Image credit: SoYoung
I know what you may be thinking: “What?! Backpacks are toxic, too?! Is anything safe?!”
Backpacks and other school supplies are not regulated for toxic chemicals the same way toys are… and yet, for nine or ten months out of the year, kids might be handling these materials even more than they do their toys.
But don’t fret just yet. The bad news is that, yes: a lot of backpacks are made with toxic materials. But if you know what to look for (and you will after reading this article), it’s not too difficult to find a backpack that’s made from safer, non-toxic materials.
What are the toxic materials to look out for in backpacks, and why? And which brands are using safer materials? We’re going to break it all down for you here so that whether you’re looking for a back-to-school backpack for your little one or an everyday commuter bag for yourself, you can make the best decision for you and your family.
This post may contain affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if you choose to make a purchase. We only make recommendations that are genuine and meet our ingredient/material safety standards.
The Best & Worst Materials Used in Backpacks
FIrst, let’s run through the different materials most backpacks are made of, along with the pros and cons of each. Then, we’ll discuss the problem with chemicals finishes that are often added to increase water resistance.
Cotton & Organic Cotton
The Pros: Cotton is a natural material and is often biodegradable (depending on whether or not anything is added to it). In its original form, it’s free from plastics, PVC, phthalates, and other synthetics. Of course, organic cotton is best because it’s grown and harvested without using toxic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, making it healthier for the consumer and our Earth as a whole.
The Cons: The biggest downside to cotton backpacks is that without any added finishes, they aren’t water-resistant. If you live in a dry climate or don’t do much outside commuting, this likely won’t be much of an issue for you. But if you live in a rainy city or are in need of a backpack for camping or hiking, you may want to consider a different material, or at least apply a non-toxic wax coating on the backpack to increase the water resistance.
Additionally, conventional cotton canvas may contain traces of pesticides and toxic fertilizers which were used to grow the cotton. (Although, one could argue that buying organic cotton is not as important for backpacks as it is for other things like food, clothing, or underwear.)
The Pros: Hemp is a material that is very healthy for both consumers and our planet. It doesn’t require chemical pesticides and fertilizers to grow, nor does it require a lot of water.
Unfortunately, hemp products have been difficult to come by since hemp farming got caught up in the war on drugs and wasn’t able to be grown and produced in the U.S. But we are slowly seeing a steady increase in the number of hemp products on the market, and that includes backpacks!
The Cons: Like cotton, hemp is not waterproof.
To find more recommended brands for hemp backpacks and other types of bags, check out this article.
The Pros: Although it’s synthetic, nylon is one of the “least bad” types of plastic when it comes to potential toxicity. You may want to give nylon products an initial “off-gassing” period by letting them sit in the open air for a day or so, After that, it shouldn’t be a big cause for concern (especially compared to certain other plastics like PVC).
Nylon is also very mold-resistant, which can be an important factor for some people with conditions that make them extra sensitive to mycotoxins.
Lastly, nylon can now be recycled, which can help to keep some of this material out of our larger environment.
The Cons: Nylon is a type of plastic that is derived from crude oil. It is extremely water- and energy-intensive to manufacture. It’s not biodegradable, which means it also contributes to microplastic pollution as it breaks down.
Nylon was actually the very first entirely synthetic fabric made, originally produced by DuPont in 1938. (Yes, that’s the same Teflon-producing DuPont that committed a huge, reprehensible chemical coverup, which was depicted in the 2019 movie, Dark Waters, and the 2018 documentary The Devil We Know.)
The Pros: Polyester is similar to nylon in many ways. It’s not great, but it’s also not as bad as other synthetic materials in terms of potential toxicity. After its initial off-gassing period, it does not pose a significant risk to one’s health since it’s not a known carcinogen or endocrine disruptor.
It is also more water-resistant compared to natural materials like cotton and hemp.
The Cons: Like nylon, polyester is a man-made synthetic plastic that is derived from petroleum. The manufacturing process has a high carbon footprint, is also not biodegradable, and contributes to microplastic pollution as it breaks down.
It’s important to note, however, that both nylon and polyester become more toxic when heated. For this reason, we recommend you don’t leave backpacks made of these materials outside, in hot cars, in attics, or in other places where the heat could begin to break down the materials and release toxicants into the air. (Food-grade nylon has a higher heat tolerance, but chances are good that most backpacks are not made out of food-grade nylon!)
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
The Pros: The only good thing about PVC from a consumer standpoint is that it’s water-resistant/waterproof. But for many people, the water-resistant properties of PVC aren’t worth the health hazard, which is why many people are trying to decrease the amount of PVC in their homes.
The Cons: Although PVC is widely used in all kinds of products today, it is actually the most toxic kind of plastic.
As its name indicates, PVC contains chlorine, which creates byproducts called dioxins and furans. These are extremely toxic chemicals. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dioxins “can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.”
Not only that, but PVC almost always contains phthalates (which are used to make the plastic more flexible). Phthalates are endocrine disruptors, which means they can interfere with one’s natural hormone function and lead to infertility and developmental toxicity. They’re also linked to things like diabetes and asthma, and also may be carcinogenic.
Plus, as with almost all other plastics, PVC becomes even more toxic when heated. When the plastic reaches a certain temperature, it begins to release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air, which you can then breathe in.
The Pros: You may have heard about polyurethane as used in foam mattresses, but it’s also used as a type of fabric for things like backpacks and purses, as well as a film additive that’s used to make products waterproof.
The Cons: The thing about PU is that there are many different kinds of it, and some kinds are more toxic than others. From a consumer standpoint, it’s almost impossible to know what kind of PU a specific product is made from (and therefore how potentially toxic it is).
It’s not biodegradable, and like the other types of plastic, PU also releases VOCs when it’s heated.
The Pros: Recycled plastic is obviously a much more eco-friendly option than virgin plastic since it helps to keep pollution out of our landfills and waterways, while also decreasing the fossil fuels and non-renewable resources need to create virgin products.
The Cons: Many products that are made from recycled plastic are made with mixed plastics, which means it’s often difficult to know exactly what kind of plastic is used. With recycled plastic, there is a lot of potential for contamination of BPA and other phthalates and VOCs.
The Pros: Leather is perhaps the most durable material on this list; a well-made leather backpack can last someone a lifetime—or more! Although it’s not generally a great option for kids’ backpacks, it’s a stylish and timeless choice for adults backpacks, purses, everyday commuter bags, totes, and more.
The Cons: Leather is an animal product, which means sourcing is incredibly important. In some parts of the world, the leather industry is truly a byproduct of the meat industry that’s crucial to the local economy and the livelihoods of the people living there. Unfortunately, there is a lot of greenwashing in this area, with brands claiming their leather products are sourced locally, as byproducts of these industries, when this is not actually the case. For this reason, radical transparency is all the more important when it comes to leather goods.
Toxic chemicals are also something to be very aware of when it comes to leather. Conventional leather is processed using chrome, which is toxic to the workers, the surrounding communities (since it gets washed into their waterways), as well as end consumers. When shopping for leather, look for chrome-free, vegetable-tanned leather instead. Look for the Leather Working Group (LWG) certifications, which ensure that brands have been audited by a third party for social and environmental standards.
Plant-Based Leathers & Leather Alternatives
The Pros: Plant-based leathers can provide a stylish option for those who want their backpacks and accessories to be free of animal products.
The Cons: There is a lot of greenwashing involved in the world of vegan leather. Many brands will market their vegan bags as “eco-friendly” and “ethical;” however, most vegan leather alternatives are just made from… you guessed it: plastic! If you do a quick search for “vegan backpacks,” you’ll likely find that most of them are made with PU. Or even worse, a lot of brands don’t even disclose what their bags are made from. This lack of transparency with regard to materials and/or ingredients used is always a red flag.
The good news is that there are more and more brands using some plant-based leather alternatives such as Pinatex (made from pineapple scraps), cork, apple leather, Bananatex (made from banana peels), and more. While we still have some questions about the chemicals used to turn these plants into fabrics, these are likely much better options than traditional vegan leather alternatives.
More Common Questions About Non-Toxic, PVC-Free BackPacks
Does PVC-Free Mean Phthalate-Free?
Not necessarily. If a backpack contains PVC, it almost certainly contains phthalates. However, if a backpack is PVC-free, it MAY or MAY NOT contain phthalates. Phthalates can be added to almost any kind of plastic in order to make it more flexible. Since plastic backpacks tend to be very very flexible, this is something to be mindful of when shopping.
Is PVC BPA-Free?
Not likely. PVC can be BPA-free, but it’s more rigid PVC products (like pipes, for example) that are more likely to be BPA-free.
Also, be careful about products marketed as “BPA-Free.” BPA can be replaced by its sister chemicals like BPS and BPF, which are not actually any safer than BPA. Companies can jump through this technical loophole and mislead their customers, without actually addressing the real problem that these phthalates pose to our long-term health.
What About DEHP in Backpacks?
BPA is just one of many phthalates that have been restricted or banned in children’s products. Others include DBP, BBP, DEHP, and more.
In 2013, scientists from the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ) purchased 20 random back-to-school products and tested them for phthalates. 75% of the products contained potentially toxic levels of phthalates, which included DEHP. As CBS reported, “They found Disney’s Dora the Explorer Backpack contained phthalate levels over 69 times higher than the allowable federal limit for toys. The Amazing Spiderman Lunchbox contained 27 times the federal limit, while the Disney Princess Lunchbox exceeded the toy limit by 29 times. Children’s rain coats, rain boots and 3-ring binders also were found to contain the toxins.”
Again, we have to ask the question: if these chemicals are not allowed in children’s toys, then why in the world are they allowed in back-to-school products like backpacks, lunch boxes, water bottles, binders, and more? And especially at such high levels!
Do Backpacks Contain Lead?
Technically, backpacks can be contaminated with lead, but thankfully, there is a much lower likelihood of purchasing a backpack with lead in it than one with phthalates in it.
But to be safe, one way to avoid purchasing products with lead in them is to not buy products with the Prop 65 warning on them. Additionally, several of the recommended brands below specifically test their materials for lead in order to give you even more peace of mind.
Are Waterproof Backpacks Toxic?
As alluded to earlier, it’s not always the actual material that makes something toxic, but rather what is added to that material later on. A lot of brands add perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) to make products waterproof or water-resistant. You may have heard of PFOAs or PFOs; both of these types of chemicals fall under the PFC umbrella.
On things like raincoats, camping tents, backpacks, and other outdoor products, you’ll most often see this labeled as Durable Water Repellent (DWR). There are technically different types of DWR, but the most commonly-used kind over the past several decades is C8 (the same toxic chemical used by DuPont in their Teflon products).
But it’s not just “bad guys” like DuPont that have utilized PFCs in their waterproof products. Even socially- and environmentally-conscious outdoor companies like Patagonia have struggled to find a non-toxic alternative to DWR. In recent years, many companies (including Patagonia) have switched from C8 to C6, which is a similar chemical that’s better, but still toxic.
But now, the E.U. is expected to ban C6 as well. Companies like nau and The North Face are starting the transition toward non-PFC DWR. While this new PFC-free DWR definitely sounds promising, there’s not much information about what they actually replaced the PFCs with. (As as we know because of our experience with BPA, chemicals are not always replaced with better alternatives.) We’re hoping to be able to report back to you with some more info on this front soon.
How to Make Non-Toxic Backpacks (& Other Fabrics) More Water-Resistant
There is one way that you can increase the water-resistance of your non-toxic backpack, and that’s with Rawganique’s Natural Waterproof Wax. This wax increases the lifespan and usability of fabrics like hemp, cotton, and more. It’s non-toxic, paraffin-free, and cruelty-free. It’s easy to apply—just check out this page for directions.
Our Favorite Brands For Non-Toxic, PVC-Free Backpacks
Now that you know what to look for and what’s most important to you, here are our picks for the best non-toxic backpack brands:
Best for: Teens & Adults
Materials: 100% organically grown European hemp stiff canvas
Highlights: Available in several different shapes/sizes (Deluxe, Laptop Tote, and Drawstring Pack). Vegan, Sweatshop-free, Triple-stitched throughout.
Best for: Kids, Teens, & Adults
Materials: Heavy-duty organic cotton canvas
Highlights: Comes in two sizes and a variety of neutral and bright colors. Fair Trade certified, vegan, carbon-neutral.
Best for: Teens & Adults
Highlights: Ethically handcrafted in Nepal using traditional methods; eco-friendly packaging and a tree planted with every order.
Use code THEFILTERY10 for 10% off.
Best for: Kids, Teens, & Adults
Materials: Cotton canvas
Highlights: Inspired by the classical scout backpack; comes in a variety of bright colors
Best for: Kids
Highlights: They may not be the best for back to school, but these super cute tiny backpacks are handwoven with sustainable, repurposed seagrass. Each bag takes 3 days to make!
Best for: Toddlers, Kids, & Teens
Materials: Cotton/Linen with nylon lining
Highlights: Super cute, aesthetically forward designs.
Best for: Kids
Materials: 600D polyester
Highlights: Lots of fun designs (like unicorns and dinosaurs); certified free of PVC, BPA, phthalates, and lead.
Best for: Teens & Adults
Materials: Organic cotton & recycled polyester
Highlights: Has a wide variety of colors, sizes, shapes, and needs; very durable and built for long-lasting wear and tear
Best for: Kids, Teens, & Adults
Materials: Organic cotton with a recycled plastic lining
Highlights: Available in a variety of beautiful colors using low-impact, non-toxic dyes; testes food-safe; machine washable; ethically made
Best for: Toddlers & Kids
Materials: Cotton & nylon
Highlights: Fun designs, machine washable
Best for: Teens & Adults
Highlights: Ethically handcrafted in Nepal; vegan
Other [Almost] Non-Toxic Backpacks Brands
Here are some other brands to consider. Most of these brands are pretty good, although they may use recycled plastic (which could contain things like phthalates) or they may be somewhat lacking in the transparency department.
- Faire Child (100% recycled content, made in Canada)
- Solgaard (recycled plastic; great for travel)
- United By Blue (They do have some organic cotton backpacks, but they also carry backpacks made with recycled plastic and finished with DWR. Great for adults; travel and outdoor activites)
- Solo New York (recycled plastic; great for adults for commuting and everyday use)
- Apple Park (recycled plastic; great for kids)
- Stephen Joseph (cotton; made for toddlers and kids)
- Wildkin (cute, phthalate-free backpacks for kids; unclear what they’re actually made of or whether or not they’re PVC-free)
- Dabbawalla (made from a foam that’s tested free of PVC, BPA, lead, and phthalates, but unclear about what the foam actually is)
- Or, shop secondhand. Purchasing secondhand can help to decrease toxins because your thrifted or hand-me-down backpack has already been through a phase of “offgassing,” releasing some of the excess chemicals that results from manufacturing a new product. Plus, it’s more affordable and sustainable, too!
If you’re worried about toxins in backpacks, try not to stress! The first piece of good news is that purchasing a non-toxic backpack is probably not as important as what you’re putting into your body (what you’re eating) or what you’re putting onto your skin (like lotion). The second piece of good news is that there is no shortage of non-toxic backpacks on the market that come in a variety of different materials, sizes, colors, and designs.
Image Credits: Vince Fleming, all product images belong to respective brands