The dos and don’ts of 99-cent stores

Photo by Erin Zipper.
Photo by Erin Zipper.

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.

Photo by Becki Fuller.
Photo by Becki Fuller.


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.

Photo by satanslaundromat.
Photo by satanslaundromat.


  1. So babies are on the buy list, right? They almost have to be at that price.

    One tip: stick to Marcal or Scott TP. I made the mistake of buying the off-brand stuff once and it was very thin single ply. I’m not going to get into the details but there are many reasons this is a problem.

  2. deanna

    I never knew that dollar stores even had stuff like pregnancy tests, brand-name shampoo, or leadful jewelry! No worries, I don’t buy that stuff there anyway….but always good to know when working with lower SES families in order to tell them not to buy batteries that will drain their accounts even more and that the kitchen utensils are good to go!! any news on diapers??!

  3. Great article Nina! I am an undercover dollarstoreholic (ok so not so undercover now right?) lol
    Great to know that I need to lay off of the dollar store toothpaste though, I definitely thought that I was getting a good bargain.You get two thumbs up from me!

  4. Pretty good “do/don’t” list, but will add the following: Do not ever buy/use plastic food storage items or utensils or anything that contains plastic and will have stuff that will be consumed.

    Basically, the plastic used in all of the true cheap 99 cent store bowls and cups is untreated plastic. Meaning the “good stuff” from real stores has a coating on them to prevent plastic chemicals from leeching into your food. 99 cent store stuff is uncoated and untreated. The very easy test for this is to simply smell the plastic. If you can literally “smell” the plastic and the chemicals in it, then that is 100% bad.

    If you want to compare/contrast smell the plastic from items at more legit stores.

    But to end on a positive note, the audio/video cables sold at 99 cent stores are decent for simple audio/video use since they are cheap and don’t carry high voltage.

  5. What about the food? The larger dollar stores have a refrigerated food section with containers of juice and many other items. What is the scoop on these?

  6. Most food at dollar stores is simply not as great as what you could get at a supermarket. Especially if the food comes from some overseas source where lord know what gets in there.

    But I will say, Jack’s 99 Cent store in Herald Square actually has decent stuff since what they do is buy overstock and items that might be a few days away from going bad. So if you are going to eat it within 24-48 hours (check expiration dates), it should be good/safe.

    But will say one thing: Jack’s 99 Cent store sells these nice looking Challah loaves. They look nice, and taste fine but I personally have always felt a bit “off” and even dizzy after eating a whole loaf at a time. And don’t laugh, I grew up in this city and have eaten tons of Challah loaves in one sitting without issue.

  7. leslie

    Jazzy article. Found great roasted red peppers at our local dollar store, but I have also thrown things out that I bought to eat. Sharing great finds is the best idea. Thanks for an informative article.

  8. Stephanie

    Also on the do not buy list:
    1) plunger. I did this once because my local hardware store was closed, and when I plunged, the stick came out.
    2) hammer. I swung my arm back, the whole head of the hammer came off and hit my stereo.

  9. Tyler

    Spic-n-Span used to be very common… it was the standard stuff in my house when I was a kid. Funny how you refer to it as some weird generic product — though, maybe it is now. I guess I haven’t seen it for years.

  10. Pauli

    A while ago I saw a report on TV where they tested how many toxic/carcinogenic chemicals leach into your hands if you work like 10 minutes with this cheap China made hammer with rubber handle. I can’t recall the details but the numbers were absolutely shocking. I think it is wise to stay away from plastic and rubber things, be it food containers, baby dolls, tools or anything else that come into skin contact.

    • RapFTB

      I just love it when foreigners diss “America or Americans” because it reminds me how great America is. When people diss us its usually jealousy at our freedom & power. You just have to see all the nationalities “running” to get here while we aren’t leaving here in favor of other countries. I’ll bet you are living right here in the US and complaining on the sneek. I’m sure you are packing right now to go elsewhere, right? You are really going to miss the 99 cent stores!!

  11. I purchased a pregnancy test from the dollar tree and it showed that I was pregnant…my daughter is now 1 year old..Just think had I not gone to the dollar store I would have paid 7 to 13.00 at a walgreen’s for the same result.

  12. Tmc80tmc

    If products ever make you sick, you should report them to consumer affairs. China is notorious for cutting costs in all kinds of products. That means mixed chemicals to make plastics are coming with all kinds of “fillers” such as lead, mercury, or worse. Aside from that one “BLIP” about lead in toy paint & plastics, we’ve gone back asleep as to what China’s doing in manufacturing again for all kinds of products– even brand name ones sold at big box and reputable stores (walmart? reputable? hah). Ok, we can’t live life by being paranoid, but if the plastic smell turns your stomach, run far away! The smell test is a good indicator as another commentator wrote.

     What I’ve gotten from dollar stores? Toilet cleaner, Mouthwash (will go back to wallmart brand next time),  toothbrushes, air fresheners. Avoid: food, vitamins, energy drinks.

    Also, as an alternative there are probably good (haggling involved) deals to be found at flea markets for some of the same items sold at wholesale clubs (like 16 bar counts of soap, tp, etc)– and you dont’ pay sales tax. A $1 item at the dollar store is 99 plus 9 cents. A 99 cent item at the flea market is $1. If you Po & broke, 9 cents on every $ adds up fast. Downside, no backsies.. very limited return/exchange priviliges so check quality upfront. Alternatively, I also shop in Nassau county when I’m there and that saves a few pennies. You’d be surprised that things are cheaper here too, not quite as good as NJ, but close.

  13. serns

    Watch out for excessively flexible plastic spatulas (the kind for flipping an egg). Got one I either wound up tossing or not using because the lifter part flexed too much.

  14. Michael Scott

    99 cents store is just fine, but obviously the quality of some goods in there is not the same of the original item in other stores. My experience was with the Irish Spring soap, the one I got from the 99 cents store had the same wrap but the soap bar inside was absolutely different than the original, was obviously cheaper and did not smell that good, but it worked and did the washing job jut fine.

  15. mariz

    Never buy those cheap can openers. they never last! while i like to buy the cheap ones to save a buck, I make it a rule to invest on certain items like can openers. For a few dollars more, I know i won’t have to worry about replacing them anytime soon. Buy ones with long warrantees or has product guarantees. I use a Keetzen can opener from Amazon and it’s worth every dollar!

  16. SmartAssShopper

    I do go to the 99 Cent Only store. I LOVE their reading glasses–the name-brand ones. They’re the same as the ones in other stores for $20! The deal with these stores is to stay with name brands (except, as stated before, toothpaste). I have bought tooth whitener though, name brand, & it works. I also bought dishes, which I love but am slightly worried could contain lead. Their makeup sucks (Aziza brand) except the blush. But hairbrushes, mirrors, picture frames: excellent! The food is iffy. I bought lettuce & tomatoes last night & ate them. Not the best flavor, but whatever. I once bought a bag of potatoes & they were all green, which is toxic, so I returned them & wrote a scathing letter to the corporate office. They sent me a sorry letter & $3 in 99 Cent Only store coupons. Now THAT’S funny.

  17. William

    Thank you. My concern were batteries for Smoke Alarm from $.99 Cent Store or Home Depot.
    My conclusion is if they are Akaline, it doesn’t matter.

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