Grand Hotel™ Barbie®'s leaky legs

If you've handled Barbie® dolls with bendable legs (or any products made from "soft" plastics), you probably know that they tend to be a bit "tacky". In order to make the vinyl pliable enough to bend, larger amounts of plasticizers (chemical compounds that make hard substances softer) have to be added, and this can make the surface less "slick". (That's why tights go on so much more easily on non-bending legs. )

Poor greasy-headed 1961-ish Ken®. His hair is gone. His arm falls off.
Oh, the humanity.

Unfortunately, sometimes the mixtures aren't as stable as they could be and the plasticizer begins to leak out. Many vintage toys are susceptible to this, and Barbie dolls are no exception; the most notorious examples are dolls from the mid-80's (well-known for their tendency to develop greasy, "splotchy" legs) and the infamous "greasy-face" dolls from around 1961.

Of course, you'd kind of expect toys that were made decades ago to have problems like this.

Unfortunately, almost every doll I've gotten that was made in Indonesia over the last few years has had noticeably stickier-than-normal legs fresh out the box. Other people have noticed it, too.

These aren't dolls that have been sitting on shelves for years - they're new.

The scary part is, Indonesian dolls also tend to be the ones that develop greasy legs later on.

I had a graphic reminder of this while "de-boxing" some older dolls recently. The black version of Grand Hotel™ Barbie - which was made in Indonesia in 2001 - had one of the worst cases of leeching plasticizer I've ever seen. You can see it in the picture at the top of the page, but it doesn't really show how bad it was - it looked like someone had sprayed her legs with water. Her knit skirt was literally soaked with it (I had to throw it away), and there was so much on the surface it was puddling up.

Sure, that plasticizer had 8 years to accumulate on her legs while she sat in a box - but, think about where it would have gone if kids had been playing with it during that time.

I've never seen a doll that was made in China within the last 20 years that had this problem. Luckily, it appears that it doesn't happen to every doll made in Indonesia, either. Like, the pants on my white version of Movie Date™ Ken® from 2000 are totally saturated with plasticizer (even his shoes are covered with it ), but the black version is fine. The white version of Grand Hotel Barbie is fine, too. And it only seems to happen to body parts made from the elastic material used in standard bendable legs - heads, torsos, and regular arms don't have this problem.

Of course, the health issues associated with many plasticizers that can affect children who play with toys containing them are the most important thing. Compared to that, decomposing dolls in the collections of adults are pretty insignificant.

But, that doesn't make it any less disappointing to discover that your favorite doll has started falling apart. And, even if you could argue that leaking plasticizer isn't an issue from a "preservation" standpoint since playline dolls are "toys" that aren't meant to be kept forever, the same thing happens to "collector" dolls, too. Even very expensive ones. I've had to change the bodies on loose dolls (like Grand Entrance Barbie) to keep their clothes from getting ruined, and I'm not the only one.

It's hard enough to do that on out-of-box dolls; what are people who like to leave their dolls in the packaging supposed to do? Continue purchasing (relatively) expensive dolls knowing there's a good chance they'll start visibly self-destructing within a few years?

(Incidentally, it's true that all plastic is degrading constantly. However, I have dolls from the 60's whose legs are in perfect working order with no stickiness whatsoever; shouldn't you be able to expect a doll you purchased last week to be in at least the same condition?)

I think most people understand things occasionally go wrong in the manufacturing process that can lead to problems like this. But, this particular issue has been happening for almost ten years. I sort of thought somebody would've noticed by now, but apparently they haven't.

So, what's the solution? Personally, I wouldn't mind it if "clicking" bendable legs were discontinued altogether. Aside from the leaking plasticizer issue (and ignoring the health concerns associated with it), tacky bendable legs can make it almost impossible for children (and adults) to dress a doll. (That's why My First Barbie™ had non-bending legs. )

Traditional "bend legs" don't serve much of a purpose nowadays anyway - they're hardly able to "bend" anymore since the amounts of plasticizer allowed in toys was lowered (allegedly one of the reasons the legs on modern dolls don't bend as far or hold positions as well as vintage ones.)

Clicking bend-legs do look better than hard-plastic legs with hinges in the knees, but I'd much rather have dolls with knee hardware than piles of defective bodies that can't even be disposed of because they're not recyclable.

To me, the most important thing is that leeching plasticizer makes the dolls unsuitable for children. People always suggest that I donate recent dolls I don't want anymore a charity like Toys for Tots - but, how can you donate toys when you suspect they are (or will be) leeching plasticizer? (Not that it matters anyway, since the so-called "Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act" has now made it illegal for people to donate [or even give away] older toys.)

When the infamous recalls started happening in 2007, I wondered why nobody seems to care about the plasticizer problem. Lead paint is relatively harmless unless it's ingested, and you can't tell if paint contains lead without testing it; magnets can't harm a child's intestines unless the child swallows them, and most people are amazed to find out the damage swallowed magnets can cause; but anybody who touches a toy that's leeching plasticizer can tell immediately that something's wrong.

Believe it or not, there are scientists working on ways to stop (and even reverse) this problem. If you're worried about the dolls on your shelf, imagine museums whose collections include historical items made of plastic! However, so far no one has come foward with a "cure" - and even if they did, it doesn't mean it would be available to the average collector.

What do you think? Have you had any experiences with this issue? How would you fix the problem?

Doll Diary 29 March 2009