When I set out to buy my first sex toy, I was not an educated shopper. All I knew was that (1) I wanted to purchase from a brick-and-mortar store, so that I could actually see the size of the toy in front of me. And (2) I wanted something cheap, because I had no idea if I would actually like it. Needless to say, I wasted a lot of money on cheaply made and potentially dangerous shit. I’ve had the coating of vibrators begin to flake and fall off. I’ve had a couple of toys get mysterious dark stains, which I now know were probably signs of mold. One bullet that I bought only lasted about 5 minutes before it over-heated to the point that it completely fried the battery components. And I’ve experienced some mild vaginal burning from a toy that later started to disintegrate in a puddle of it’s own goo.
I now know that in a society where almost everything is government regulated, sex toys are not. There are no government laboratories testing your dildos to make sure that they will not cause chemical burn or that your anal plug has a base wide enough to not get lost in your colon. Instead, most sex toy companies can choose to label their items as “novelties,” meaning that if they aren’t officially made for use, it doesn’t matter how unsafe they are. It also means that companies can get away with not disclosing what their products are made from — or even flat-out lying about it.
There are many individuals in the sex positive community (including educators, bloggers, shop owners, quality toy manufacturers, etc) who are aware of this and are advocating for change. However, the vast majority of the masses are still uninformed. There is a stigma surrounding sex toy use — even though 52.5% of women and 44.8% of men have reported using a vibrator alone or with a partner. People are hesitant to talk about their sex toys, even if their experience has been a positive one. But what about if their experience was painful or they became physically ill? As a wonderful fellow sex blogger once said…
I mean.. if someone can’t talk about their sex life with friends.. They don’t want a 12″ jelly “dong” on display as Exhibit A in court.
— Mr. Will (@MrWills_HoT) September 16, 2014
Generally speaking, there are two things that can make a sex toy unsafe: porosity and toxicity.
Porosity simply means that the material has pores (tiny holes which allow liquid or air to pass through). For a sex toy, which comes into contact with bodily fluids and sensitive mucous membranes time and time again, the major concern of porosity is the growth of bacteria. Over time, mildew, mold, and fungus can all start growing on and inside of these toys. (This is especially likely if they are not washed straight away or if they are not thoroughly dry before being stored.) Because they essentially absorb what they come into contact with, porous toys cannot be shared. They cannot be used both vaginally and anally. And they cannot be used while experiencing any sort of genital infection.
It’s important to realize that even if you wash a porous toy, you will have not removed the chance of introducing harmful bacteria to your body. There is no way to completely clean or sterilize a porous sex toy. Therefore, to minimize risk, using a condom with these toys is recommended.
There seems to be some recent controversy over using the term “toxic.” Some say that it scares individuals who are not knowledgeable about sex toys and shames those who own unsafe ones. Others, like myself, believe that ugly practices deserve ugly words and that consumers need to know the truth.
A toy may be “toxic” for a variety of reasons. Phthalates (chemicals added to plastics to make them softer and more flexible) usually get the most attention. Phthalates “off-gas” into their environment, meaning that they are released into the air that you breathe. If you’ve ever gotten a headache from the strong odor of a new vinyl shower curtain or that “new car smell,” you’ve got phthalates to thank. If phthalates are in a sex toy (which comes into contact with mucous membranes of the genitalia), they could also leach into your body and/or cause skin irritation. (Research is lacking on whether condoms can provide adequate protection.)
Research is ongoing about the potential harmful effects of these chemicals. It appears that with high levels of exposure, some phthalates may be linked to liver/kidney damage as well as negative effects on neurological & reproductive health. One specific phthalate that has been found in sex toys, Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (or DEHP), “may reasonably be anticipated to be a human carcinogen” according to the Department of Health & Human Services. Because of this risk, many countries (including the U.S.) have banned children’s toys that include more than 0.1% DEHP in their chemical make-up. Now compare that to the 63% that a Berlin laboratory found in a vibrator.
Unfortunately, phthalates and leaky toys aren’t even the only things we have to worry about. In 2006, the Dutch EPA found arsenic, antimony, lead, & cadmium in the sex toys that they tested. I don’t know about you, but I find that very disturbing.
Which materials are body-safe and which should you avoid?
I’ll do individual posts on these materials in the future, but for now, here is a basic breakdown.
Non-Porous & Non-Toxic
- ABS/Hard plastic
- Glass, Ceramic, & Sealed Wood (However, not all ceramic glazes or wood finishes are body safe.)
- Stainless Steel & Aluminum
Questionable or Dangerous
- Thermoplastic Rubber or Elastomer (TPR/TPE)
- Usually free of phthalates, but can be porous or non-porous (medical grade).
- “Realistic” materials (ex: Cyberskin)
- Porous & may contain phthalates.
- PVC, Rubber, Latex, & “Jelly”
- Porous & usually contains phthalates.
It’s important to know that these cheaply made toys from the bottom section are also often unstable and can begin to break-down within a short amount of time. They may develop an oily or greasy sheen on the outside of the toy or even drastically melt (especially when in contact with similar toys). If you want to see some disgusting examples, check out Dangerous Lilly’s, BadVibes’, and BexTalksSex’s jars of melted toys.
Remember that toy companies can and do lie. Even if product packaging or an online description says that a toy is silicone or “phthalates free,” it may not be. And many items sold cheaply on marketplaces such as Amazon turn out to be unsafe counterfeits. Before you buy, do your research on the manufacturer and the retailer. There are many amazing companies out there who are dedicated to producing and selling body-safe products and, in my opinion, those are the ones that deserve our money and support.