Infographic on the plastics used in a Barbie doll. The head is made of polyvinyl chloride while the hair is usually made of polyvinylidene dichloride. The arms are made of ethylene-vinyl acetate. The torso is made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene and the legs are made of PVC, with bend-leg armatures made of polypropylene.
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Nothing embodies ‘life in plastic’ like Barbie dolls themselves. From relatively simple beginnings, today’s dolls have parts made of various plastics with varying properties. This graphic looks at Barbie’s chemical makeup and how it’s changed over the years.

Often, finding the particular compounds used in the manufacture of products is difficult, as companies tend to keep specific formulations close to their chests. So, in doing the research for this graphic, I was delighted to find that this information was not only available, but appeared in the form of a research paper where scientists investigated the composition of Barbie dolls over a number of years. Their findings highlight a number of interesting materials changes in response to problems or legislation since Barbie dolls launched in 1959.

Barbie: A plastics progression

In those early years, Barbie dolls were made almost exclusively of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the same plastic that PVC windows and some plastic drainage piping is made of. In these other applications, PVC is rigid, but this can be adjusted when needed – for example, in the arms or legs of a doll – by the addition of plasticisers. Plasticisers are a group of various compounds which, when added to plastics make them softer and more flexible.

However, these plasticisers posed problems for the longevity of the dolls. Over time, they could migrate out of the plastic they were mixed with, leading to discolouration and a sticky feeling to the plastic. Common plasticisers at this time were phthalates, and increasing limits and regulation of these plasticisers in PVC meant Barbie’s plastics had to diversify.

Today’s Barbie dolls use different plastics in their various parts. The manufacturers switched to using low density polyethylene for the torso in the 1970s, then later to acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), which is also the plastic that Lego bricks are made of. For the arms, where more flexibility is required, ethylene-vinyl acetate is now used.

PVC hasn’t completely departed from Barbie’s composition – it’s still used in the legs and heads of the dolls. However, different plasticisers are now used compared to those in the original dolls’ compositions, and at lower levels. The parts where PVC is used still require other plastics for particular properties: polypropylene for the bend-leg armatures for its durability, and polyvinylidene dichloride (PVDC) for the dolls’ hair.

Barbie continues to be a plastics innovator. Some more recent collectible Barbies have parts made of a plastic named silkstone, which is based on the polyester plastic polyethylene terephthalate. Novel elastomers (basically stretchy polymers) cover the joints between Barbie’s different parts and give the dolls a more life-like feel.

Barbie’s material future

Where next for Barbie’s plastics adventure? The question of sustainability is one which is likely to trigger further changes in composition. In 2021 Mattel launched a range of Barbies made of recycled plastics that would have otherwise become ocean waste.

More recently, a number of media outlets were duped by a story about Barbie going plastic-free by 2030, which turned out to be an elaborate hoax designed to highlight the environmental problems plastic toys pose. Mattel produces an estimated 60 million Barbie dolls every year using plastics derived from crude oil, and each of these dolls results in emissions of 648 grams of carbon dioxide over the course of its lifecycle. With life in plastic looking less fantastic, perhaps Barbie’s future might not involve plastics at all.

References and further reading

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