Are Water Beads Toxic?



The Bottom Line

Water beads contain superabsorbent polymers that can expand to hundreds of times their original size, after exposure to water. These beads, which are often sold as toys for young children, can cause life-threatening intestinal blockage if swallowed.


What are water beads made of?

Water beads are made from superabsorbent polymers. Superabsorbent polymers can be synthetic (man-made) or natural. Most superabsorbent polymers manufactured today are synthetic and are made from petroleum products, polyacrylate, and other acrylics. These substances undergo chemical reactions to form polymers, or large chains of molecules. The polymers that are formed are able to absorb large amounts of water within their chemical structures, without dissolving in the water.


How do water beads work?

The polymers that are present in water beads are superabsorbent. When exposed to fluids such as water, they can absorb and retain hundreds of times their weight in water within their structure, without dissolving. This allows the beads to increase their size by 150-1500 times after exposure to water. Some of these beads are the size of a marble initially and can expand to the size of a tennis ball after they are exposed to water.


What are water beads used for?

Water beads were initially used as agricultural products intended to maintain soil moisture. Florists use them to keep a beautiful floral arrangement hydrated. Currently, water beads are used as fluid absorbers in baby diapers, incontinence garments, and menstrual pads. They are also marketed as children’s toys or therapies for children with sensory processing or autism spectrum disorders. Some brands of toy water beads include Orbeez®, MarvelBeads®, and Elongdi®. Water beads sold as toys are often brightly colored and may resemble candy. These qualities make water beads appealing to young children, who may swallow them or put them in their ear, nose, or other body openings. 


Are water beads dangerous if swallowed?

Although the polymers used to manufacture water beads are non-toxic, the beads can absorb fluid and expand in the intestinal tract after they are swallowed, and this can cause serious and sometimes life-threatening intestinal blockage. 


Can water beads kill you?

Yes. Swallowing water beads can cause life-threatening intestinal damage. At least one death has occurred after water bead ingestion by a child. In that case, a 6-month-old boy suffered a bowel blockage after swallowing a single superabsorbent polymer bead given to him by a neighbor. The infant underwent surgery to fix the intestinal obstruction but later developed an infection and died. Water beads are also a choking hazard, especially in children younger than 3 years.


How do you dispose of water beads?

Used water beads can be disposed of in the trash. Superabsorbent polymers biodegrade over time in the environment. They are unlikely to contaminate the soil or environment.


What if my child swallows a water bead?

If you or a loved one swallows a water bead, reach out to Poison Control immediately to find out what to do. Get a fast personalized recommendation online or call 1-800-222-1222. Both options are free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day.

Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD
Medical Toxicologist

For media inquiries, please contact Krista Osterthaler at

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For More Information

Water Beads: Harmful if Swallowed, Put in Ears (Healthy Children)

The choking hazard of water beads (Children's Wisconsin)


Caré W, Dufayet L, Paret N, Manel J, Laborde-Casterot H, Blanc-Brisset I, Langrand J, Vodovar D. Bowel obstruction following ingestion of superabsorbent polymers beads: literature review. Clin Toxicol (Phila). 2022 Feb;60(2):159-167.

Cairns R, Brown JA, Buckley NA. Dangerous toys: the expanding problem of water-absorbing beads. Med J Aust. 2016 Dec 12;205(11):528. 

Jackson J, Randell KA, Knapp JF. Two Year Old With Water Bead Ingestion. Pediatr Emerg Care. 2015 Aug;31(8):605-7.

Meshram I, Kanade V, Nandanwar N, Ingle P. Super-absorbent polymer: a review on the characteristics and application. Int J Adv Res Chem Sci. 2020;7(5):8-21.

Mirza B, Sheikh A. Mortality in a case of crystal gel ball ingestion: an alert for parents. APSP J Case Rep. 2012 Jan;3(1):6.

Zamora IJ, Vu LT, Larimer EL, Olutoye OO. Water-absorbing balls: a "growing" problem. Pediatrics. 2012 Oct;130(4):e1011-4.

Zohuriaan-Mehr MJ, Kabiri K. Superabsorbent polymer materials: a review. Iran Polym J. 2008;17(6):451-477. 


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Prevention Tips


  • Avoid water beads in children younger than 3 years. Do not allow children to play with water beads unsupervised.
  • Store water beads in a secure location where children and pets cannot easily access them.
  • Do not swallow water beads or put them in your nose, ears, or other body openings.


This Really Happened

An 8-month-old girl developed vomiting and abdominal swelling, 15 hours after consuming an item believed to by candy. On further evaluation, her parents discovered that the “candy” was actually a superabsorbent polymer bead. The girl was admitted to the hospital for observation, and over the next two days she developed symptoms of intestinal blockage. She underwent an operation to remove the superabsorbent polymer bead that was lodged in her intestine. She fortunately made a full recovery and was discharged from the hospital after four days after the surgery.