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How Safe Are Your Toys?
Jennifer Grant

We all know the value of eating organic, getting regular exercise, using holistic medicine and natural remedies, campaigning for the environment, and cutting down on our toxin intake. We also know the importance of healthy sexuality to one’s general well-being. For many, this means incorporating sex toys, lubricants, love potions, and other adult products into their lives. Sex has become more mainstream than ever and, in spite of the abstinence advocates, there’s no stopping it.

Nowadays, there are clean, well-lighted sex toy shops in every large city. Even if you live in the sticks, it’s easy to find a reputable company on the Internet that will deliver sex products discreetly to your door and include a great deal of education on how to use, care for, and clean them. This trend has been developing for the last 10 years, and now the “sex-positive” industry is in full swing. This is great for everyone. It means you no longer have to risk being seen entering that seedy 24 hour XXX store, and the quality and selection of sex products has gone up while prices have dropped.

The problem is, we Americans are evolving sexually as a culture, but not to the point where we’re questioning the standards that go into the manufacture of the sex products we consume. We’re ok with buying them, but what are we really getting? The adult industry is loath to self-regulate, consumers aren’t putting up a fuss, and the government’s not interested in safety right now; they’d rather prosecute housewives for selling vibrators at home parties. So what’s a health-conscious horny person to do?

The first thing to remember is that the same principles that go into purchasing, say, a Palm Pilot don’t apply when you’re shopping for sex toys. Even with all the advancements, the sex toy industry is still overrun with shoddy and potentially unsafe products. This has a lot to do with stubborn taboos and the fact that most people don’t complain at the Better Business Bureau about the rash they got from their new vibrating dong.

In my job as a sex advice columnist and owner of an online sex toy shop, I hear a lot of stories about dildo burn, lube rash, and other negative reactions to adult products that could have been avoided. The interesting thing is these stories often come from people who normally are very conscious about what they put in their bodies. 

This is because even post-sexual revolution, sex is still a complicated thing. We all do it, but it remains mysterious and can bring up all sorts of awkward feelings. It’s ok to own a vibrator if you’re a woman, but most don’t talk about it. And forget about being a guy and telling your homeboys about your girlfriend fucking you in the ass with her strap-on. We still have a long way to go before we can truly talk openly about sex, and of course this climate of shame and silence affects the way the sex toy industry markets their products.

Basically, there have been few formal, scientific studies done anywhere on the safety of sex toy materials. One private study commissioned by a German magazine found high toxin levels in sex toys. Because of this, both European and Canadian health authorities considered studying the effects of the plastics in question, but eventually decided against further research.

The European Union has banned the use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics in children’s toys (which are the same as those used in sex toys), but has not addressed the safety of adult products. The United States FDA has also investigated children’s toys, but somewhat predictably, they concluded that a child chewing on a rattle that smells like a toxic waste dump won’t suffer any considerable harm.

Pure PVC plastic is used widely around the world. It’s normally hard and inflexible, like plumbing pipes. To soften it, whether you’re making a jelly dong or a teething ring, chemicals must be added. When pressure is applied to the softened plastic product, it leaches estrogen-like substances called phthalates that cause liver and kidney damage in lab rats. Over time, PVC plastics will emit these toxins on their own, which is why your sex toy may turn cloudy or discolored after a few months, while its chemical odor gets worse.

The EPA has little to say about phthalates. “No information is available,” states their web site, and phthalates fall under Group D, which means “not classifiable as to human carcinogenicity.” What environmental and activist groups suspect is that phthalates do cause problems ranging from hormonal disturbances to immune deficiency in humans, with similar effects on wildlife. Short-term, you may experience a rash, burning, pain, even a vaginal infection from your sex toy.

The children’s toy industry has done some self-regulation, but in the world of adult toys, it’s another story. Currently the sex toy community is large and financially strong enough to carry political clout, should it wish to go the greasy palms route of so many other large corporations. But there’s a reason why people download porn on Kazaa all day long while thinking twice about stealing that new Beyonce single. The government and the adult industry have never exactly been friends. Usually, their only face time is when sex industry leaders are defending themselves in court. People in the adult industry associate on a business level with each other, their lawyers and their bankers, and that’s about it.

Adult toy companies in the U.S. classify their products as “novelties.” This is why you never receive an instruction manual with your sex toys. If they tell you how to use it, it becomes a medical device and manufacturers must follow a whole other set of restrictive and expensive regulations. Novelty classification is easier on the toy companies, but it’s not so good for the consumer.

The best thing to do is educate yourself on the different materials and ingredients used to make commonly available toys, lubricants, and love potions. The next best thing is to exercise good judgment and common sense. The FDA is certainly not the highest authority on what’s safe. If your adult toy, condom, or massage oil smells toxic, it probably is. If it gives you a strange reaction, stop using it and look for safe alternatives.

The only safe sex toys are those made from food or medical-grade silicone, or non-porous materials like stainless steel or Pyrex™ glass. Lubricants, massage oils, warming lotions, and other products marketed for sexual use may also contain toxic ingredients. Here’s a breakdown of what may be good and bad for you, and why.

Potentially UNSAFE Materials and Ingredients

PVC Plastics – Any soft, flexible sex toy that’s not silicone is probably made from PVC and is potentially unsafe. These are often called “jelly” toys. Realistic toys like Cyberskin™ and Realskin™ products are also PVC. Small bullet-style vibrators sometimes come covered with jelly material, so make sure it’s safe before you buy.

Latex – It’s not as common these days, but sex toys often used to be made from latex rubber and some older models are still sold. Latex will break down over time and is hard to clean. Latex allergies can be severe, so if you have one, make sure the toy is safe for you. Most sex toy companies are good about clearly labeling their latex products.

Nonoxynol 9 – For years it was suspected that this spermicide caused more damage than it prevented. This is because Nonoxynol 9 was originally formulated for use as an industrial cleanser. Recent studies have proven that N9 is so abrasive it causes tiny cuts in the genitals, which increases the chance of spreading diseases like HIV. Amazingly, some condoms and many personal lubricants still use N9. Avoid it at all costs.

Mass-Marketed Lubricants – Many lubricants for sex contain a cocktail of unpronounceable chemicals. As with sex toys, there aren’t a lot of studies on the effects of these. But if you use organic soaps, shampoos, or beauty products, you’ll be happy to know there are a few alternatives available. A company called Sensua Organics recently released the first widely available organic sex lube. Unlike previous products which tended to be too watery, Sensua’s lube is slippery and gel-like. A good online store or catalog will include ingredient listings for their lubricants.

Silicone or Oil-Based Lubricants – Silicone lube is great for occasional sex in the water, but it doesn’t interact well with PVC and can make a toy’s surface sticky, shedding bits of plastic. Household items like oils and petroleum jelly do the same thing, plus they can give women a vaginal infection. Silicone lube also interacts with silicone toys. Make sure your lubricant is water-based and you won’t have any problems. 

Vibrators – Although vibrators made from hard plastic are generally safe in terms of toxin emissions, their electronics are often less than high-tech. Especially with waterproof toys, check for protruding wires or worn contacts and discard if you find any. Vibrators made in Japan or Germany are generally of better quality. Chinese-made toys are cheaper and good if you are experimenting, but remember the safety precautions and use common sense. A reputable sex toy store will answer your questions about where their products are made.

Safe Sex Toy Alternatives

Silicone – Sex toys made from food or medical-grade silicone are gaining in popularity as a soft, flexible replacement for PVC. Not only are silicone toys non-toxic, they warm up quickly and retain heat, they’re easy to disinfect, and they don’t degrade, which means they can last a lifetime. They’re more expensive, but in the long run they are quite literally more bang for the buck. Make sure the toy is high-grade silicone, as some companies will attempt to fool you by using impure silicone/plastic compounds and labeling it “silicone.” Manufacturers that specialize in silicone toys are less likely to use dangerous compounds.

Glass – Although it may sound freaky, toys made from high-grade Pyrex glass and purchased from a reputable dealer are perfectly safe. What’s more, glass is entirely non-toxic and because it’s non-porous, it’s even easier to clean than silicone. You can share glass with others, which is not recommended with any other toy material except metal. The heaviness of glass combined with its smoothness makes for a new and decidedly sensual experience.

Metals – Dildos and butt plugs in metal are safe, but only if they’re unpainted. Almost all of the painted toys on the market are prone to flaking, and nobody needs paint chips in their body. Unpainted metal and stainless steel are excellent alternatives and, like glass, lend a whole new dimension to lovemaking.

Granite, Marble, Wood – If your dildo doesn’t have splinters, varnish, paint, rough edges, or seams, go for it. These are the original sex toy materials, used safely by humans for thousands of years. 

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