In the European Community, selected phthalic acid esters (PAE) are restricted in their use for the manufacture of toys and childcare articles to a content of 0.1% by weight. As PAE are mainly used as plasticisers for poly(vinyl chloride) (PVC), a rapid screening method for PVC samples with direct analysis in real time ionisation and single-quadrupole mass spectrometry (DART-MS) was developed. Using the ions for the protonated molecules, a limit of detection (LOD) of 0.05% was obtained for benzyl butyl phthalate, bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate and diisononyl phthalate, while for dibutyl phthalate, di-n-octyl phthalate and diisodecyl phthalate the LOD was 0.1%. Validation of identification by the presence of ammonium adducts and characteristic fragment ions was possible to a content of ≥1% for all PAE, except for benzyl butyl phthalate (≥5%). Based on the fragment ions, bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate could clearly be distinguished from di-n-octyl phthalate, if the concentrations were ≥5% and ≥1% at measured DART helium temperatures of 130 and 310°C, respectively. The complete analysis of one sample only took about 8 min. At the generally used gas temperature of 130°C, most toy and childcare samples did not sustain damage if their shape fitted into the DART source. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.