Did you know sex toys in the US are largely unregulated?
You may have noticed that sex toys are generally marketed as ‘adult novelties’. This euphemistic phrase isn’t used solely because manufacturers want to avoid causing offense to those with more delicate sensibilities (although that’s surely part of it). It’s also because they can hide an awful lot of nastiness behind the word ‘novelty’. If a product is marketed as a novelty, then the manufacturer can claim that it was never intended for sexual use - ‘it’s just a gag gift! Honest! We never expected anyone to actually put it inside themselves!’ This means that they can make it out of whatever materials they want, regardless of the effect on people’s health. Adult novelties are therefore not subject to the same kinds of regulations and safety testing that, for example, medical implants are, despite it being pretty obvious to just about everyone that people are, in fact, using them for sex.
What makes some toys unsafe?
To understand why sex toy safety in particular is so important, we need to understand a little bit of anatomy. Many tissues of the human body are lined with mucous membranes, or mucosa. Mucous membranes secrete mucus, a fluid which forms a protective physical barrier and keeps the tissue of the membrane moist. Mucous membranes are also very good at absorbing chemicals. This makes them very vulnerable to toxin exposure as they will tend to absorb much more of the toxin than ordinary skin would. (They are also vulnerable to anything that upsets the moisture balance of the membrane, which can be important when selecting a personal lubricant - for more information on this, look out for our upcoming lube 101 post).
Mucous membranes are found throughout the body, including in the vulva and vagina, the head (glans) of the penis, the rectum and the inside of the mouth. You might have noticed that these are all body parts that are often used during sexual activity! So it is super important that our sex toys not contain any toxic nasties that could be absorbed through our mucous membranes.
Some common toxins found in sex toys include phthalates, which are hormone-disruptors and can cause liver, kidney and respiratory damage; BPA, which is a hormone disruptor and a carcinogen (cancer causing); cadmium, a heavy metal that can cause lung, kidney and bone disease; chloride which is a neurotoxin; and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are responsible for the strong plastic smell of some sex toys, and can damage the liver, kidneys and central nervous system.
Another safety issue to consider with sex toys is how porous the toy material is. Why does this matter? Porous materials have many tiny ridges or holes that may not be visible to the naked eye, but that can absorb moisture and other materials. This means that porous toys are almost impossible to clean completely as they absorb and hide bacteria and fungi under their surface. This can lead to an increased risk of yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, or STI transmission or reinfection.
Some toys that are made of porous materials will advertise themselves as being ‘body safe’ because they do not contain toxins. But we would still not classify them as truly body safe due to the risks mentioned above, so employ some skepticism and critical thinking when you see a toy advertised as being ‘body safe’!
Materials to avoid
Many sex toy materials are toxic, porous or both. Here are the most common ones you’ll want to avoid:
Jelly rubber: these are recognizable by their rubbery, plastic-y texture, bright colors and often transparent material. Twenty years ago (before the silicone revolution really took off), jelly rubber was one of the most common sex toy materials, and unfortunately today there are still many jelly toys on the market. Many jelly rubber toys contain toxic chemicals such as phthalates and VOCs. They tend to have that plasticy smell, especially when first opened. They are also porous and hard to clean effectively.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is an alternative to rubber, and also often comes in bright, sometimes transparent colors. It can be rigid or flexible. PVC is usually made with large amounts of phthalates and chloride. Flexible PVC can also be porous. PVC toys can sometimes have a ‘wet look’ to them.
Thermoplastic Rubber (TPR) & Thermoplastic Elastomer (TPE): TPE and TPR are a common, cheaper alternative to silicone. It can be soft, warm to the touch, and stretchy. TPE/TPR is used in many ‘real feel’ toys because of how closely it resembles skin. In particular, it is very commonly used in penis toys (e.g. masturbation sleeves and cock rings). It is generally non-toxic but is very porous.
‘Mystery meats’: Some sex toy manufacturers use proprietary material blends with undisclosed ingredients. These often have acronyms or abbreviations for names (e.g. SEBS, Sil-A-Gel). Since the ingredients are undisclosed, these are best avoided. As we’ll see below, the list of body safe materials for sex toys is pretty short, so there’s no good reason not to disclose what material(s) a toy is made of if it is actually body-safe.
Natural porous materials such as stone and crystal. Many stones and crystals are porous (even if they don’t look it), and even stones that are naturally non-porous can acquire microfissures during the manufacturing process that can harbor germs.
So what sex toys can I use safely?
The following materials can be used to make body-safe sex toys:
Silicone: One of the most popular sex toy materials, silicone is inert, non-porous, easy to clean and is not manufactured using phthalates and other nasties. Although it is more expensive than materials like TPE, it is relatively inexpensive compared to other body-safe sex toy materials. Silicone typically has a silky texture and can vary somewhat in its firmness and density. Some silicone toys are ‘dual density’ meaning they have a firmer silicone core and a softer silicone exterior for a more life-like texture. Silicone is never truly transparent in the way that PVC and jelly toys can be (although it can be cloudy and translucent) - a useful thing to remember when trying to identify whether a toy is silicone or not.
High quality silicone is platinum cured and often advertised as medical grade or body-safe - although you should be aware that there are manufacturers claiming their silicone is medical grade without having gone through the rigorous review process required for certification, and the phrase ‘body-safe’ has no legal definition.
Glass: Glass toys can look amazing, feel luxurious and require less lube to use than silicone toys as they have a low friction surface. Annealed, borosilicate glass is a great material for sex toys as it is strong, non-porous and easily cleaned. If annealed correctly (i.e. strengthened while cooled slowly), it is very safe and durable - it won’t shatter inside you! Colored glass is fine, but avoid glass toys that have a colored coating applied to them as this could be toxic and will also flake off over time (and no one wants that happening inside their body…)
Metal: Solid metal toys have a heft to them that can feel really great inside you as you move. Like glass toys, they also tend to glide more easily than silicone toys and so can require less lube.
Stainless steel, gold and silver are all body-safe, inert, and non-porous. Steel toys in particular are basically indestructible. If you have a nickel or other metal allergy, however, you may want to give them a pass or look for a nickel-free option.
Wood: No, you won’t get splinters, we promise! Wood sex toys are typically sanded and polished to a very smooth finish for exactly this reason. The end result can be a stunning toy that looks like a piece of art.
Wood itself is porous and absorbs moisture, so it is important to only buy wooden toys that have an appropriate finish applied - the gold standard is a medical grade polymer (the kind that is used to coat medical devices) as this will be hypoallergenic, moisture resistant and germ resistant. Avoid ‘natural’ finishes and oils as these will inevitably be absorbed into the wood over time, leaving the wood surface porous.
ABS plastic: this is a hard, non-toxic, non-porous thermoplastic that is often used to craft the buttons, handles or other accents on sex toys. It can be hard to tell apart from other (possibly toxic) plastics so check the materials list to be sure it’s ABS.
Other safety considerations
It’s not just the material that makes up a toy that contributes to its safety profile, but the design of the toy matters too. For example, it’s super important that any toy used anally has an appropriately flared base, so that it doesn’t get pulled up inside the rectum, which might result in a trip to the ER.
There’s no point buying a body safe toy and then using it with a dangerous or irritating lubricant - see our upcoming lube 101 post for information on body-safe personal lubricants.
Even if you are using a body safe material, it is still possible to have an allergic reaction to it, so listen to your body and stop using any toy that causes irritation.
There is a myth that you can make an unsafe toy safe by putting a condom on it before use. This may be effective for non-toxic toys, but for toys made of toxic material such as jelly rubber, there is some anecdotal evidence that the oils in these toys can degrade condoms - and degrade them quickly - leaving the user exposed to the toxins in the toy. There isn’t really a safe way to use a toxic toy, so we recommend never using them at all.
Body-safe toy buying checklist
Here’s some tips to help ensure you are buying body-safe toys:
Buy from reputable stores and trusted companies. Please please please do not buy your toys off sites like Amazon. Anyone can sell toys on Amazon, Amazon does not vet their products for safety and it is common for genuine products to get mixed in with counterfeits in Amazon warehouses. Buying a counterfeit purse is one thing - it’s not going to hurt you anywhere but your… well, purse - but a counterfeit sex toy could cause genuine health problems. It’s best to buy either directly from trusted brands, or from sex-positive stores like Aphrodisia that put the effort into sorting through the chaff to find and stock only quality products. Plus, stores like ours have knowledgeable staff that can answer your questions and help you find something that’s right for you!
Familiarize yourself with what different materials look and feel like: Go into sex stores, look at and feel the toys, and note what materials they are made out of. If you’re not sure what something is, ask a staff member. The more examples you see of safe vs unsafe toys, the easier it will be to tell if that cute new butt plug you’re lusting after is likely to be safe.
Do the smell test: body-safe materials are chemically inert and do not typically smell strongly. If your toy has a strong odor out of the box, it’s best to throw it in the trash.
Look for toys that explicitly state what they don’t have in them: it’s a good sign when a manufacturer states that their products are free from phthalates, BPA, chloride and other nasties.
Remember: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is: good quality sex toys are not super cheap. Cheap glass dildos are rarely annealed well and are likely to be in multiple pieces when you open the box. While budget silicone dildos exist, that ‘super-realistic looking silicone dick with veins and all’ that only costs $30 is almost certainly not real silicone. Be skeptical, use your brain.
Dangerous Lilly a.k.a. The Dildo Burner - an excellent blog (sadly no longer updated) discussing in-depth the sex toy industry, safe and unsafe materials, and brands of sex toys and personal lubricants.
Women’s health guide to sex toy materials - an in-depth guide to many nasty chemicals and materials, and safer alternatives, with peer-reviewed references (note: they do say that wood is an unsafe material due to its porosity, but it can be safe if coated with an appropriate finish, as discussed above).