The Essential Guide to Food Safe 3D Printing: Regulations, Technologies, Materials, and More
3D printing offers unparalleled design freedom to produce custom parts and complex or organic shapes that would be costly or impossible to manufacture with traditional manufacturing methods.
These benefits can be compelling for a range of food-related applications. However, if 3D printed parts are intended for food contact items, you‘ll have to consider safety practices and regulations to avoid contact with toxic substances and prevent the buildup of harmful bacteria.
Food safe 3D printing is possible and the variety of materials approved as food safe is increasing, but there is a high degree of ambiguity around the workflows and finding the appropriate applicable regulations can be a challenge.
Read on for an introduction to food safety, food safety considerations for 3D printing, and a variety of methods to produce food safe products with common 3D printing processes, including stereolithography (SLA), fused deposition modeling (FDM), and selective laser sintering (SLS).
No Formlabs resins are food safe unless users take additional steps.
How to Choose a 3D Printing Technology
Having trouble finding the best 3D printing technology for your needs? In this video guide, we compare FDM, SLA, and SLS technologies across popular buying considerations.
What Does Food Safe Really Mean?
To begin, it’s important to clarify a few key terms:
- Food grade means that the material is either safe for human consumption or permitted to come in contact with food.
- Food safe means that a food grade material meets the requirements determined by the intended use and will not create a food-safety hazard.
- Food contact surfaces include any surface that may come into direct contact with food. These surfaces must be made of nontoxic materials and designed to withstand the environment of their intended use, including exposure to cleaning compounds, sanitizing agents, and cleaning procedures.
Food grading and food safety concern a specific way to ingest parts, called migration. Particles as small as a few nanometers and up to several hundred nanometers may get transferred each time various materials encounter with each other, for example from components of the 3D printer to the 3D printed object, and from the object to the food.
Because migration levels are very low on occasional contact, food grading typically concerns items that are in prolonged contact with food such as containers, straws, utensils, plates, and food molds. Different testing institutions will adhere to different government-imposed risk tolerances and approved substances, which for the US is described by the FDA CFR 21 and for the EU in guidelines 10/2011.
Look for these labels indicating FDA and EU approval. Beware that a material being ‘compliant with’ doesn’t mean that it is explicitly approved by the institutions, so always check the technical datasheets for a certificate.
To be considered food safe according to the FDA Food Code, a material has to meet the following requirements:
- No migration of deleterious substances
- Does not impart colors, odors, or tastes
- Safe under normal use conditions
- Durable, corrosion-resistant, and nonabsorbent
- Sufficient in weight to withstand repeated washing
- Finished to have a smooth, easily cleanable surface without breaks and sharp internal angles
- Resistant to pitting, chipping, crazing, scratching, scoring, distortion, and decomposition
- Accessible to inspection
Any FDA or EU approved material includes not only the raw polymer but also the additives or masterbatch. These might contain components such as plasticizers, impact and heat distortion modifiers, UV-stabilizers, flame retardants, anti-fouling, anti-static, anti-slip, foaming and clarifying agents, anti-oxidants, aromatic nucleators, carbon alloys, phosphorescents, fillers, thickeners, chain extenders, metal deactivators, dyes, and a carrier resin.
General Food Safe 3D Printing Considerations
A 3D printed part can turn into a petri dish squirming with bacteria within weeks. Even though some materials will survive the dishwasher, so will dangerous bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella that live in the little nooks and crannies. Some toxic molds find favorable growth conditions on several types of plastic and are hard to remove. Neither cleaning with bleach nor microwaving your polymers is an option for eliminating germs.
While bacteria buildup might not be an issue for disposable items, if you’re planning to create a part for long-term use, using a food safe coating is highly recommended.
Food Safe Coatings and Sealants
The best option to reduce the risk of particle migration and bacteria buildup is by dip coating the 3D printed parts with a food grade epoxy or polyurethane resin, such as Masterbond’s EP42HT-2FG or ArtResin or an FDA approved PTFE (known as Teflon®) to seal their surface.
However, note that coating also doesn’t guarantee food safety for prolonged use as not all of these coatings are dishwasher safe, and they may degrade over time, exposing the original, potentially non-safe surface.
Most 3D printing materials have a low heat deflection temperature (HDT), which means that the 3D printed parts might become brittle and crack, or deform and warp at elevated temperatures. If you’re planning to clean a 3D printed part in a dishwasher, make sure to double check that the material is dishwasher safe and if there are any specific recommendations for washing temperature.
Food Safe Equipment
As particles might migrate from components of a 3D printer to 3D printed parts, it is crucial that any components that might come in contact with the 3D printing material or the part are food grade and do not contain or leach harmful chemicals.
This includes taking precautions when using multiple materials, as some materials previously used in the 3D printer might have contained toxic particles and made contact with some components.
Food Safe 3D Printing Materials
Many 3D printing materials are not food safe and might contain toxic chemicals. Only use materials to 3D print parts intended for food contact that are certified for food safety.
Food Contact Time
As may be expected, the risk of migration is higher if the food is exposed to the 3D printed part for an extended time period. In general, try to limit food contact time and take further precautions for parts that will be in contact with food for longer periods of time.
Using 3D Printing to Create Food Contact Items
Think about the reason why you’d like to use 3D printing for a food contact item. If it’s to create custom shapes and forms, in most cases, there are indirect ways to use 3D printing to create these custom parts, for example with molding. See an example in the next section.
Food Safe 3D Printing With Stereolithography (SLA)
SLA 3D printing uses a laser to cure liquid resin into hardened plastic in a process called photopolymerization, resulting in parts that have the highest resolution and accuracy, the clearest details, and the smoothest surface finish of all plastic 3D printing technologies.
Is resin food safe? The answer is no. Substances may migrate from SLA parts which makes none of the resins and printed parts food safe by default. While some resins for dental and medical applications are certified biocompatible, that doesn’t mean that they’re food safe. These materials are certified for specific applications and should not be used for food contact products.
SLA parts have a smooth surface finish that makes it easier to use coatings to seal their surface and prevent the buildup of bacteria. The factors which affect the ultimate smoothness of a part include resin type, layer thickness, build orientation, mesh triangulation resolution of the 3D model, and the curing profile of the SLA resin. Printed parts require washing and post-curing according to the manufacturer's instructions before the coating is applied. However, note that coatings don’t guarantee food safety, as the coating may interact with the resin or degrade over time, exposing the original, potentially non-safe surface.
Introduction to 3D Printing With Desktop Stereolithography (SLA)
Looking for a 3D printer to realize your 3D models in high resolution? Download our white paper to learn how SLA printing works and why it's the most popular 3D printing process for creating models with incredible details.
Creating custom molds is a common way to leverage the benefits of SLA 3D printing to produce highly detailed custom parts without having the 3D printing parts come into direct contact with food. While SLA 3D prints aren’t suitable for directly molding foods, (SLA) resin 3D printers are perfect tools to create mold negatives, which can be vacuum formed using food safe plastic.
The tools and techniques for creating 3D printed food molds are easy to master, and the results are often stunning.
3D printed molds for thermoforming and silicone enabled the creation of unique shapes and designs.
Learn more about creating molds for vacuum forming in our in-depth tutorial.
Electroplating is the process of coating parts with metal using an electric current. The process is most commonly used for decorative purposes or to prevent corrosion by creating a durable surface.
SLA parts are ideal for electroplating due to their smooth surface finish. However, as plastics are nonconductive surfaces, SLA 3D prints have to be rendered conductive by coating with graphite, conductive lacquer, electroless plate, or a vaporized coating.
Food safe metal coatings are available, but as the process involves various chemicals, making sure that the workflow is approved for food contact is the developer’s own liability.
SLA 3D printing offers the unique possibility to produce ceramic parts. After 3D printing, parts can be fired in a kiln to burn out the resin and form a true ceramic part that is strong and heat-resistant. With subsequent food safe glazing, the parts will become more hygienic and resistant to most chemicals.
A variety of food safe glazes are available on the market, but make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions in accordance with food safety guidelines.
3D printing in ceramics is ideal for fabricating complex geometries that wouldn’t be possible by hand.
Food Safe 3D Printing With Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
FDM is a 3D printing process that builds parts by melting and extruding thermoplastic filament, which a print nozzle deposits layer by layer in the build area.
The extruded material is circular in cross-section, which leaves very narrow crevices in between layers with a depth directly proportional to layer height. It is recommended in any case to print at the lowest feasible layer height for food safe parts.
Consequently, the main challenge with FDM parts is avoiding the buildup of bacteria. To be truly food safe in the long term, an FDM 3D print needs to have a smooth surface. Chemical smoothing with solvents like acetone, d-Limonene, or ethyl acetate removes many of the irregularities of the print resulting in a smooth, glossy appearance. However, applying a subsequent food safe coating is still highly recommended.
Layers showing on FDM (left) and SLA (right) 3D prints.
Food grade filaments do not contain any composite particles so will not wear down the nozzle into the print. Nevertheless, avoid brass nozzles that contain lead and use a dedicated stainless steel nozzle instead for all food contact items.
Always check the compatibility of your 3D printer’s components with the filament. For example, PEI is a material that is FDA compliant and offers great mechanical benefits but needs to be processed at over 300 °C, which requires a specific printer solution.
Food Safe FDM Materials (Food Safe 3D Printer Filaments)
The most common questions around FDM food safety concern two popular materials. Is PLA food safe? Is ABS food safe? The answer is, it depends.
Food safe 3D printing filaments include PLA, PP, co-polyester, PET, PET-G, HIPS, and nylon-6, as well as some brands of ABS, ASA, and PEI. Having to run parts through the dishwasher rules out PET, nylon, and PLA because these plastics soften and distort around 60–70 °C. For applications involving hot liquids, co-polyester, High Temperature PLA or PEI are most suited.
While not reflected in the regulations, some studies suspect that polystyrene may leach styrenes, co-polyesters might cause health concerns and that food grade FDM filaments might lose their safe status due to oxidation and thermal degradation from the printing process.
|Filament||Brand||FDA||EU||Smoothable||Dishwasher safe||Hot liquids|
|ABS||Adwire PRO||Approved||NA||Yes, acetone||Yes||Yes|
|Innofil3D||Approved except red, orange, and pink||Approved except red, orange, and pink||Yes, acetone||Yes||Yes|
|Bendlay||Orbi-Tech||NA||Compliant||Yes, brake cleaner||No||No|
|Nylon||Taulman Nylon 680||Compliant||NA||No||No|
|PET||InnoPet EPR||Approved except red and orange||Approved except red and orange||Yes, ethyl acetate||No||No|
|Refil||Approved||NA||Yes, ethyl acetate||No||No|
|Taulman T-Glase||Approved||NA||Yes, ethyl acetate||No||No|
|Verbatim||Compliant||NA||Yes, ethyl acetate||No||No|
|PET-G||Extrudr MF||NA||Approved||Yes, ethyl acetate||No||No|
|HDGlass||Approved||Approved||Yes, ethyl acetate||No||No|
|Innofil3D||Approved except red, orange, pink, apricot skin, grey, and magenta||Approved except red, orange, pink, apricot skin, grey, and magenta||No||No||No|
|Copper3D PLActive Antibacterial||Approved||Compliant||No||No||No|
|SBS||Filamentarno||NA||Approved only in Russia||Yes, d-limonene||Yes||Yes|
Note: Please note that data in this table is subject to change.
Food Safe 3D Printing With Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
Selective Laser Sintering is a 3D printing process that use a high-powered laser to fuse small particles of polymer powder. The most common material for laser sintering is nylon, a popular engineering thermoplastic with excellent mechanical properties.
While some SLS powders are graded food safe, the particles on the surface of printed parts might not fuse completely, resulting in parts that are inherently porous and do not deal well with moisture and mold growth. Even though the nylon 12 powder can be steam cleaned in an autoclave, it is best to coat SLS parts with food safe coatings to seal their surface.
A common post-processing step for SLS parts is dying. But note that after an SLS part has been dyed, the dye may leach into the printed part which renders the item not food safe.
Introduction to Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) 3D Printing
Looking for a 3D printer to create strong, functional parts? Download our white paper to learn how SLS printing works and why it's a popular 3D printing process for functional prototyping and end-use production.
Conclusion and Further Reading
Food safety with 3D printing is not a simple matter that will boil down to a clear yes or no answer. Producing 3D printed parts for food contact items requires careful consideration of the risks depending on their intended use.
For further information on food safety and 3D printing, we recommend reading the following: