Safety of sex toy materials is not exactly a black and white thing. People really focus on phthalates an awful lot; and while I absolutely agree that they’re terrible, they’re not the only thing about a sex toy that can harm you. There are many nasty chemicals. Heavy metals like cadmium can be present. The issue with VOCs can exist without phthalates coming in to question. And then there’s all these thousands and thousands of porous sex toys saturating the market.
But people just don’t seem to understand or care much about porosity outside of our little sex educator/reviewer bubble. Why? Because they don’t know it is even a thing.
We’ve been told that materials like TPR/TPE and ‘Elastomer’ are “not as porous” as PVC/jelly/rubber/vinyl/cyberskin. The latter is heavily linked to phthalates and other toxic chemicals, while the former is usually regarded as a middle ground – it’s usually accompanied by descriptions such as “body-safe” because it supposedly is free from the super-harmful chemicals and has smaller pores than the other stuff. Still porous, but less so. Of course, all of these materials are still unstable to various degrees and will break down over time. Case in point? My jar of melted sex toys. Only one item in that jar contains phthalates. None of these materials mentioned above can be shared or sanitized.
Yet people still flock to them for their squishy, realistic feel and affordable price tag.
Why Should You Care About a Porous Sex Toy?
Bacteria, mildew, fungus etc can enter the pores of these materials and make a home. The more porous the material is, the easier this will happen. No studies have been done on the effects of using a sex toy that mildewed. My brand of common sense says that some molds can kill you or make you crazy so why would I want to take any risk of putting mold spores in contact with my very sensitive mucous membranes? I don’t. But not everyone sees it this way, because they don’t understand how it works. Let’s say you have a cyberskin dildo. You wash it, and let it sit on the sink for a day or three or you put it away before it has dried. You could have just created a breeding ground for mold. I’ve seen it happen and I’ve heard about it happening. The same can be applied to bacteria and fungus—if you have vaginitis or a yeast infection that’s not been cleared up before you use a sex toy, or you decide to use a toy anally as well as vaginally.
Washing the surface with anti-bacterial soap and hot water is not going to be enough, and will only clean the surface. The material breakdown of these unstable creations will happen, and the floodgates can open. When the mineral oil starts to sweat to the surface, who knows what it’s bringing with it. Or maybe there’s a teeny crack in the material that you don’t see–perfect hiding spot for bacteria that can duck out of the way of your quick cleaning job.
You just cannot clean these materials to a “clean” state. This is why we care so much about the non-porous materials like silicone, glass, stainless steel, and so on. I feel utterly safe in not cleaning my silicone dildo immediately after use, I know it can get sanitized clean later on. Nothing can be harbored in those pores. Yes, silicone still has pores but not big enough for bacteria, mold, mildew, etc. Big enough for odors to trap, yes.
I can’t find any research on what harm might befall users of porous sex toys. I’d really love to see a crew of microbiologists closely examine under microscope just what is hanging out in the pores of the average sex toy. I have not located any studies or research on just what your chances are of getting sick from the things hanging out in those pores. For that matter, because these middle-ground materials are all accepted as phthalates-free, they’re flying under the radar. No one is really looking closely at them, because they are not the squeaky wheel.
And of course, no one is doing any research (to my knowledge) to find out just how easily the mold spores or bacteria can exit the pores and how sick you can get. I do know from my “jar of horrors” that even the non-toxic yet porous TPR/TPE toys are breaking down. During the process of breaking down they are releasing the mineral oil and that can release the bacteria/mildew that was living rent-free in there.
What I would really like to see is for the more common materials to be examined under a microscope and find out from an unbiased source just how porous each one is. Are the pores big enough to harbor mold, mildew, bacteria, fungus?
Material Geek Info
Part of the problem in this industry is the erroneous naming of material. Screaming O used to call their clear, stretchy material “SEBS Silicone”. They claimed that SEBS stands for “styrene-ethylene/butylene-styrene”. However, I’d flame-tested that material and the test showed me that there’s no silicone in there – so when they made their self-testing results public and clarified that no, there’s no silicone present in those rings, it was a fact I already knew but was glad to see finally acknowledged. Many manufacturers (for some reason, particularly newer manufacturers of male toys) use carefully guarded trade secret materials that they won’t reveal the make-up of. I don’t LIKE that, but I understand it. It’s a recipe. They don’t want another company coming out with something just like theirs. Theirs won’t be special anymore.
The term “Elastomer” is weird, because that’s like calling something “Liquid” as the name. Lots of things are elastomers. There is a difference between TPR and TPE, yet those names are used interchangeably. It seems that TPE may be more stable than TPR, and it also seems that there can be a “medical grade” TPE. I have seen toys that claimed to be a “non-porous” TPR, but research online seems to point to TPE being the more common material overall, especially in the higher quality end of things. Even silicone has pores, but they’re small enough that the only things getting in are dyes and odors (yes, a silicone butt plug, if used long enough and not boiled now and then, can retain a bit of an odor). I also see some companies refer to items as being “TPR Silicone” which is about as ridiculous as “SEBS Silicone”. I can’t find any data yet to support this either way, but it doesn’t seem very likely to me that one would blend a TPR or TPE with silicone, since silicone is expensive and a blend would retain absolutely none of the beneficial properties of silicone. Also, everything I’ve seen that is labeled “TPR Silicone” is jelly-soft and crystal clear – neither is an attribute of silicone.
How Can a Sex Toy be “Body Safe” and Porous?
You’re going to see a lot of retailers listing items that I’ve said are porous as “body safe”. The definition for “body safe” in this context refers to the lack of phthalates, latex and harmful chemicals. In my opinion, if the toy has the ability to turn on you, so to speak, by housing and spreading microorganisms, it doesn’t feel technically “body safe” to me but this is a fine line and you’ll find sex educators on both sides of it.
Keep this in mind: just because it is porous doesn’t mean it is toxic. All toxic toys are porous, but not vice versa. I also have to recognize that some people do not have the privilege of affording a non-porous material. I also have to recognize that very very few pure silicone options exist for penis toys like sleeves/masturbators. Fleshlight and all of the Tenga products show no evidence of being toxic (nor have I seen these break down and become greasy with oils being leached), yet they are porous. Fleshlight is more porous than the Tenga material, and more delicate. Hell you can’t even clean it with soap. My husband tried one silicone sleeve and it was not pleasurable – not enough give/plush. So while we can avoid the porous issue for those looking for external or internal vibrators or dildo, those who want to use a masturbation sleeve are shit out of luck. So just because it’s porous, doesn’t mean I’m going to 100% shun it – it depends on what is available as an alternative to either the type of item or your budget. I am going to educate the hell out of you, though, and advise you to purchase from a better manufacturer than California Exotic Novelties or Pipedream.
For example, while companies like Vibratex or Evolved do offer many porous items, I’ve never heard that they have the markers of a toxic toy. While I don’t relish the thought of someone buying an Evolved Novelties vibrator like this one, I know that for those just getting into owning sex toys, the thought of dropping $75+ on a silicone vibrator is scary. There are more and more affordable, truly body-safe (non-porous) sex toys coming on the market, as this list can attest to.
What to Do
As a retailer, if you’re going to carry porous items then please have something on the site to educate the buyer. Alert them that the item is porous and needs special care and attention. Make note that condom coverage doesn’t guarantee anything, and note that porous materials and latex condoms are a bad match – only polyurethane condoms will do. Educate them as to what will happen over time to the material, because of the unstable nature of it – and that when the inevitable happens, they should replace the toy.
As a consumer, if you can’t afford to buy something in a safe material yet, or are new to sex toys and want to see what styles and sizes you might like before you save up for a silicone version, then at least be safe. Consider a polyurethane condom. Clean it immediately before and after each use, and be vigilant – if you see any dark spots, replace it. If the material starts to feel greasy, replace it. In fact, if you’ve owned it for more than 6 months, replace it. Don’t ever store it in the dark until it’s completely dry.
Every year we are seeing more and more companies creating affordable silicone sex toys.
I asked the owners of Toolshed Toys and Early to Bed to explain to me what circumstances convinced them to carry less-than-ideal material choices for certain items.
Laura, of ToolShed Toys in Milwaukee
In short, the vast majority of the porous toys we carry are by what I would consider “cult brands” — particular items that customers come in asking for by name. This includes Fleshlight, Tenga, OxBalls, and Vibratex — mostly toys for men that are difficult to find except in elastomer, including cock rings and male masturbation sleeves. We explain toy materials to customers as they are making decisions about what they want, and each customer gets a toy care sheet that describes the materials and care of the item they have purchased. We point out the benefits of silicone and other non-porous materials. We actively seek out inexpensive 100% silicone toys, especially dildos. For many years, we wouldn’t carry porous toys like Fleshlight or Tenga, but customers would be really disappointed that we didn’t have them, and kind of didn’t care about our reasons for not carrying them. Even knowing that they were made of porous materials, they still wanted them. So we made a decision to stock non-toxic porous toys. I still won’t carry jelly toys, and fortunately, I believe there are lots of other alternatives coming to market now that are non-porous and reasonably priced. And I think we have only one elastomer dildo and one elastomer vibrator (both by Vibratex) — that’s it. All other porous stuff are “boy toys.”
Searah, of Early to Bed in Chicago
When it comes to vibes and dildos, we carry some elastomer and TPR/TPE toys. Some, like the Rabbit Habit are staples of the industry that folks ask for all the time. Some are ones that offer access to a type of toy that otherwise may be out of folks economic reach. Not only do we want to please our clients, we also like that we have the opportunity to provide them with information about the toy & how to best care for it when they get it from us (which is not true of all sex shops). When it comes to FtM-oriented products folks are desperate for pack & play toys and other toys that meet their gender expression needs. So we sell stuff that under normal circumstances would not meet our safety/quality standards. But we make sure that folks know what they are getting and how to use them as safely as possible. Truth is that as long as manufacturers are making porous toys, people are going to buy them and we’d rather they get them from us with the proper care info then somewhere else without it (and we don’t sell “jelly” or any non-porous butt toys).
If I were to own and run my own sex toy shop, I would probably model my stock similarly.
Thanks for sticking with me on this post, I know it was a long one! Tell me how you feel about porous materials, do you agree or disagree with my opinions? Also, I’m learning and educating myself as I go along. The world of sex toy materials is a vast, complicated one. If you’ve run across conflicting information that seems valid, please share it with us!