty breathing and swallowing have also
been observed. The death rate from these incidents is extremely
The contents of the stomach are very
acidic so the lung
tissue can be temporarily damaged if the child gets sick and
some of the vomit enters the lungs. If the product swallowed is
corrosive or if it contains surfactants or emulsifiers, the
damage can be more severe and lasting. Aromatic oils can have
the same effect as they are more likely to be breathed in rather
Elderly people show the same symptoms as children but if they
have underlying medical problems they can suffer worse health
effects and there have been some fatalities.
It would be useful if poison centres recorded how accidents
happened to identify future trends and to evaluate the impact of
any prevention and management measures.
6.3 What product ingredients could harm health when swallowed?
The common household cleaning products most frequently cited
in poisonings are dishwashing and laundry
cleaners and bleaches.
The most harmful ingredients are corrosive substances (such as
sodium hypochlorite, sodium hydroxide or
surfactants, alcohols and glycerols, and some essential oils
(pine oil, wintergreen oil and camphor). Swallowing these will
cause different levels of injury depending on how long they are
in contact with tissue, their concentration and their pH. Acid
products with a very low pH are very corrosive, and alkaline
products with a very high pH such as drain cleaners, are also
The viscosity of the product is also important.
with low viscosity can harm the
digestive tract. Thick,
alkaline liquids, can foam and cause gagging which increases the
risk of them being aspirated into the lungs and causing
Other ingredients such as colorants,
also harmful and swallowing them accidentally can cause gastric
upset, feelings of nausea and vomiting.
6.4 What circumstances increase the risk of serious poisoning?
There is very little research on the causes of accidental
ingestions in young children and there are no specific data on
whether or not products that resemble food or appeal to children
are more often involved in poisonings.
The risk of suffering injuries in the home is higher for
children living in families of low socio-economic status, as
unsafe childcare practices and hazards are more common in these
families, but there are risks of accidents in all homes.
Reduced supervision of children and lack of awareness about
potential risks may increase the risk of accidental poisoning
but there is very little direct evidence linking these factors
to child injury.
Elderly people who accidentally
ingest cosmetics and
household products usually come to no lasting harm unless the
product is very toxic or the
amounts swallowed are large, but this is rare. There is little
research on what makes elderly people more likely to be poisoned
accidentally but possible factors are reduced senses of taste
and smell, disorientation, impaired vision and lack of
supervision or help.