Jill Shainhouse has a pretty good idea of what toys she'll be buying this holiday season. "I now select wooden toys and PVC- and phthalate-free bath toys, brands like Boon, Melissa and Doug, and Crocodile Creek," says the Toronto-based naturopath and mom of two boys, age three and eight months.

Like many parents who remember the well-publicized issues with lead paint in children's toys and jewellery, as well as hormone-mimicking chemicals found in plastics, such as phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) a few years back, Shainhouse has become a warier, smarter toy shopper. The scary headlines at the time — about BPA's role in early puberty and the neurological fallout of lead — had parents looking for alternatives and stores pulling toys from their shelves.

But the worry isn't warranted anymore, according to experts. "Overall, parents needn't be alarmed about the safety of toys in Canada," says Erica Phipps, partnership director of Canadian Partnership for Children's Health and Environment in Ottawa, an affiliation of groups whose mission is to improve children's environmental health in Canada. She says Health Canada now has the power to issue a recall, meaning that if it feels a toy is unsafe, it can require a manufacturer or distributor to recall it. "That was long overdue and a welcome change," says Phipps of the formerly voluntary requirement.

As well, tighter controls have been placed on lead in toys since 2009, and on the use of phthalates in 2011, chemicals that have been linked to hormone disruption in the body.

Toys that pose any kind of danger — be it a choking hazard or risk of abrasion — are also flagged on Health Canada's advisories and warnings site. But because federal authorities cannot check every single toy that comes into the country, it's always a good idea to be vigilant. Here are some tips on selecting safer toys:

  1. Read the fine print. Choose toys that are age-appropriate, says Phipps, by checking what it says on their packaging. For example, a toy intended for an older child may contain small pieces that an infant could swallow.
  2. Skip small toys when buying for kids under 3. Small balls or toys that that contain tiny parts could be swallowed, warns Health Canada.
  3. Avoid sharp-edged toys that could scratch or injure a child.
  4. Do a smell test. "If there's a strong smell of vinyl, steer clear of that item," says Phipps, as it may contain phthalates recently banned in toys for young children but still used in various products.
  5. Look for toys labelled BPA-free, which means they don't contain the controversial chemical.
  6. Opt for toys manufactured in North America or Europe, which have more rigorous toy testing standards.
  7. Check the loudness. If you can't speak over sound-producing toys and be heard, they're too loud and could cause hearing loss, says Health Canada.
  8. Choose unpainted wooden toys over painted ones, particularly if buying for children under three who will likely put them in their mouths. "Because their bodies are rapidly developing, kids' exposure to contaminants can be much higher than adults," says Phipps.

If you're in doubt about a toy, particularly a second-hand one, check the Health Canada toy recalls database for the latest information. Or check out blogs such as parent tested parent approved for toys that have been tested — and given the seal of approval — by parents. Health Canada also has key toy-buying information.

And then there's the safest bet of all — creativity. "Great gift ideas don't always come in a box," says Phipps. They can include special experiences such as a special day trip to a museum, dinner and a holiday-themed movie or time spent working together on a special craft.