Laser beams were once relegated to rock concert light shows and planetariums. Now they emanate from a wide range of kid and pet toys, including toy guns, spinning tops, lightsabers, and devices that cast patterns via a laser to entice your cat to chase after them. While the intensity of a laser varies from product to product, if it’s too powerful or used in the wrong way, a laser can permanently injure an adult’s, child’s or pet’s eyes.

According to Dan Hewett, health promotion officer at the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) 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." The damage may not be noticeable right away, which makes lasers even more dangerous, since kids may not realize they’re harming their eyes until after it’s too late.

Lasers can cause temporary or permanent damage to the light-sensitive cells that line the retina. “When these cells are damaged by a laser, they can no longer send electric impulses to the brain,” says Hewett. This can lead to partial or full vision loss, depending on which part of the retina is exposed to the beam. 

The FDA regulates lasers but does not specifically regulate lasers in toys. The agency’s guidelines recommend that a laser used in a children’s toy be a Class 1 laser. These are similar to the ones used in laser printers and generally considered safe. But some toy manufacturers don’t follow these guidelines, says Hewett.

Other laser products that aren’t targeted at kids but that children can get their hands on may also be risky because of their power. Lasers in certain pet toys, pointers and leveling tools, for example, may be significantly stronger than the lasers in toys and pose a greater risk to kids and adults.

Now that lasers have become cheap to make and have increased in power 10-fold in the last 10 years, the problem of eye damage from lasers is growing, says Hewett. 

Here are some tips to keep safe around lasers. 

  • If you buy a toy with a laser or your child gets one as a gift, make sure the toy says it complies with 21 CFR (the code of federal regulations) Subchapter J or “21 CFR 1040.10 and 1040.11” or a similar statement. The FDA also recommends that manufacturers use a Class 1 hazard label, which communicates that the undamaged toy will emit a level of laser radiation that minimizes the risk of injury. The product should also have an “aperture” label that shows where the laser light is coming from. Do not purchase a product that does not identify the name and address of the manufacturer.
  • If a toy that contains a laser is damaged, toss it. If one of the optical components of the laser, such as the lens or filter, is damaged, the laser could be rendered harmful. Never let your child break open the toy. The laser inside could be hazardous without its protective housing, says Hewett.
  • Tell your kids never to look directly at the source of a laser beam or shine a laser directly at anyone, including your pets.
  • Don’t aim lasers at mirrors or other reflective surfaces.
  • Don’t assume the brightness of a laser beam indicates its power. Beams from powerful lasers can appear as the same brightness as those from less powerful lasers. Colors do not indicate power either.

For more information, please see FDA's guidance document on Minimizing Risk for Children's Toy Laser Products. 

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist for the New York Times, national consumer magazines and websites.