Many kids (and parents) who have seen Luke Skywalker battle Darth Vader with a light saber think lasers are cool.
What they may not know is this: When operated unsafely, or without certain controls, the highly-concentrated light from lasers—even those in toys—can be dangerous, causing serious eye injuries and even blindness. And not just to the person using a laser, but to anyone within range of the laser beam.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is particularly concerned about this potential danger to children and those around them and issued a guidance document (PDF 60K) in 2014 on the safety of children’s toy laser products.
According to Dan Hewett, health promotion officer at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, “A beam shone directly into a person’s eye can injure it in an instant, especially if the laser is a powerful one.”
However, laser injuries usually don’t hurt, and vision can deteriorate slowly over time. Eye injuries caused by laser light may go unnoticed, for days and even weeks, and could be permanent, he says.
Some examples of laser toys are:
- lasers mounted on toy guns that can be used for “aiming;”
- spinning tops that project laser beams while they spin;
- hand-held lasers used during play as “light sabers;” and
- lasers intended for entertainment that create optical effects in an open room.
In the last 10 years, many laser pointers have increased in power. You should not buy laser pointers for children, or allow children to use them. These products are not toys. Watch this video to learn more.
A laser creates a powerful, targeted beam of electromagnetic radiation that is used in many products, from music players and printers to eye-surgery tools. The FDA regulates radiation-emitting electronic products, such as lasers (including children’s toy laser products), and sets radiation-safety standards that manufacturers must meet.
Toys with lasers are of particular interest to the FDA because children can be injured by these products, says Hewett. He notes that because they are marketed as toys, parents and kids alike may believe they’re safe to use.
“For toys to be considered minimal risk, we recommend that the levels of radiation and light not exceed the limits for Class 1, which is the lowest level in regulated products,” Hewett says. This Class 1 designation is defined by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC).
Lasers used for industrial and other purposes often need higher radiation levels for their intended functions, Hewett adds. But these higher levels are not needed for children’s toys—and if they are present, they can be dangerous.
In recent years, Hewett says, lasers have increased markedly in power and have gone way down in price. And while adults may buy a laser pointer for use in work, kids often play with them for amusement.
“Low-cost, compact laser pointers used to be quite low in power,” Hewett says. But, in the last 10 years, many laser pointers have increased in power 10-fold and more. The fact that lasers can be dangerous may not be evident, particularly to the children who inappropriately use them as toys, or to the adults who supervise them.
Tips to Keep in Mind
Remember that laser products are generally safe when they follow the legal limits and are used as directed. But lasers can cause harm if not used properly. The FDA recommends the following general safety tips for consumers.
- Do not buy laser pointers for children, or allow children to use them. These products are not toys.
- Never aim or shine a laser directly at anyone, including animals. The light energy from a laser aimed into the eye can be hazardous, perhaps even more than staring directly into the sun.
- Do not aim a laser at any vehicle, aircraft, or shiny surface. Remember that the startling effect of a bright beam of light can cause serious accidents when aimed at a driver in a car, for instance, or otherwise negatively affect someone doing another activity (such as playing sports).
- Look for an FDA-recommended IEC Class I label on children’s toy lasers. The label says “Class 1 Laser Product,” which would clearly communicate that the product is of low risk and not in a higher emission level laser class.
- Do not buy or use any laser that emits more than 5mW power, or that does not have the power printed on the labeling.
- Immediately consult a health care professional if you or a child suspects or experiences any eye injury.
You can watch the FDA’s video on laser pointer safety for more information.
This article appears on the FDA’s Consumer Updates page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.
Updated: March 6, 2017
Published: November 20, 2012
Stay informed on consumer health information, including practical health and wellness tips, and the latest safety info on FDA-regulated products and public health issues. Subscribe to Consumer Update email notifications.