Ah, dollar stores. We confess to dropping in occasionally for toilet paper and shower-curtain liners, but tend to view other items warily. Will cut-rate toothpaste lead to a root canal? Will the laundry detergent burn holes in our skivvies? And is that sippy cup safe to touch a baby’s lips, or might we just as well be filling it from a Chinese river? In pursuit of answers, we consulted environmental groups and safety watchdogs to come up with a list of what from a typical 99-cent store is OK to buy and what might kill you. And no, don’t get the toothpaste.
First off, a little 99-cent store 101: Name brands show up in myriad ways: manufacturer surplus, company overstock, new packaging, product-renaming, misprinted labels and much more. Upon any of these changes or mishaps, the product is sold to dollar stores at a lower price to “get rid of it.” What’s more, many of the no-name products are in fact related to the brands you do recognize. Spic ‘n Span is from the makers of Comet, and Suavitel? That’s Colgate-Palmolive. Quality, or ingredients, can differ between the brand you know and the one you don’t, but often the difference is just the price. Put simply, companies spend a lot to make a brand known, but there’s no reason the same manufacturer can’t make a cheaper, identical product to compete in the 99-cent store market.
Spices and herbs: These can cost upwards of $3 at regular grocery stores while Canadian-based Encore makes FDA-approved seasonings, spices and herbs that you can find at many Brooklyn dollar stores.
Gift wrap: This is a brilliant item to start buying at a dollar store, because the person opening the gift probably isn’t going to notice if you spent $8.99 on the “good” paper from Target or not. We’re not saying all wrapping paper is equal—just that the stuff’s going to be ripped up and tossed within five minutes.
Laundry detergent and household cleaners: This might not be the route for the most eco-minded, but if you don’t balk at the standard stuff in the big names, try these instead: Trend detergent (Made by Dial), Suavitel Fabric Softener (a Colgate-Palmolive brand) or Ariel (part of the Proctor and Gamble family). All of which get great reviews on consumer-based websites. Among household cleaners, Fresquito is made in the U.S., Spic ‘n Span is from the same manufacturer as Comet, but they’re a lot cheaper. Of course, there’s always earth-friendly white distilled vinegar, which can clean A LOT of things.
Pregnancy tests: It can’t be, but it is. This is a fact: Dollar-store pregnancy tests are under $5 and detect HCG at the same low levels as the higher-priced name-brand pg tests. See for yourself.
Shampoo: Often, dollar stores have name-brands like V05 and Suave for under $1.50, but don’t forget to try out Hairvitalize, Fruitamin and Johnson Parker’s line. These all can be found for $1.50 or less.
Baby wipes: This one is a great deal. You can get an 80-count bag for under $1.50. Sleek Sensations, one common brand, is hypo-allergenic and doesn’t contain alcohol, and Soffs wipes have both aloe and vitamin E. For a list of the mother-approved brands and their ingredients, see here.
Kitchen Utensils: A stainless steel whisk is a stainless steel whisk, at a dollar store or anywhere else. But stay away from the dollar-store can openers—there’s something about these that never seems to work.
While you’re shopping, don’t forget to check out the school supplies and clothing. There’s always a dollar-store treasure to be found in those areas. And if you happen to come home with an ‘I ♥ Puerto Rico’ mug, we won’t judge.
Batteries: Most dollar-store batteries are carbon-zinc, which drain very quickly. Look for alkaline—they last much longer.
Toothpaste: Some dollar-store toothpaste (even name-brand) is manufactured in other countries, and it can contain many times the amount of Fluoride allowed by the American Dental Association (ADA). Check the label—you don’t want your kids swallowing this stuff.
Vitamins: (specifically dollar-store brand vitamins) A 2004 Consumers Report study found that over half the dollar store multivitamins they tested were missing at least one listed nutrient, and several of the vitamins didn’t dissolve adequately.
Electronics: They can contain undersized wiring which poses the risk of overheating. Check to see if the product is Underwriters Laboratories (UL) certified; If it isn’t, move on.
Toys: Many toys have sharp edges or pieces that can easily be swallowed. The problem with no-names is that the packaging often doesn’t include the appropriate age range for the toy. Dollar-store toys also have been recalled for containing lead paint.
Jewelry: This too has been recalled for having high levels of lead.