Note: links may be NSFW, long investigative journalism pieces, or scientific papers.
Toxic sex toys is not a phrase I throw around lightly. It sounds scary and clickbait-y. It makes the scientist in me bristle. Yet, it is the phrase most searched on this topic. Such is the world in which we live. There are lots of people who have never heard this information before, so forgive me for the definitions and simplified examples, and forgive me for the length. This is important.
Toxic Sex Toys vs. Porous Sex Toys
All toxic sex toys are porous, but not all porous products contain toxins. We will talk about porous sex toys in this series later. Toxic sex toys, on the other hand, contain ingredients that react chemically with our bodies.
Toxins are chemicals that cause harm biologically. Technically, everything is a chemical, and anything in a high enough amount is toxic.
Relative toxicity is when we consider the dosage of a chemical. Dosage is how much of something you are exposed to. Overdose is the point at which exposure causes harm.
Toxins don’t necessarily kill you. For instance, poison ivy sap causes a localized, temporary rash. Relative toxicity also takes into account whether something is an allergen. Allergies are immune reactions to antigens, parts of the chemical molecules that set off the reaction. In the case of poison ivy, 85% of humans are allergic to the sap.
A person can develop an allergy over time with multiple exposures. This is known as sensitization. This often happens in hospitals and laboratories where latex gloves are used.
When I worked in research labs, and someone reacted to a chemical spilled onto their bare skin, it was referred to as a chemical burn. These reactions aren’t always immediate.
Not all bodies respond to overdoses exactly the same way, depending on genetics. For example, when you ingest more than 25-40 grams of sugar in a day (dose depends on body mass), it is toxic in a number of ways, metabolically. In the USA, we averaged 150 grams of sugar per day in 2012 (a more recent study says 126). Most bodies store the extra sugar as fat, but not all bodies do. There are literally millions of people in this country who overdose on sugar, but who don’t appear to store extra fat.
Since not all bodies react to toxic sex toys the same way, some corporations (and the plastics industry) argue that the materials aren’t toxic. They argue that those with allergies or who have become sensitized should know better. They also point out how many products contain toxins, even though sex toys contain far bigger doses than other consumer products.
Sex Toy Toxins
Pronounced THAY-layts or THAH-layts, these are the most common toxins. Phthalates are plasticizers used in PVC toys to make them squishy and jelly-like. They are both toxins and allergens. They are endocrine disruptors (specifically, estrogen mimickers), teratogens (cause birth defects), and potential carcinogens (may cause cancer), especially in high doses.
Not all phthalates are the same; some are more toxic than others, or toxic in different doses. Today in the US, a children’s toy may not contain more than 0.1% of the more reactive phthalates. In the EU, this standard applies to all consumer products, including sex toys.
Phthalates are being phased out of many sex toy lines. However, I’ve met many people who own them, you can still find them on store shelves, and you can bet that knockoffs contain them. When half your product is cheap additive, you stand to make a lot of money.
Bisphenols (biz-FEE-nolz) are a class of plastic additive that hardens polycarbonate plastics. You may have heard of bisphenol-A, or BPA. A couple years back, studies showed BPA to be an endocrine disruptor and potential carcinogen, and it made headlines. In other industrialized countries, its use is restricted, but in the US, it’s profitable, so it’s legal. Unfortunately, “BPA-free” products are sometimes made with unknown replacements or other bisphenols, which can be just as much of a problem. It’s unknown at this time how much bisphenol is used in sex toys; it would appear only in hard plastic parts of toys.
Industrial-grade mineral oil
Mineral oil is used as a solvent in sex toys. It breaks down over time. You usually only see this in thermoplastic toys as a softener. Industrial-grade mineral oil, the most impure (and cheapest to obtain) is a carcinogen. Mineral oil itself and its impurities can be allergens. Food-grade mineral oil is less carcinogenic, but not entirely without risk, and typically only used by the food industry.
Again, dosage matters. In one study, a toy was about 60% mineral oil.
Lead and other heavy metals
This is a concern in paint, especially on cheaply made glass toys and silver bullets. Heavy metals are toxic to the nervous system and kidneys, but it speeds up drying and is used as a pigment. In 2005, the Dutch found that cadmium had been used in yellow dye on a glass sex toy. The levels were illegal.
Nickel and other cheap metals
Nickel is a substitute for steel in cheaply made and knockoff metal dildos. It’s primarily an allergen concern. I’m just saying – if cheap jewelry turns your finger green…
How Can I Recognize Toxic Sex Toys?
Not all sex toy manufacturers honestly disclose what a product is made from. Some do, though, and some sex toy shops ask. Avoid PVC at all costs. It’s impossible to tell if TPR or TPE contain mineral oil, but you should avoid them anyway. If a product is polycarbonate, look for the CE symbol on the box or verify with the shop owner that the product can be sold in Europe.
For the record, because the industry has lied, I don’t trust anything that says “phthalates-free” on the box. There’s no law requiring that the box copy match the material content, and no law prohibiting falsehoods on packaging copy.
Look & Feel
If it looks cheaply made, it probably is. Clear, squishy material is the big tip-off. Your toy should always be opaque unless it’s glass. If it’s a glass toy, run your fingernail over any painted details and look for seams, chipping, peeling, a screen print, or other signs it’s not made well. Watch for seams on metal toys.
Phthalates taste tingly in your mouth. I don’t recommend doing this. Someone once asked me why her ball gag tasted “spicy” – that’s the only reason I mention it.
Beads of Oil
When you take it out of the package, does the product “sweat” even if the air conditioner is on? Chuck it!
Did your sex toy melt when it touched another sex toy? Did your sex toy melt when you boiled it? Good riddance!
Spend what you’re really worth on your sex toys, please. $35 should be your bare minimum in your price range, and $50 for vibrators of decent quality.
Is there a naked, objectified woman on the box? Did the shop repackage and rename the product so you aren’t offended? Is the product body safe but the manufacturer routinely produces PVC jelly toys?
You. Deserve. Better.
Have you experienced redness, itching, burning, swelling, frequent yeast infections, bacterial infections, or UTI’s after using a jelly sex toy? You likely have a chemical burn. Antibiotics will only take care of bacteria that are infecting the area, but won’t ease the other symptoms. Unfortunately, the way to treat a chemical burn is to immediately flush with water, but douching may cause more problems than waiting out the redness and swelling.
Believe me – you are not alone! I hear about this all the time. Gynecologists I’ve asked about it typically have never heard of it, mostly because patients are too ashamed to talk about it. They will sometimes assume it’s an STI, but all tests come back negative.
Responsible Dildo Slinging
I joined My Secret Soiree because 100% of the products carried are toxin-free, and 99% of the toys are made with non-porous materials. I had done a lot of research and talked to a lot of people. I’d even had my own lived experiences. If there’s anything I’m passionate about, it’s getting toxic and porous toys out of your bedrooms. There are a lot of great shops out there that have the same ethics. I don’t consider them competitors. We are on the same team, putting your pleasure and health above anything else.
I do, however, take issue with retailers that don’t at least disclose this information. There’s something unethical about that to me. This is a public health and women’s reproductive health issue. It’s a social justice issue. If a male Congressman got a rash from a Fleshlight, don’t you think the FDA, USDA, FTC, and Homeland Security would be all over this?
You deserve to know, as a consumer, what you’re buying. You have the right to choose for yourself the products that work best for your body and your budget, too.
I leave you now with the story of one shop owner, who got people in this industry talking, all those years ago: