Is your dinnerware toxic?
Dinnerware and other dishes can have all sorts of toxins hiding in their bright colors and fun designs. Most notably, cadmium and lead.
Let’s explore some common questions that you may ask when you’re looking for lead-free dinnerware.
This post may contain affiliate links, which means I could be compensated if you decide to make a purchase. You can read our full disclosure here.
What Makes Some Dinnerware Toxic?
Don’t you just love the brightly-colored dishes and pretty designs that dinnerware brands often have?
They can really add a fun pop of color to your kitchen cabinets and make eating more fun for kids, whether they’re eating waffles or broccoli.
Unfortunately, dish brands often use lead or cadmium in order to create those lovely colors and fun prints. This is especially true for vintage dinnerware, which we’ll talk about below.
Can You Get Lead Poisoning from Dishes?
Unfortunately, yes. You can get lead poisoning from dishes and dinnerware.
In fact, it may be a major reason so many people got lead poisoning in the past.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s, after a pediatrician’s study documented the dangers of lead exposure, that the FDA started regulating the amount of lead that could be in our dinnerware.
Unfortunately, however, the FDA still allows a small amount of lead in our dishes because it’s easier to use and more cost-effective for companies.
Generally speaking, this small amount of lead is safe and doesn’t transfer into our food. However, it can become a problem when we microwave the dish, when the dish becomes chipped or cracked, or when we put acidic food on to the dish.
What is Dinnerware Usually Made of?
Obviously, there are many different kinds of dinnerware. Some are made of melamine (hard plastic), others are glass or ceramic.
Let’s talk about these materials a bit further.
Melamine dinnerware is a hard plastic that’s made from a nitrogen compound.
Luckily, melamine does not contain lead. However, there are still some dangers associated with its use.
While the FDA has said that melamine is safe, it is generally not microwave-safe, and numerous studies have found that the melamine can leach into our food, especially when the food is very hot or acidic.
Doctors and researchers do not fully understand melamine poisoning yet, but symptoms may include blood in the urine, little-to-no urine production or an urgent need to urinate, high blood pressure, and irritability.
Glass dinnerware is generally safe to use, as long as it is completely clear of design elements.
When glassware is painted, however, it could have high levels of lead. A study from the University of Plymouth found extremely high levels of lead in the majority of the glassware that they tested, some well over the legal limit.
Ceramic dinnerware is the blanket term for all traditional pottery dinnerware. It includes porcelain, china, bone china, and stoneware.
Most likely, you have ceramic dinnerware in your cabinets right now.
It’s generally very durable (though some types are more durable than others), and most are painted.
Though the ceramic itself isn’t an issue, the paint is where lead can become a concern.
How to Tell if Dishes Have Lead
Unfortunately, because there aren’t any regulations that force companies to disclose their lead usage (aside from California’s Proposition 65), the only way to know if your dinnerware is lead-free is to test it.
There are at-home lead testing kits that you can purchase online.
This one has great reviews, is approved for ceramics, and is relatively inexpensive:
How to Test for Lead in Ceramics
If you purchase the lead testing kit that I mentioned above, all you need to do is wet the tip of the swap with water. Once it turns yellow, you rub the painted surface for 30 seconds. If the swab turns red (or pink/purple) that means there’s lead!
Other testing kits may use vinegar instead of water, but you can follow the instructions that they give you in the package.
Do Dishes Made in China Contain Lead?
So what about your dishes that were made in China? Are they safe to use, or do they contain lead?
Well, it depends. Not all dishes made in China contain lead, but you do have to be more careful with your purchases from China (and other countries).
Traditional Chinese dinnerware is painted with ornate patterns and designs, which may include lead.
According to a toxic element specialist with the FDA (who was interviewed for this article in the Chicago Tribune), some dishes coming into the U.S. from China are mislabeled as “housewares” to avoid FDA scrutiny.
These issues are very few and far between though.
The FDA and the Chinese government worked out an agreement in the 1990s to certify Chinese manufacturing plants, so most manufacturers in China do not paint their dinnerware anymore (at least not when they plan to export the dinnerware to the U.S.).
When buying dishes directly from China, Mexico, Central America, and South America, you should be more cautious of lead exposure (unless you’re purchasing for decor purposes only).
What About Vintage Dishes?
Vintage pieces are becoming more and more popular as we head further into the 21st century.
Gorgeous 50-year-old plates and other dinnerware can easily be found at estate sales and on the shelves of your local thrift store for pennies on the dollar, and sites like eBay make it even easier to purchase Vintage dishes.
Vintage dishes, however, are most likely to contain high levels of lead, so you have to be very careful with them
If you love vintage dishes (like I do), be sure to purchase the at-home lead testing kit that I mentioned above.
When Did They Stop Using Lead in Dishes?
The FDA didn’t start regulating the use of lead in dinnerware until the late 1970s, so any dishes that are older than that should be tested.
Your grandmother’s dishes, however beautiful and nostalgic they may be, are more likely to contain dangerous levels of lead.
Non-Toxic, Lead-Free Dinnerware Brands
Below, I’ve found some of the best lead-free dinnerware that you can purchase new. These dishes are non-toxic, safe for your family, and have terrific reviews.
Corelle’s dinnerware is not entirely lead-free, but these plain white dishes are, and they’re safe and non-toxic.
They’re chip-resistant and lightweight, and they’re microwave and dishwasher safe too.
These dishes are also perfect if you have a smaller kitchen or less cabinet space than you’d like because each dish is compact and nests nicely inside the others, taking up less room than many other dinnerware sets.
If you’re looking for something that has a bit more color, this set from Euro Ceramica will look amazing in your kitchen.
They are cadmium and lead-free, dishwasher and microwave safe, and they’ll add a pop of color to your kitchen without adding toxins.
On a budget? Amazon Bascis’ plain white dinnerware set is a great option for you then.
The dishes are lead-free, and they’re also microwave and dishwasher safe.
According to reviews, they’re not the greatest quality (many customers report blemishes and unevenness), but they’re a great starter set, and they work well for everyday use.
This dinnerware set is sold separately, so you’ll need to purchase bowls and smaller salad plates on their own, but they’re all lead-free and non-toxic.
If you’re looking for lead-free dinnerware, remember to test any vintage dishes that you have or stick to dishes from the list above if you’re buying something new.