Plastic artefact: What is Barbie even made of?

Despite Barbie’s popularity as children’s toy, very few details are known about changes in the dolls manufacturing and chemical make-up since the toy was released in 1959.

Italian researchers used analytical chemistry techniques to reveal Barbie’s plastic evolution over time, with significant changes in manufacturing occurring in the 1970s. They published their research in Polymers.

Plastic toys – including Barbies – have become a part of many museum collections

“Children’s toys are part of social memory, mirroring the needs of the period when they were produced,” the paper says.

“From a material point of view, Barbies are plastic artifacts, prone to fast deterioration, and their conservation may represent a challenge as well as an opportunity for collectors and museum conservators.”

The study will assist in their conservation.

The study involves fifteen Barbies dated between 1959 and 1976, with analysis performed using UV induced fluorescence and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR). 

The analysis reveals early dolls mostly comprised polyvinyl chloride, with phthalate based plasticisers (additives widely used at the time to improve the flexibility and durability of plastics). 

Over the years, Barbie dolls have developed to comprise a complex – but more stable – chemical cocktail comprising ethylene vinyl acetate arms, acyrylonitrile butadiene styrene torsos, heads of a hard vinyl compound, and outer legs in PVC, although using a different formula from the earlier dolls.

Register for scinema 2023

SCINEMA runs from August 1 to August 31 every year. Register now to be part of the festival and watch the films for free. REGISTER NOW.

The dolls comprised a complex mix of six different plastics.

All of the dolls had polyvinyl chloride (PVC) faces and legs.

The majority also had PVC arms, except for Barbie #14 (1974) whose arms were low density polyethylene and Barbie #15 (1974) whose arms were ethylene vinyl acetate.

All except one of the barbies had hair comprising polyvinylidene dichloride (PVDC). Barbie #13 (1974) had polypropylene hair.

Torsos varied over time. Early Barbie torsos were made from PVC, then there was a change (1964 – 1974) to LDPE then ABS (acyrylonitrile butadiene styrene).

The study suggests that early phthalate based plasticisers used in PVC were the main cause of deterioration.

“Faces and legs appear to be the most degraded areas. Indeed, they are often characterized by the presence of an exudate that makes the surface sticky and glossy.”

The study concludes, “based on the results from analysis and previous reports, the producers of Barbie dolls had to gradually rethink the chemical composition even before the late 1980s, when a German government law limited the amount of plasticizer allowed in PVC for the safety of children playing with PVC toys.”

Read, listen and watch more Cosmos Barbie science


Toy story: How three Barbies found their way into a Victorian museum collection of playthings

Barbie: let’s get our sparkle on with the science of the world’s most famous doll


Think Pink: The Science of Barbie


Barbie dolls and body image

Please login to favourite this article.