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The Trouble With Toxic Sex Toys

A row of dildos

Glass sex toys on display at Babeland's Seattle store. Photo by Mollusa.

There’s a trust inherent in buying something from a store. If it’s for sale, it must be safe. While that’s mostly true in many industries in America, it’s not the case for one surprising sector: sex toys.

As a sex educator who specializes in sex toys and material safety, I have talked often with bloggers, educators, manufacturers, and retail store owners about toxic sex toys. This is a big issue that is only just beginning to gain traction beyond the murmurs that have been happening within the industry for the past decade or so.

“Most people are shocked to realize that nobody is stopping companies from making sex toys out of whatever materials they want, then labelling them however they please,” laments Epiphora, a snarky sex toy reviewer with six years (and 400 sex toy reviews) of experience. “It upsets me to see people so disillusioned with sex toys.”

If there’s any product customers want to make sure is nontoxic, it’s toys that they’ll be sticking into their most intimate places. But in a society where politicians are uncomfortable hearing the the word vagina, it’s unsurprising that there is little regulation of the adult toy industry and little research into the effects of sex toys and accessories can have on the body. Meanwhile, millions of Americans use sex toys and their acceptance is on the rise, with a 2009 study showing that 52.5 percent of American women have used a vibrator. 

Manufacturers aren’t required to care about the toxicity of their toys. Although many sex toys are designed to be used internally, they’re not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration like medical-grade products. Instead, sex toys are considered “for novelty use only,” and manufacturers can fill dildos, vibrators, and cock rings with materials that are known to be harmful and that are regulated in other industries. They can be shaped in ways that are at best unpleasurable for implied use.

This was a serious enough issue for the Danish Environmental Protection Agency to take it on. In 2005, they randomly chose 16 sex toys and tested their chemical composition. Four had phthalates, a component of plastic that is banned from kids’ toys in the United States and EU because it has been linked to birth defects and changes in hormone levels. One of the sex toys also had trimethhyltin chloride, five contained phenol, and 14 contained toluene, all of which are chemicals on the California governor’s list of chemicals that are cancerous or cause reproductive harm.  

“Chemicals illegal in pet toys and playthings for children are permitted in items designed for internal use,” says sex blogger and educator Lorax of Sex. “The companies are making these for use, and they need to be held to some sort of health and safety standards.”

Sometimes people using adult toys have reactions to these things—like chemical burns, itching, upper respiratory irritation—while others are exposing themselves to dangerous chemicals without immediate negative reactions. While many doctors often do not realize that the people complaining of irritation might be having these problems due to caustic sex toys, retailers and educators have been hearing about it for years.

“The story we often hear is from customers who have purchased cheap jelly dildos or vibrators, only to find the toy would cause severe burning and itching,” says Laura Anne Stuart, educator and owner of The Tool Shed, a feminist boutique adult store in Milwaukee.

Since the industry is unregulated, the burden of making sure sex toys are safe falls on retailers and consumers themselves. Some manufacturers and retailers have made it part of their mission to make sure the adult products they sell are safe. Blogger The Redhead Bedhead compiled a list of 17 “superhero shops” that guarantee they sell high quality, body-safe products and some stores, like Minneapolis' Smitten Kitten, overtly state that they sell only "nontoxic toys." Babeland, which has stores in Seattle and New York, says they spent years seeking out sex toys and lubes that they could make sure were safe. By 2009, they had eliminated all products with phthalates from their stores.

An array of glass dildos around a big heart

A Valentine's window display at Babeland's Seattle store. Photo via The Stranger.

Sex stores that strive to sell only body-safe products are frustrated that manufacturers are not required to accurately label all the ingredients in their toys. Some companies mislabel poor quality products while using buzzwords like “silicone” even if a toy isn’t pure silicone. Unfortunately, running actual tests on the materials of products is expensive. Upstart sex toy testing group Dildology (slogan: “In Dildo Veritas”) has recently started sending sex toys in for lab tests to determine their chemical makeup, shelling out $200-400 per test and publicly reporting the results. The manufacturer of the “James Deen Realistic” dildo that got Dildology’s “stamp of failure” in May took the time to rebut the group’s testing and declare its product safe.  

Instead of being able to test products themselves, stores and consumers have to rely on know-how that is accrued over years and deal strictly with companies known to be trustworthy while avoiding companies that have gotten a bad reputation.

“We did a lot of research before we opened and we really limit the companies that we deal with to ones that we trust and have relationships with. It's really the less expensive toys from the big manufacturers that you need to worry about the most,” says Evy Cowan, one of the co-owners of She Bop in Portland.  “We don't trust the softer materials from those bigger manufacturers because they can say whatever they want about what it's made of and it doesn't have to be true, which is extremely frustrating.”

To test whether a product is actually made of 100 percent silicone, sex toy retailers and reviewers have created an usual test: sticking the sex toy into a flame. If it’s pure silicone, the sex toy under investigation will just become smudged with black and can easily be cleaned. If it’s not pure, it will start to melt.

A client of She Bop holds a match to a silicone dildo

She Bop employee Wyatt Riot "flame tests" a silicone dildo—luckily, the dildo passed the test. 

Flame testing is not 100 percent accurate—read more about the test before you try it yourself. 

“I personally only really trust my silicone to companies who deal exclusively in silicone,” says Lorax of Sex. “The giant companies who made their names hawking jelly toys who are now labelling things as ‘phthalate free’ ‘silicone grade’ and such? I don’t trust them.”

The most obvious sign that the adult toy industry is largely unregulated is the “For Novelty Use Only” notice many manufacturers put on the packaging of their adult toys. While many consumers think this shields companies from liability, sex toy reviewer Dangerous Lilly believes the label is more of a relic than a successful way to prevent lawsuits or as a sign to consumers that the product could be unsafe. “It's done to show that it's not a product that would fall under ‘medical use’ which involves the FDA,” says Dangerous Lilly, who blogged about this topic. “Since the warning can appear on any sex toy, and has appeared on brands that we know are trustworthy, I don't feel it has any bearing on the accountability of the company.”

Even at a reliable store, there is still no guarantee that a sex toy you buy will be safe. The final burden falls on sex toy consumers to determine as much as possible whether a product they’re buying is safe.  Talk to reputable, honest reviewers who speak openly about materials.

It’s important for people who use sex toys to get some knowledge about the products you’re getting off with. Learn about safe materials: silicone, glass, metal, specially treated wood, ABS hard plastic, and ceramic—all of which are non-porous and hypoallergenic if made by an honest company, and able to be sterilized. We need to have all-inclusive sex education that gives us the knowledge to have conversations with partners and ourselves for a healthy relationship with our sexuality, and since this isn’t readily available right now in public education systems, it’s something we have to seek out for ourselves. With a lack of standards and widespread education, many sex toy lovers, like reviewer Dangerous Lilly and myself, make lists of companies we trust.

Sex toys are called toys for a reason—they should be fun and carefree; there isn’t much that’s less sexy than itching and burning when you’re trying to relax and have a good time. But don’t hold your breath waiting for reform from above.

“When our society no longer sees dildos and vibrators and buttplugs as ‘weird’ or ‘abnormal’ or ‘dirty’ then we can start to see the honest health based discussions that need to happen,” says Lorax of Sex. “Then people might be more likely to step forward and take the steps towards legal action to get some regulation within the industry.”

Check out the illustrated sex toy review series that runs on Bitch: Oh Joy Sex Toy. Read the full interviews that informed this article over at Sexational.  


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Comments

26 comments have been made. Post a comment.

ABS Plastic

ABS plastic is actually not porous-- albeit the pores are very small. Medical grade plastic or engineer grade plastic are non-porous, however.

Medical grade hard plastics

Medical grade hard plastics are considered non-porous but ABS is slightly porous....when we've been talking about sex toys, though, we generally aren't really talking about porosity which needs to be a topic.

For years I've assumed ABS was non-porous. All it takes, in this industry, is for one or two sites to declare a "fact" about a material and you will then spend the next 7 years dispelling that "fact", for by the 2 year mark hundreds of sites have copied the information. From the research I've done, it looks like ABS is slightly porous....but it's like silicone, in that regard. High quality silicone is considered safe and non-porous but it does have minute pores. It's just not big enough to grow bacteria, mold, mildew, etc. I cannot be certain just yet if the pores in ABS plastic are small enough to discourage bacterial growth, but they are small enough to prevent mildew and mold spores making their home in the material. I've seen softer silicones retain a stain from hardy dyes (leather dye is the most common thing I've seen transfer over) and ABS plastic has also shown to stain from dye transfer in the right conditions.

This can be the case since

This can be the case since sex toys are being sold on the online markets, but under no control. Some are good, and some are bad. Make sure the quality is good so that the users can be safe from the negative effects. As I know that this can be the best case to go to real shop or ask advices from friends to see if they can give good advices about quality ones.

What about PU coating?

What you write is very interesting. I've been wondering over porosity of classic ABS vibes that are often coated in a thin layer of some softer material to create drag. I've noticed staining and won't use them anally without a condom (and my gf holding the base firmly).

Do you not have safe (as in

Do you not have safe (as in the base, not necessarily the materials... You already know about materials) anal toys?

Medical grade plastics

Currently, the only major companies that primarily use medical grade plastic for their external plastic components are Aneros (prostate toys, some with silicone and some medical grade plastic only) and Fun Factory (the bases of many of their vibes are medical grade). Hard plastics are relatively safe options, and keep the prices down for consumers. The reality is that there are going to be customers who do not have the $80 to spend on a silicone toy, so cheaper toys & materials are going to be present for a long time, until better quality materials become universally used. As a retailer (I manage an adult shop), we try to educate folks about what they're purchasing, and tell them what the range of options are - then let them make the decision that is right for them.

Phthallus!

Phthallus!

Denmark is so feminist and

Denmark is so feminist and badass they even police their sex toys. Smart money here says just order your goodies from Danish companies.

Actually, to my knowledge,

Actually, to my knowledge, there are no companies working out of Denmark- and most companies do manufacturing in China regardless of where they're located. The EU has some pretty good regulations in place currently (which Metis Black of Tantus talks about a little bit in this interview I did with her: http://sex-ational.com/toxic-toys-interview-series-metis-black-ceo-of-ta...) but the only companies actually /manufacturing/ in the EU that I'm aware of (that are available in the states) are Fun Factory which is in Germany, Babes'n'Horny, out of London, and BS Atelier (aka BS is Nice) out of Madrid, the two latter being small (3 or 4 people) groups making hand-poured and beautiful 100% silicone sex toys. Fun Factory is definitely larger scale and easily found in the US and elsewhere.

There are also some baller companies working out of the US- manufacturing and all- like Tantus (Nevada), Crystal Delights (New Hampshire), Vixen Creations (California), Fucking Sculptures (CA), Divine Interventions (CA I think), Vamp Silicone (Can't remember where), Nobessences, and I'm sure many other small ones I can't think of off the top of my head. Also Happy Valley/Fuze Silicone, which is out of Toronto. All of these are pretty awesome companies that have good, body safe products.

THAT is exactly what you

THAT is exactly what you should do ;-)

When I was a broke college

When I was a broke college student, I bought cheap sex toys of dubious quality because that's what I could afford at the time. I didn't know any better. There were no sex toy review blogs or even headlines back then to warn me about unsafe products. All I saw was the $10 price tag and felt joy that I could finally afford my very own sex toy. Needless to say, the metallic paint on the $10 vibrator started wearing away after a few uses and broke within the year. Yes, I kept using it after it started losing paint. I was young, stupid, and inexperienced at the time.

I bring up this embarrassing tale now because I imagine there are many other young adults are in a similar situation. They want to experiment with toys but get sticker shock when they see the prices of the good toys, so they buy a cheap "starter" product unaware of the health concerns. It's not like anyone sits you down as a teen and says, "Now if you ever want to buy a sex toy, stick to these materials and companies." I can't blame them for their ignorance. I can't even blame the quality sex toy manufacturers for charging as much as they do because quality isn't cheap.

What I would like to see is more mainstream attention on this issue. More news headlines. Educational posters in the doctor's office. Pamphlets next to the free condoms at health clinics. Ideally, a quick lecture about it in sex ed, but I realize that is asking for too much. We need to reach out to those people who don't research their toys before buying. They shouldn't be punished with health problems because of their inexperience.

When I was a broke college

When I was a broke college student, I bought cheap sex toys of dubious quality because that's what I could afford at the time. I didn't know any better. There were no sex toy review blogs or even headlines back then to warn me about unsafe products. All I saw was the $10 price tag and felt joy that I could finally afford my very own sex toy. Needless to say, the metallic paint on the $10 vibrator started wearing away after a few uses and broke within the year. Yes, I kept using it after it started losing paint. I was young, stupid, and inexperienced at the time.

I bring up this embarrassing tale now because I imagine there are many other young adults are in a similar situation. They want to experiment with toys but get sticker shock when they see the prices of the good toys, so they buy a cheap "starter" product unaware of the health concerns. It's not like anyone sits you down as a teen and says, "Now if you ever want to buy a sex toy, stick to these materials and companies." I can't blame them for their ignorance. I can't blame the quality sex toy manufacturers for charging as much as they do because quality isn't cheap.

What I would like to see is more mainstream attention on this issue. More news headlines. Educational posters in the doctor's office. Pamphlets next to the free condoms at health clinics. Ideally, a quick lecture about it in sex ed, but I realize that is asking for too much. We need to reach out to those people who don't research their toys before buying. They shouldn't be punished with health problems because of their inexperience.

i just had to comment before

i just had to comment before i even could finish reading ... "if it's for sale, it must be safe... while that's mostly true in many industries in america.." i think there was a significant typo here ... mostly UNtrue. ok. now i can finish.

alternative to toxic toys

This is exactly why my friend Kim Marks toy shop here in your very own PDX is so amazing: http://asyoulikeitpdx.com/

Firstly I want to say, thanks

Firstly I want to say, thanks for running a great magazine. I'm so glad there is a local source for insightful articles on women's issues.

This is an extremely interesting and important issue I am glad you have focused on. While I believe it is essential for consumers to know their retailers when it comes to these products, I would love to see articles like this go further. What can we as citizens do besides be well informed? Have there been any local or national campaigns surrounding this? I'd love more resources on how/who I could lobby to get this changed.

Thanks.

I wonder if there is a change.org petition for this

...because if there isn't someone knowledgeable like the Lorax of Sex should totally file one to the FDA or to the companies who have sub par products detailing all the negative symptoms of using lower quality or cheaper materials in sex toys.
I would totally sign the petition, though I don't know enough about the topic to write and start one myself.

We-Vibe vibrator are safe to use :)

If you are unsure which sex toy there are safe to use!

Sex toy from We-vibe are safe to use, their vibrator is made of medical silicone and I can definitely recommend the We-Vibe vibrator, as I have had very good experiences with their vibrator.

Danish:
Hvis du er usikker på hvilket sexlegetøj der er sikker at bruge, så er Sexlegetøj fra We-Vibe sikker at bruge, da deres vibrator er lavet af medicinsk silikone. Jeg kan absolut anbefale We-Vibe sexlegetøj, da jeg selv har haft rigtig gode oplevelser med deres par-vibratorer. Læs mere om sikker sexlegetøj fra We-Vibe her!

I can confirm this, and also

I can confirm this, and also that they have a pretty good variety. I personally can recommend the Touch

Nice to see an article

Nice to see an article addressing this issue which most people probably don't even think about. But injuries like this do happen which is why the public needs to be well informed. There's a great new adult novelty toy that I started using that is both safe and enjoyable called Headboard Handlebars which is great for vigorous activity and enjoyment. Plus it's nice to know I can have fun and be safe at the same time.

Sex Toys For Men

Hi thanks for this blog sharing. It is true that Toxic toys contain PVC plastics with “phthalates” (pronounced tha-lates), which help to soften the toys. Greenpeace has called on the European Union to ban the use of phthalates in adult novelties, as they have already banned them in toys for children. The latest research indicates that exposure to these substances can upset the body’s ability to regulate hormone production, damage reproduction, and can cause liver and kidney defects. They can also possibly cause cancer?

Toxic in sex toys in very

Toxic in sex toys in very dangerous to our body, we should always check the label first before buying. Prevention is better than cure.

Really?

Is everything in this country a damn crisis? Get a life.

"Crisis"

Oh you know, unknowingly exposing your body to toxic chemicals, companies exploiting loopholes to knowingly make toxic things because it's cheaper and they aren't required to try and make them safe, putting chemicals that are illegal to even use in pet toys into things that humans expose their bodies to— and no one even being told about all this because sex education is often lacking in America and the fact politicians (and much of our society) are too uncomfortable with the topic of sexuality to even mention it is all totally acceptable, right?
People are just making a "damn crisis" out of everything, right?
Rashes, itching, and chemical burns are no big deal, right?

In addition to the concerns

In addition to the concerns the previous anon mentioned, I'm also concerned about the issues with reproductive health. My husband and I tried for years to conceive, and we finally did when we were about ready to give up. I'm due in April and we couldn't be happier.

However, I'm now concerned that 10+ years of cheap toys may have unknowingly contributed to our problems. I knew to look for ones made of silicone or hard plastic, but if they're labeled silicone and aren't actually, how is a consumer supposed to know? It's especially true when my husband and I started buying these toys before there were any major review sites for them, and asking around to friends got us sent to the same stores and the same products we ended up purchasing.

I'm a habitual label reader because I'm chemical sensitive, even when it comes to makeup I wear and food I eat. I should be able to expect that labeling is forthright and honest.

Symbols

When me and my GF buy sex toys we always look for symbols that illustrate if the product contains any dangerous materials. My GF is very sensitive which makes us extra careful.

This is so damn important

And this explains so much! I bought two cheap dildos from a shop years ago. I was a student and poor, so I was excited to see some in my price range. I always had problems with them, despite cleaning them thoroughly and using a lubricant I had checked was safe. I had constant thrush and urinary tract infections that would always come on after I'd used them. When this pattern became obvious to me, I threw them away (it took me years to realise the correlation). Now my husband and I were wanting to start a family but something went wrong with my monthly cycle. I went to the doctor and discovered I have hyper prolactonemia. I am now on medication to regulate my prolactin levels back to the normal range. I can't say whether the sex toys actually caused this, but it came on after years of using them, and after reading this article I am seriously side-eyeing those damned dildos that caused me so many problems!