Last Updated on September 13, 2022 by The Filtery Staff
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 out of safer, non-toxic (or at least less toxic) materials.
So, 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.
- Non-Toxic Lunch Boxes & Food Storage Containers
- Low-Tox & Eco-Friendly School Supplies
- Organic Clothing Brands for Kids
- The Best Non-Toxic Hand Sanitizers
This post may contain affiliate links, which means we may earn a commission if you choose to make a purchase. We only make recommendations that are genuine and meet our material safety standards.
Featured image credit: Fluf
OUR PICKS AT A GLANCE:
Best overall for the whole family: Fluf
Best for little kids: Bixbee
Best for teens & college students: Terra Thread
Best personalized for kids: My Little Shop UK
Best for adults: MELAWEAR
Best for camping & travel: Jack Wolfskin
Best leather backpack: Shinola
+ more below!
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 a backpack made from 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: Hemp is slightly more naturally water-resistant compared to cotton, but it’s still 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.
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 in some places, 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.
The Pros: Polyester is similar to nylon in many ways. It’s not great, but it’s also not as bad as some other synthetic materials (which we’ll get to in a minute). Unless you have a skin condition such as eczema, most people will be fine using nylon or polyester.
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 can 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 negative health effects are so bad and so well-established at this point that some places in the world have started banning it, especially in things like food packaging.
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.
Even though PU is not ideal, it’s definitely a better option than PFAS when it comes to water-resistance. So if you really need a waterproof backpack for camping, boating, etc., then PU is one of your better options.
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. There are a LOT of backpacks made from recycled plastic on the market these days!
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, phthalates, other endocrine disruptors, 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.
You’ll also notice that well-made, sustainably-sourced leather backpacks are more expensive than backpacks made from other materials, so that’s another consideration to keep in mind.
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 and the surrounding communities (since it gets washed into their waterways). 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. In addition to Shinola (featured below), Nisolo and Madewell are two more brands that offer ethically made vegetable-tanned leather backpacks.
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: Just like with regular leather, 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 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.
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 per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, to make products waterproof or water-resistant. You may have heard of PFOA or Teflon, which fall under the PFAS 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 or safer 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 for the whole family:
Best for: Kids & Teens
Materials: Organic cotton with a recycled plastic lining
Available in a variety of solid colors that use low-impact dyes, Fluf is a great option for kids, teens, and adults alike. They’re made with durable and machine-washable organic cotton and come with a padded computer sleeve that fits up to a 15-inch laptop.
In addition to their backpacks, Fluf also carries super cute food safe lunch boxes and snack bags. Everything is ethically made in India.
2. Terra Thread
Best for: Tweens, Teens, & Adults
Materials: Heavy-duty organic cotton canvas
These organic backpacks come with a handful of ethical and sustainable certifications: Fair Trade, GOTS, Carbon Neutral, and B Corp. And they’re vegan and give back to hunger relief, too.
Terra Thread’s backpacks come in three sizes—standard, mini, and semi-mini. They carry everything from your standard black to bright colors and floral patterns. Great for school or just everyday use, they come with a laptop sleeve and several other compartments to hold your water bottle, keys, and more. They’re also machine washable.
In addition to backpacks, Terra Thread also carries duffle & gym bags, laptop sleeves, fanny packs, pencil bags, toiletry bags, and more.
Best for: Little kids
Materials: 600D polyester
A great option for elementary school kids, Bixbee carries several fun designs, like unicorns and dinosaurs. Even though they’re made from synthetic fabric, they’re free of toxins like PVC, BPA, phthalates, and lead.
They come in a few different sizes and have a more horizontal shape compared to other backpacks, which are much easier on kids’ backs. They have several different pockets and compartments, including ones for water bottles and laptops. In addition to backpacks, Bixbee also carries other products like lunch boxes, pencil cases, duffle bags, and more.
Best for: Big kids
Materials: Cotton canvas
Inspired by the classic scout backpack, these YKRA backpacks are for the adventurous kids! With a drawstring on the inside and a buckle on the front, these zipper-free packs are great for a day trip or a sleepover at grandma’s house.
Be aware that some of their backpacks (mostly the solid colored ones) do come with some leather and are not completely nickel-free.
Best for: Personalized backpacks for kids
How cute are these matching back-to-school sets?! Even though they’re made from synthetic polyester, these backpacks, lunchboxes, and pencil cases are free from toxins like PFAS, phthalates, and PVC. They also have no added formaldehyde materials and have been tested to have undetectable levels of heavy metals like lead.
For the personalized aspect, you can choose between several different patterned fabrics and you can either do one initial or a short name (with a max of 4 letters).
Best for: Camping & travel
It can be really difficult to find outdoor backpacks and camping gear without toxic PFAS added to them. But there are a couple of great brands that have removed all PFAS from all of their products, and Jack Wolfskin is one of them!
They have a wide selection of packs for camping and backpacking along with several styles of smaller backpacks that are great for travel, commuting, school, or just everyday use. They have a few backpacks for kids, too!
In addition to being free from all PFAS and PVC, Jack Wolfskin has several other sustainability initiatives, including using recycled materials, being bluesign certified, committing to human and animal welfare, and more.
Best for: Adults (work, commuting, everyday use)
Materials: Organic cotton
MELAWEAR is one of the only brands you’ll find that makes backpacks for adults that are certified organic and fairtrade and also come with a minimalistic and elevated design. The padding on the back is made from EVA rubber and the buckles are free from metals like nickel or chromium. (And they’re vegan, too!)
They make both zippered (standard and mini) and roll-top backpacks that come in several bold solid colors. The standard-sized backpacks are large enough to fit up to a 15 or 17-inch laptop (some of them come with a sleeve for it). They also have extra details like a clip to keep track of your keys.
8. Hemp & Hope
Best for: Teens & Adults
Materials: Hemp & cotton
Hemp & Hope carries a collection of casual backpacks that are great for traveling and everyday use. They’re ethically handcrafted in Nepal using traditional methods out of a blend of natural hemp and cotton. They have several different pockets (including a laptop sleeve) as well as two handles on top so you can carry them different ways. They’re not waterproof because they’re completely free from synthetic materials.
Plus, they come in eco-friendly packaging and a tree is planted with every order.
Use code THEFILTERY10 for 10% off.
Best for: Adults & teens
Materials: Leather & cotton canvas
Shinola carries several different styles of backpacks, from the large Runwell full leather backpack, to a few different kinds of mini backpacks and a couple made from canvas. They’re unisex and come with different hooks and pockets for laptops, keys, and more.
Although Shinola’s products come with a higher price tag, they’re seriously built to last. Some of their products come with a warranty, and then after that, they have a repair service you can use if your backpack gets damaged.
Shinola is based in Detroit, Michigan, where (most of) their products are made. This area has lost a lot of jobs to globalization in recent decades and has also had to deal with toxic water problems, such as what has happened in Flint. So we like to see businesses setting up shop there!
Best for: Toddlers
The super cute Noé bag from Milinane is a great small backpack for toddlers and little kids that’s made from all-natural materials. Available in several different patterns, these backpacks are artisan-made and OEKO-TEX certified to be free from any toxic chemicals.
Best for: College students & adults
Rawganique is a brand that takes non-toxic products very seriously—their designs are specifically made for the most chemically sensitive individuals.
Their backpacks are available in several different shapes & sizes including (Deluxe, Laptop Tote, and Drawstring Pack). Most of them are made out of 100% organically-grown European hemp stiff canvas and then triple-stitched (!) to last a long time. They’re all vegan and sweatshop-free, too.
Although they don’t come waterproof, you can use their safe, natural waterproofing wax to increase the water-resistance of your backpack.
12. Sea & Grass
Best for: Kids & adults
They may not be the best for back to school, but these super cute tiny backpacks are great for a play date or running errands. They’re handwoven with sustainable, repurposed seagrass. Each bag takes three days to make!
They also carry other woven bags for adults and kids like totes, clutches, cross-body purses, and more. I mean—look at this ice cream tote!
With every bag sold, a portion of profits go to the Areeya Scholarship Fund, which beneifts Thai weaver communities by providing financial means for young women and children to attend school.
Best for: Toddlers, Kids, Teens, & Adults
Materials: Cotton/Linen with nylon lining
SoYoung offers designs that are minimalistic but fun. They’re free from toxic materials like PVC, phthalates, lead, and BPA. They’re machine washable, too.
In addition to backpacks, they also offer other school essentials like lunch boxes and ice packs. They have an adult collection, too! Plus, each purchase gives back to a non-profit organization.
Best for: Toddlers & Kids
Materials: 600D polyester
While primarily focused on lunch boxes, Milkdot carries several kids’ backpacks as well. Their products have been thoroughly tested for lead and phthalates by a Consumer Product Safety Commission third-party accredited lab.
More Common Questions About Non-Toxic, PVC-Free BackPacks
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 hormone disruptors pose to our long-term health. You can read more about this here.
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.
What About DEHP in Backpacks?
There are some kinds of phthalates that have been restricted or banned in some kinds of children’s products, including 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.
What About Fjallraven Backpacks?
You’ve probably seen Fjallraven backpacks before—they’re well-loved by teens. They offer a wide variety of colors, sizes, shapes, and needs. Made from both organic cotton as well as recycled polyester, they’re very durable and built for long-lasting wear and tear. They have lots of different compartments and some of their backpacks even have a removable pad that can be used as a seat at things like sports games!
Their products are almost PFAS-free, with the exception of some things like zippers and rain jackets. They are working on getting PFAS out of those products as well, and you can read more about that here.
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. You can feel good shopping from the brands above!
Image Credits: Vince Fleming, all product images belong to respective brands