What is in a stress ball

Deborah C. Escalante

Originally squeezing balls made of polyurethane foam was supposed to counter stress. Feeling anxious? For relief, just compress a “stress ball” and then watch it slowly expand back to its original size. At least so went the ads. But now for some parents, squeezing polyurethane foam is creating stress. Their kids are collecting and squeezing “squishies,” the latest and hottest toy. These are an offspring of stress balls and come in numerous sizes and shapes like ice cream cones, cupcakes, animals and fruits of all kinds. Some squishies are even scented. Squeeze the strawberry shortcake and smell the berries! And that’s where the problem lies. That berry may not be the only scent that these squishies are giving off.

Both stress balls and squishies are made of polyurethane, a “polymer” that forms when its component “monomers,” namely isocyanates and polyols, are linked together into long chains. However, there is a great deal of complex chemistry behind that simple description. First, there are diverse isocyanates and polyols that can be used. Then there are the foaming agents, solvents, catalysts, surfactants, cross-linking chemicals, dyes and fire retardants that are involved in producing the final product. Depending on the extent of care taken during the manufacturing process, it is possible that some of these chemicals remain in the product and then “outgas”, or in simple terms give off gas. It isn’t unusual for polyurethane materials to have a smell until the residues dissipate. But until they do, they can have an effect on health.

People have complained about smells emanating from polyurethane mattresses causing headaches and breathing problems and now squishies are being accused of doing the same. One mother tells of her young daughter experiencing hallucinations after sleeping with the toys. The little girl believed that the pictures of cats on her wall were watching her and that her dresser was alive! She had nightmares and disturbed sleep until the squishies were removed and the was house aired out.

There is no question that polyurethane products can emit potentially harmful chemicals. The Danish Environmental Protection Agency tested a number of squishies and found they were releasing toluene, styrene and dimethylformamide. Given the complexity of polyurethane formulations, there are probably a lot more chemicals that can outgas. I can vouch for that.

Just to see what the internet commotion surrounding squishies was all about, I ordered a bunch. Some were small, others, like a watermelon, approximated the size of the real thing. I left the opened package on my desk. It wasn’t long before I had to put it outside because of the overwhelming smell. Gave me a headache. Interestingly enough, the package that the watermelon squishy came in does come with a giant “Do Not Eat!” warning. I doubt anyone would be tempted to take a bite out of the plastic melon, but there are some squishies that are small enough to present a choking hazard for children. That may have parents reaching for their stress balls.


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A stress ball in the shape of a globe

A stress ball or hand exercise ball is a malleable toy, usually not more than 7 cm in diameter, which is squeezed in the hand and manipulated by the fingers, ostensibly to relieve stress and muscle tension or to exercise the muscles of the hand. Patrick Hummel is widely understood to have created the stress ball in central Indiana in the mid-1980s.

Despite the name, many stress balls are not spherical. Some are molded in amusing shapes, and pad- or transfer-printed with corporate logos. They may be presented to employees and clients of companies as promotional gifts. Because of the many non-spherical shapes now available, stress balls are generically known as stress relievers.





A selection of foam-rubber stress relievers

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There are several different types of stress balls that originate from many different countries. The most common type of stress ball in America is the “bean bag” type, commonly known as a “Hacky Sack”. In Australia, most common are the foam type, which prevents stress through resistance from squeezing the ball. Chinese-form balls are known as the Baoding ball; unlike others, these are not squeezable as they are solid and come in pairs, allowing users to roll them together to make a soothing sound and a smooth sensation feeling in one’s hands.[1] They come in many cute shapes and sizes too.

This file represents a type of stress toy in the shape of a football

Some stress relievers are made from closed-cell polyurethane foam rubber. These are made by injecting the liquid components of the foam into a mold. The resulting chemical reaction creates carbon dioxide bubbles as a byproduct, which in turn creates the foam.[2]

Stress balls, especially those used in physical therapy, can also contain gel of different densities inside a rubber or cloth skin. Another type uses a thin rubber membrane surrounding a fine powder. The latter type can be made at home by filling a balloon with baking soda. Some balls similar to a footbag are marketed and used as stress balls.

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measuring the effects of stresses on the material


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It’s not an important decision and it isn’t worth stressing over.

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If you’re looking for a way to relieve stress at home, work, or school, grabbing a stress ball may help.

Close-up image of an orange stress ball being squeezed

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In today’s busy world, stress always seems to creep up, and it can greatly affect your physical and mental health.

Finding ways to cope may help you limit the effects of stress. But when you’re right in the middle of a busy day, it can be tough to sneak away for helpful stress-relieving strategies like meditation, aromatherapy, or taking a walk.

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While their effectiveness hasn’t been proven in scientific research, many people find that squishy, squeezable stress balls help them feel more centered when stress arises.

What are stress balls?

Stress balls are malleable balls designed to help people manage stress. Using a stress ball is simple — just squeeze, squish, or manipulate the ball.

They come in various materials and may help you cope when strong emotions like panic or anger arise. Because they’re small and portable, they’re easy to use in nearly any environment — whether you’re at home or traveling.

Though scientific evidence of their effectiveness is lacking, it doesn’t mean that stress balls won’t work for you.

Criteria we used to pick

With so many stress balls on the market, it can be challenging to sort through them all. To help find the best option and choose our top picks, we focused on:

  • positive customer reviews
  • cost
  • high overall ratings from customers

Also, all selected products have been vetted to ensure they meet Psych Central’s medical, editorial, and business standards.

A note on price

General price ranges with dollar signs ($ to $$$) are included below. One dollar sign means the product is lower priced, whereas three dollar signs mean it’s in a higher price range.

Pricing guide:

  • $ = under $10
  • $$ = $10–$20
  • $$$ = over $20

Our picks of the best stress-relief balls of 2022 

Best for different levels of resistance

Peradix Hand Grip Stress Relief Ball

  • Price: $$
  • Material: Thermoplastic rubber
  • Filling: None

This set of three colorful stress relief balls works for various uses, including:

  • stress relief
  • grip strength training
  • injury rehab

Why we chose it

If you want variety in terms of resistance levels, this set gives you three options. Plus, the set gets rave reviews from customers — over 8,000 four-star+ ratings on Amazon.

What we like

  • The balls offer three levels of resistance — 15, 25, and 30 kilograms (kg).
  • They’re easy to wash in plain water.
  • They’re safe for adults and kids.

What to look out for

  • Some people say they wish they were bigger.
  • The higher resistance balls may be more difficult or too hard to squeeze for some.

Best water bead stress ball

Small Fish Sensory Stress Ball

  • Price: $$$
  • Material: Thermoplastic rubber
  • Filling: Beads and water

This 12-pack of water bead stress balls is great if you’re looking for a specific gel-like feel. The easy-to-clean balls are also small enough for children’s hands (though the product isn’t recommended for children younger than 3 years).

Why we chose it

The small squishy beads are paired with a tiny amount of water to deliver a satisfying feel. Plus, the product gets consistently high ratings from customers.

What we like

  • The balls come with a handy storage box.
  • They’re also BPA-free and covered in a light layer of powder to prevent stickiness.

What to look out for

  • They’re not safe for children under 3 years old because the inner beads pose a choking hazard.

Best stress ball for kids

IMPRESA Stress Relief Balls

  • Price: $$
  • Material: Thermoplastic rubber
  • Filling: None

These squishy rubber balls are ideal for children’s hands because of their small size and safe design. The trio of primary-colored balls is also easy to wash with warm water and gentle dish soap.

Why we chose it

The high quality thermoplastic rubber is BPA-free and durable enough for kids to use.

What we like

  • The balls are stretchy and tear resistant.
  • They have a bounce to them, which may be fun for kids.

What to look out for

  • Some reviewers say they have a sticky texture.
  • Some users find them too hard for their liking.

Best scented stress ball

Lavender Luvies Scented Stress Balls

  • Price: $$$
  • Material: Lycra spandex
  • Filling: Lavender flowers

There’s a reason so many sleep products are infused with lavender. For some, research indicates that the scent of lavender may help ease anxiety and instill a sense of calm in some people.

These scented stress balls contain lavender flowers to help promote relaxation.

Why we chose it

The lavender filling provides a double dose of calm, and reviews are overwhelmingly positive.

What we like

  • The balls are handmade and Fair Trade.
  • They have a pleasant scent.

What to look out for

  • Some people complain of durability issues.

Best stress ball for travel

MEIEST Dumpling Squishy Stress Balls

  • Price: $$
  • Material: Thermoplastic rubber
  • Filling: Gel
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Admittedly, most stress balls are travel-sized. But these adorable dumpling-shaped stress balls include a handy stowaway container for on-the-go use. A gel interior provides a fluid and satisfying squishy feel.

Why we chose it

Each “dumpling” comes with a steamer basket case, making these perfect for travel. The case also keeps the stress ball clean.

What we like

  • Easy to clean with soap and water.
  • Makes a cute and practical gift.

What to look out for

  • They have a strong chemical smell right out of the package.

Best motivational stress ball

KDG Motivational Stress Balls

  • Price: $$
  • Material: Polyurethane
  • Filling: None

We all need a little bit of extra motivation sometimes. This pack of four stress balls features motivational notes to help give you some added pep in your day.

Why we chose it

The motivational words are a nice reminder at times when it may be hard to think positively.

What we like

  • The balls are stain-resistant.
  • They’re also nonstick and easy to wipe clean.
  • The stress balls are lightweight.

What to look out for

  • Some say they’re not moldable enough.

Best sensory stress ball

MONBASA 3D Pop It Ball

  • Price: $
  • Material: Food-grade silicone
  • Filling: None

This combination of stress ball and fidget toy is a sensory delight thanks to its squeezable design and poppable protrusions. Plus, it’s fun and colorful!

Why we chose it

The poppable bumps offer a sensory and audible experience in addition to providing squishable stress relief.

What we like

  • The ball is BPA and latex-free.
  • It’s also easy to clean and doesn’t have a sticky texture.
  • It’s suitable for adults and children.

What to look out for

  • You can only pop two or three bubbles at a time.
  • Some reviewers report that the ball arrived deflated.

Best stretchy stress ball

Fun a Ton Stretchy Balls

  • Price: $
  • Material: Polymer
  • Filling: None

If squishing and squeezing isn’t enough for you, consider this stretchy stress ball that mimics the feel of stretching a ball of dough.

Why we chose it

It has many positive reviews and a unique stretchy design.

What we like

  • The stretchy filling has a feel similar to playdough.
  • It comes in various colors.
  • It’s also budget-friendly.

What to look out for

  • Something to keep in mind is that aside from saying that it’s a “polymer” (something made from joining many small molecules), there’s no mention of what these are made of exactly.
  • You may run into potential durability issues.

How to choose the right stress ball for you

Didn’t find what you were looking for on our list? Here are some tips for finding a stress ball to fit your needs:

  • Is it for you or someone else? A child, for example, may find a smaller ball more comfortable for their tiny hands.
  • Do you have any sensory preferences? Not everyone likes the feeling of rubber. Maybe you prefer something with a softer feel. Stress balls come in varied materials and textures to suit various likes and dislikes.
  • How many do you need? If you plan to use your stress ball at home, at the office, and elsewhere, it might be handy to purchase a pack of stress balls. Many come in multipacks to ensure you always have your coping tool nearby.

Alternatives to stress balls for stress relief

Scientific evidence on the effectiveness of stress balls is limited, but there are plenty of other stress-relieving strategies you could try, including:

  • music
  • a cup of tea
  • meditation
  • coloring books
  • aromatherapy
  • bath products

It’s good to keep in mind that everyone copes with stress differently. What works for you may do nothing for another person and the other way around. But by trying out different strategies, you’re likely to find one that works for you.

When to seek help

Stress-relief products like stress balls may be enough to help you find temporary relief.

Still, if you feel like the stress is ongoing and considerably affecting your quality of life, it may be beneficial to speak with a doctor or mental health professional.

They can help you develop a treatment plan and find additional resources to help manage stress.

Frequently asked questions about stress balls

How do stress balls release stress?

Research on the effectiveness of stress balls is very limited and mixed.

A 2018 clinical trial involving 135 people with skin cancer found that hand squeezing or squeezing a stress ball didn’t do much to alleviate pain or anxiety during skin cancer removal surgery.

But researchers concluded that some people might benefit from using these strategies even if most people don’t.

For instance, a randomized controlled trial from 2020 found that while stress balls didn’t affect vital signs in people receiving dialysis, they did help reduce stress levels.

Still, while squeezing a stress ball won’t magically get rid of all your stress and anxiety, some people find it helps them manage their emotions in the moment.

Are there any other benefits to stress balls?

Research from 2018 noted that squeezing and manipulating a stress ball may help improve grip strength.

Plus, a 2018 study suggests that fidget spinners may help improve fine motor control. Since some stress balls are designed similarly to fidget spinners, they may also do the same. Still, research on this specifically is unavailable.

What’s inside a stress ball?

It depends on the stress ball. Some are made of squishy polyurethane that molds to your hand and bounces back to its original shape. These don’t contain any filling. Others contain gel-like beads.

Let’s recap

While there’s limited evidence suggesting stress balls may reduce stress, many people find them helpful for working through difficult emotions like frustration and panic.

Plus, because stress balls are typically inexpensive, they’re an easy coping mechanism to try out for yourself.

If you’re experiencing chronic stress that’s making it difficult to function, you may find it helpful to talk with a doctor or mental health professional.

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