As a result of the misuse of lasers in tools and toys, kids are getting serious eye injuries. This past summer, a 9-year-old in Greece permanently damaged his left eye by staring at the light emitting from a laser pointer. According to a study by the University of Bonn, at least 111 cases have been documented in medical journals since 2000 of acute or permanent eye damage from laser pointers. A study in Pediatrics of four examples over a two-year period found that three resulted in permanent retina damage, even after treatment.

Part of the problem is the misuse of these laser products, and part of the problem is that the industry is largely self-regulated, resulting in some instances of higher-powered lasers in toys and tools than claimed on the label. A study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology of 122 commercial laser pointers found that 89.7 percent of green pointers and 44.4 percent of red pointers were not in compliance with FDA regulations, producing laser power in excess of the Accessible Emission Limit at one or more laser wavelengths.

“It comes down to that self-certification aspect. All of these manufacturers self-certify that they comply with the FDA regulations, but they might not understand how to conduct the tests, which requires a lot of knowledge. They may give it their best shot, but there may be mistakes, so there could be laser products out there that are marked as compliant and that might not be compliant,” explains Winn Henderson, senior staff engineer in UL’s Consumer Technology division.

What You Need to Know about Lasers in Toys and Tools

For lasers, the FDA recognizes four major hazard classes (I to IV) and three subclasses (IIa, IIIa and IIIb). The higher the class, the more powerful the laser and greater potential for injury if used improperly. All toys using lasers are expected to conform to Class I, and no higher, while many laser pointers are in Class IIIa.

Laser products must bear a label claiming to comply with Title 21 Code of Federal Regulations (Subchapter J, Radiological Health) Parts 1000 through 1005 (the FDA regulatory code governing laser products), along with its class. For tools, such as laser pointers or laser levels, use the label information to buy the least powerful laser you can get by with. Look for the UL Mark, which means that the product meets electrical, fire, shock and laser standards. However, manufacturers have the option of self-certifying their own laser tests. This is why it’s even better to look for the new UL Verified Mark on any laser or LED product (many of the toy light sabers are LED products), meaning UL has measured the laser power or light emissions of a product and verifies that it consistently operates within the limits stated on the label.

“The UL Verification Mark is a better indicator that UL tested the output of the device,” Henderson says.

Access the UL Verification Mark database of products here.

How to Use Tools and Toys with Laser or LEDs

Because lasers, even in toys, can cause permanent damage to the retina, it’s important to operate them properly. Here’s what the FDA recommends:

  • Teach your children to never aim or shine a laser directly, even a laser in a toy, at anyone, including animals. The laser’s light energy aimed into the eye can be hazardous, perhaps even more than staring directly into the sun.
  • Teach children to never look directly at a laser light.
  • Do not aim a laser at any vehicle, aircraft or shiny surface, which can cause serious accidents.
  • Look for a Class I label on children’s toy lasers. The label says “Class 1 Laser Product.”
  • Do not buy laser pointers for children; do not allow kids to use laser pointers, even those made for pets to chase.
  • Immediately consult a health care professional if you or a child suspects or experiences any eye injury. Learn more in the FDA’s video on laser pointer safety.
  • Don’t allow kids to break open a laser toy, since this could damage the optical component of a laser, making it more hazardous.
  • Supervise younger kids while they’re playing with laser toys.

For LEDs in toys and tools, be sure that children do not look directly at LED lights in toys or shine them at other people or animals. Supervise young children when they’re playing with toys with LED lights.

“Outside of the United States, LED radiation has always been treated like lasers, as far as standards that evaluate radiation and look at the potential hazards to the skin and eyes,” Henderson says. “In 2007, LEDs were removed from the U.S. FDA laser standard because a separate set of regulations exists for lights and other LED devices. Even though the FDA has issued specific safety guidelines for LEDs in toys like it has for lasers, it is a good idea for parents to watch out for LEDs in products.”

As lasers become more prevalent in products, like nonoptical lasers in mobile phones to enable facial scanning, UL will continue to help create Standards for safety, as well as test products at manufacturers’ requests, Henderson says. Another service we offer is using our expertise to help manufacturers design safe laser products.

While laser toys can be fun and laser tools can make tasks easier, they can also pose a hazard, so use these tips to keep your family safe.