It's surprisingly hard to ban toxic sex toys, but here's how to protect yourself.
With the short-term effects of chlorine and the long-term effects of phthalates, PVC is, “definitely one of the worst sex toy materials we’ve seen.”
It's Surprisingly Hard to Ban Toxic Sex Toys, But Here's How to Protect Yourself
OCTOBER 13, 2017 3:05 PM
PHOTO: COMEDY CENTRAL
These days, most of us will carefully check ingredients lists for gluten and trans fats, demand that our water bottles be made without BPA, and seek out paraben-free, body-safe cosmetics. But the average person can’t tell you what a toxic sex toy is—or even that they exist. Unfortunately, in the unregulated sex toy industry, plenty of sex toys are potentially rife with products that can hurt you (and not even in the fun, kinky way).
Perhaps the most well-known offender in terms of toy toxicity is a group of chemicals known as phthalates, a plasticizer that can be blended with other substances to make them softer and more flexible. A spotlight’s been shone on phthalates in recent years, as publications like Bustle and Bitch, and feminist-oriented sex shops like Good Vibes and Babeland have spoken out against them.
So why all the hullabaloo? It turns out that phthalates may have side effects when they come into contact with your body that could potentially be terrible for you—and aren’t disclosed by most sex toy manufacturers. According to Amanda Morgan, D.H.S., a faculty member at the School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who wrote her master’s thesis on harmful sex toy materials, phthalates are known endocrine disruptors that can cause health problems. “[Phthalates] mess with your hormones; they can cause birth defects, or other things related to liver or kidney functioning,” Morgan told me, referencing studies that have linked phthalates to irregular fetal development, early-onset puberty, and lower sperm counts, among other issues. “They can really mess you up because they pretend to be your hormones, and so your body’s hormonal cycle gets knocked out of whack from exposure to these things.”
With the short-term effects of chlorine and the long-term effects of phthalates, PVC is, Morgan said, “definitely one of the worst sex toy materials we’ve seen.”
When you hear horror stories about sex toys, though, it’s not necessarily phthalates that are to blame. One of the most common anecdotal complaints about toxic toys is that they cause skin irritation: “I first thought [it] was a yeast infection or BV, because of extreme itching and burning on my inner labia,” reports one reader who wrote in to sex toy review blog Dangerous Lilly. “My ass suddenly felt like it was on fire. A burning sensation spread throughout my butt,” recalled sex educator Tristan Taormino about a questionable dildo she used. One Playboy story described a dildo that caused a woman “such severe pain that she could barely speak.”
I asked Emily S. Barrett, Ph.D., a professor at the Rutgers University School of Public Health who has done extensive research on the prenatal effects of endocrine disruptors like phthalates, whether these reported burning sensations fit with her understanding of the chemicals. She told me she hasn’t seen evidence that phthalates irritate the skin in this way, and that they tend to “act on a much more subtle level most of the time.”
So what is causing these health problems? According to Amanda Morgan, phthalates aren’t the only sketchy ingredient still getting into our sex toys. As part of her thesis research, Morgan tested 32 sex toys to determine their chemical makeup. What she found was pretty scary: The toys she tested typically contained 30 to 35 percent chlorine. She said PVC, a material commonly used to make inexpensive sex toys, always contains chlorine (hence the chemical name “polyvinyl chloride”). Even scarier, in 2006, BadVibes.org—an organization that, full disclosure, is linked to pro-toy-safety sex shop The Smitten Kitten—ran lab tests on four popular sex toys. They found that two of them were made of PVC and contained “very high levels of phthalate plasticizer.”
“We use chlorine to kill bacteria in things,” Morgan said. “If you are being exposed to this high level of chlorine, especially in a sensitive membrane area [like the vagina or rectum], we could definitely chalk that up to causing irritation, burning, or messing up the environment by exposing it to something that is, as we know, a sterilization product.” So with the short-term burning effects of chlorine and the long-term endocrine effects of phthalates, PVC is, Morgan said, “definitely one of the worst sex toy materials we’ve seen.”
Now, you might be thinking, “OK, great to know! I’ll just buy only safe toys from now on!” Well, it’s not so simple. Since the sex toy industry is unregulated, it doesn’t fall under the current purview of the Food and Drug Administration. According to FDA press officer Angela Stark, that’s because the agency “does not regulate devices meant purely for sexual pleasure. It does, however, regulate genital devices that have a medical purpose such as vibrators intended for therapeutic use to treat sexual dysfunction or to supplement Kegel exercises.” Of course, the vast majority of sex toys don’t fall under this “health aid” umbrella.
The current Congress likely wouldn't rush to make a bold, sex-positive statement like mandating sex toy safety.
The responsibility of regulating sex toys could potentially fall to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but Morgan told me the understaffed CPSC is already in charge of regulating over 15,000 types of products—not to mention the products themselves. The complex issue of sex toy regulation would be a big ask on top of all that.
Add to all of this the fact that the current Congress likely wouldn’t rush to make a bold, sex-positive statement by mandating sex toy safety, and there are plenty of reasons your sex toy might not meet body-safe standards. “Our government doesn’t generally like to talk about people pleasuring themselves,” Morgan pointed out.
Beyond that, though, Morgan adds that regulating the sex toy industry might not even be the best solution to getting rid of toxic toys anyway. “If something is federally regulated, that means that the federal government—depending on where they are in their political leanings at that time—could potentially make it illegal to have these products, by saying they are ‘dangerous’ and then regulating them out of existence,” she reasoned. “You get certain types of people in power, and they may not believe in sexual health, wellness, [or] self-pleasuring. It might go against their core values, and therefore they [might] use their political agenda and the federal regulation system to regulate these products out of people’s hands.”
It’s a conclusion that Zach Biesanz, a legal assistant in the office of New York’s Attorney General, came to in his 2007 paper in the journal Law & Inequality: "Special regulation of the sex toy industry would be unreasonably burdensome from a regulatory standpoint,” he wrote. "Only banning these toxins outright will suffice to protect consumers from phthalates' harmful and even lethal effects.”
"Sniff your sex toy. That's the easiest thing you can do [to protect yourself]."
In the meantime, how do you tell if a toy is safe? Sex toy experts like Morgan, Smitten Kitten founder Jennifer Pritchett, and seasoned sex toy reviewer Epiphora all recommend buying toys made of phthalate-free, body-safe materials like pure silicone, stainless steel, glass, and hard plastic. Still, it’s difficult to know what’s what in an industry that mislabels its products so frequently. “Sniff your sex toy,” said Morgan. “That’s the easiest thing you can do. If you smell these products and they don’t smell like anything, then it most likely is a stable chemical compound like silicone.” Phthalates and PVC, however, smell “like chemicals,” according to Morgan, “like a new shower curtain,” according to Epiphora, and “like a headache,” according to Pritchett. The sex toy smell test might sound a little weird, but it’s a pretty good first line of defense.
Morgan also recommends buying toys made by “companies that take a lot of pride in making good-quality, body-safe toys,” citing Tantus and Jimmyjane as examples. Other companies that proudly declare their products body-safe include We-Vibe, Fun Factory, Vixen Creations, and Funkit Toys.
And when in doubt, find a reviewer you can trust. Sex toy review blogs abound on the internet —Epiphora, Dangerous Lilly, and Formidable Femme, to name just a few—and while you’d be wise to take claims about sex toys with a grain of salt in this unregulated industry, sometimes the preponderance of good or bad reviews about a particular company or toy can suggest conclusions about its safety (or lack thereof).
Most important, though, demand body-safe sex toys by buying only from companies you can trust. “Consumers vote with their pocketbook,” said Tantus founder Metis Black. “Support the businesses that make safe toys a priority, that use their resources to educate, that take a stand and advocate for consumers.” She added that while pure silicone toys are expensive now—especially in comparison to PVC toys, which can often be under $30 a pop versus $100+ for silicone—more consumer demand for body-safe toys will create a larger supply at lower prices, as bigger companies with more resources start making nontoxic toys in larger quantities. That’s just sex toy economics.
Bloggers, consumers, and ethical toymakers alike all dream of a future in which no sex toys will burn your junk, give you infections, or cause long-term bodily harm. It seems reasonable enough. And if we keep fighting for it, maybe one day it’ll be reality.