The first official lab test of sex toys happened in 2006, with results confirming that toxic sex toys were a big problem. But the industry has come so far since then. While there are still many stores that stock a lot of gross, crappy sex toys, the overall percentage of porous materials in sex toys is on the decline. Beyond that, it seems like phthalates are on the decline, as well, in porous toys. But does this make them any more safe? Can the major companies be trusted? And really, what proof do we have that the cheap sex toys are safe?
In The Beginning…
Back in 2006, Badvibes.org, headed up by toxic-toy pioneer Jennifer Pritchett of The Smitten Kitten, had a whole bunch of sex toys tested at a lab. They did a material analysis, looking to find out if something called silicone was really silicone, and to see what level of phthalates were found. The results were staggering – high measures of phthalates. In the years since, savvy consumers simply tried to avoid the porous materials by sticking with silicone but until recently we had many shady companies using the word “silicone” when the product was actually made of a thermoplastic elastomer, rubber or PVC. So another pioneer, Metis Black, came up with the flame test. It took a long while to really understand the nuances of the flame test and how any given material would react. We thought that pure silicone could never burn up and disintegrate but found out that when the sample is thin and is a softer, stretchier silicone burning and material destruction can and will happen. I found that out when I decided to get the Jimmyjane Hello Touch tested at the same lab that Badvibes.org used.
Recently Lab-Tested Sex Toys
Then, Dildology tested a Doc Johnson dildo labeled as “phthalates-free PVC with added Sil-a-gel” to see what was up. True to PVC nature, the dildo had an awful odor. Lab results came back which indicated that phthalates were present. This test was run July 2013. In September of 2014, Badvibes.org again sent out a large batch of sex toys to the same lab for testing; including the infamous James Deen PVC dildo. The lab results on the James Deen dildo showed a compound that ends in -phthalate when Dildology had it tested, but the Badvibes test came back with a different percentage of compounds and a plasticizer called “sebacic acid dibutyl ether“. In addition, every single other item that Badvibes had tested September 2014 came back showing zero phthalates. Despite a chemical found that has phthalate in the name1 , what was found is a non-phthalate plastic softener. The only bit of “bad” found in the tests from September 2014 was a Pipedream product called “Silicone Lil’ Pearl Pleasure Sleeve” that wasn’t silicone at all, of course, but a compound that looks like it’s similar to what the Screaming O rings are made of and seems to be considered non-toxic.
Since we know that the industry is not regulated and that manufacturers can lie on their product packaging (or, in the case of Screaming O, have a years-long miscommunication from the material supplier result in years and millions of packages incorrectly labeling the product as a type of silicone, an error that was not of malicious intent), we’ve been very reluctant to trust. Just because the 2014 Badvibes test showed no phthalates doesn’t mean they’ve been eradicated. One item they didn’t test that I would love to get tested is anything from the Pipedream Basix collection, but alas I have no spare money to do more testing. Further, there’s something else I want to point out – this supposed Sil-a-gel additive that Doc Johnson uses in their porous PVC items which is supposed to basically be an antimicrobial? I see no evidence of anything other than PVC and plasticizer in both lab tests of the James Deen dildo. Maybe it’s something that wouldn’t show up in the FTIR test the lab ran? I don’t know. Many people who own a Doc Johnson product advertised as containing Sil-a-gel experienced burning, itching and redness of the genitals and report a very strong shower-curtain-perfumey smell.
Not Enough Studies
Here’s the thing – there are chemicals and materials in play that we don’t know much about. We don’t really know how they’ll affect us when used as a sex toy. Some people report that for the minimal time a sex toy is inside your body, there’s no way that phthalates, if present, are going to cause damage to your endocrine system. Hell some people believe that phthalates aren’t harmful to us at all! I don’t know of any studies done on people who used phthalates-ridden sex toys for years. If someone did get sick, get cancer, etc…..what are the chances that that illness could even be traced back to their sex toy use? Some people might say that because we do not know, we should not worry. I say that because we do not know we should err on the side of caution – stick to pure, safe, chemically-stable non-porous materials like silicone, glass, medical-grade metals, properly coated wood and properly glazed ceramic as well as hard ABS plastics.
Is PVC Toxic?
It’s commonly said in our industry that PVC without phthalates isn’t toxic. This isn’t what everyone believes2. A recent study of Dollar Store items showed a lot of toxic chemicals in their stuff, and I felt that the study hit home for our industry – just because a person cannot afford the current cost of most non-porous sex toys, doesn’t mean they should be saddled with the unhealthy chemicals. So when the people who buy, for example, a Doc Johnson PVC dildo with added Sil-a-gel experience itching and burning and redness….are they reacting to the toxins in PVC that are NOT phthalates? Or are they reacting to whatever this Sil-a-gel stuff is, if it exists?
It’s Still Porous
I also say that even if the material in question is non-toxic (like most TPR/TPE type elastomers) it is still porous, and that is still a major concern. Porous sex toys can never be sanitized much less sterilized; they should never be shared between non-fluid-bonded partners; and you should never use the same porous toy both vaginally and anally. The porous sex toys can hang on to bacteria, mildew and other fungi, cleaning chemicals that you thought you rinsed off, and so on. Since the materials are not chemically stable, as they break down they will feed these microorganisms back to your body. I have read many comments on places like Amazon where people bought what is claimed to be a TPR, non-toxic sex toy and experienced the burning and itching that is associated with phthalates. Could they be mislabeling the material? Sure. Could the porous material be hanging on to the chemicals used in the manufacturing process like mold release agents? Sure. It could be anything. In this age of all the “phthalate-free” claims, I get plenty of feedback from people who’ve experienced long term chemical burn problems.
Will a Condom Protect You?
The party line has been “cover it with a condom” but how did the collective we arrive at that? Just because condoms can prevent pregnancy and STIs doesn’t mean they can be put on a chemically-laden bacteria-infected porous dildo and keep you safe. But let’s think about this logically for a minute – the jar of melted sex toys that I have, and the recent Smitten Kitten jar both displayed oils seeping out of the materials. From what I know of the materials in my own jar, only one item was PVC with probable phthalate content. The rest were a TPR material, as best as I can guess. And there’s a lot of oil in that jar! And guess what doesn’t play nice with oil? Latex condoms. There have been no tests run to see if the latex will break down enough for the irritating chemicals, bacteria or fungus to get through. If I could do this test myself, I would. I don’t know who to contact to run such a test. There is one possibility and that is using nitrile condoms (like the FC2 Female Condom) or polyurethane condoms (like Japanese import Okamoto or Trojan Supra) but have you seen the prices on these? Also, they’re not going to cover the entire toy (leaving nothing exposed is the best protection) PLUS they’re probably not big enough for the extra-large specialty toys that are cost-prohibitive when made in silicone. If you’re going this route, or any route with a porous material, I recommend replacing it after 4-6 months (4 months for anal use, to be safe). This estimate is not scientific, but based on my own prior uses with toys and watching how long it took for them to change color, get oily, etc.
Update: I did a few home tests and more research on this topic, read about it here and see what happens to latex condoms on porous sex toys.
Will the Industry Change?
I understand budgets. I understand that by the time you save up for a $30 sex toy, something else will have happened to your $30 that is more important than a sex toy and you’re back to the original $15 you could spare which means buying a PVC or Jelly toy. I understand it; I wish I had a better fix for you. If a polyurethane condom is something you have access to and can purchase in small doses per use, and if it’ll cover your toy completely, then go that route. I cannot stress enough that this isn’t ideal. I don’t want to tell you that you’re not worthy of masturbation and enhancing partnered sex. This just means we need to see a change in the industry. The more silicone purchases that are made, the more companies will understand the need and make changes.
I think that the change has already started, just by looking at percentages of stock. Let’s look at Lovehoney UK, as an example. For dildos, they have 299. 100 of them are made from a safe, non-porous material – silicone, glass or metal. That’s 1/3. It’s okay, but I’d like to see it at 2/3 or more. For vibrators, they stock 391. Looks like roughly 215 of them are a safe, non-porous material – silicone or hard plastic. That’s a little over half which is good but again I’d like to see that number a lot higher. Here’s one more example – sextoy.com, a US-based site that I do not recommend to my readers, currently lists close to 2000 dildos on their site. A little over 1200 of them are made from a porous, potentially toxic material – this leaves only 800 non-porous options. I think that the companies that make many hundreds of sex toys could make their silicone sex toys even cheaper if they manufactured more. The bigger the bulk order is for material, the more their cost goes down, right? That’s my thought, anyways. There needs to be a large selection of truly safe AND very affordable sex toys. It is beginning to happen – we’re seeing under-$30 pure silicone dildos (in small doses) from companies who previously only produced toxic, porous junk.
This post references research I’ve done and is my personal opinion. In the end, you make up your own mind but I’m going to give you the tools to be as well-informed as possible. I would ideally like to see my readers ditch the porous materials (except for penetrable toys, that’s largely unavoidable) but I also know that there are gaps in the industry. I do feel that a porous, “non-toxic” material has the potential to be harmful, depending on what is living in the pores. I know that lower-end mass production companies might have heavy metals in their pigments, something that is ignored but still a toxicity problem. I know that we have no idea about the effect of these phthalate-replacements on our bodies when used in a sex toy. I know that VOC’s are a problem, and it is present in the cheap materials that have a strong odor. We still have a long way to go. To see a change we need to continue to educate and be vocal and encourage readers and customers to “vote with their money” by buying the silicone options when ever possible. Shop at reputable retailers like the ones listed here, and choose wisely. If you’re ever uncertain, ask me!