It's still the wild wild west for sex toys and regulations are almost non-existent. Chinese factories can get away with putting toxic chemicals into rubber toys. If used these toys will cause chemical burns and rashes when used.
It's important to buy from trusted retailers and manufacturers that have full disclosure over the materials used in their toys.
There are still no government regulations when it comes to sex toy materials. They are considered novelties by the FDA and not evaluated at all for safety.
That means it is up to you to know what materials are dangerous and what to avoid. This usually means choosing a responsible retailer that only sells body-safe toys and isn't out there to make as much money as possible.
Here are some of the consequences of using a toy with toxic chemicals:
Most dangerous materials are made from a mixture of many ingredients and it's impossible to know what they are without an expensive lab test.
For this reason, it's safer to just stick to safe materials rather than take risks on cheap materials you find in shady shops. But let's explain how bad companies try to mislead customers by using material terms in a vague way.
Also called: TPE, TPR, PVC, Jelly, Elastomer, Skin-Safe Rubber
These materials are vague terms that could all be used to describe the same dildo. To understand how companies mislead people with labeling let's go over some quick chemistry 101.
Elastomer - The ultimate catch-all term for any rubber, including 100% skin safe silicone. It is the technical term used by chemists to describe rubber. There are two big sub-categories of elastomer: TPE and TPS.
TPE - TPE stands for thermoplastic elastomer. It just means any rubber that melts when it get hot, can be molded into a new shape, and then returns to its rubbery state when cool. Chemically speaking, TPEs have non-covalent bonds, which are broken by heat.
TPS - TPS stands for thermoset elastomer. This is the opposite of a TPE, and is created with chemical reactions that cause covalent bonds that can't be broken by heat. A good example of a thermoset elastomer is 100% medical grade silicone.
When cooking up a toxic rubber dildo companies start from a number of base materials. These are a harder substrates that are heated up and then have other additives and plasticizers added to get the desired softness.
PVC - PVC is a common base ingredient used to make TPE sex toys. It is also known as vinyl and is found in cheap plastic around the house like light switches, plastic pipes, and plastic window frames. It is made from industrial grade salt (chlorine) and crude oil (carbon) giving it the name polyvinyl chloride, or (C2H3Cl)n. By itself it is a hard and opaque material that isn't dangerous. But it needs to be softened to make sex toys and this requires toxic plasticizers like phthalates.
Polystyrene - Is another common plastic polymer that can take many forms including styrofoam, plastic cups, and DVD cases. It is made from Benzene and highly flammable. When used to make dildos plasticizers are added to make it soft and squishy.
Latex - Latex comes from trees and was the first type of rubber people used. It occasionally makes an appearance in sex toys, especially inflatable dildos. Oil from your body breaks down these toys over time and they won't last long. There is also the risk for having a life-threatening allergic reaction. Latex is another material that is mixed in to make toys extra soft. It is the oldest type of rubber and was used until 1943 when synthetic rubbers were discovered. Latex can cause allergies which makes it one of the most deadly materials manufacturers use. If you have a latex allergy you really need to stick to safe sex toy materials from reputable companies.
Polyethylene - This is the most common type of plastic in the world and is used to make things like plastic bottles and plastic grocery bags. Chlorinated polyethylene can be crosslinked peroxidically to form an elastomer which is used in cable and rubber industry. There are many formations of this but it is most commonly two parts carbon and 4 parts hydrogen.
SBS - This means Styrene-butadiene-styrene and is a common type of TPE. It is soft and used to make electrical wires. It can be softened even more by using different types of oil additives. Another form of SBS is SEBS which is usually less shiny and holds its color longer.
EPDM - This is a type of synthetic rubber and stands for ethylene propylene diene monomer rubber.
Bad plasticizers are what put the toxic in unsafe sex toys. They are volatile oils and acids like phthalates that turn hard plastic into rubbers. They act as a mini lubricant that fits inbetween the molecules of the base ingredients, making a highly unstable mixture that will easily melt. When using toxic toys the plasticizers will leak out and cause rashes and burns for a few days. Safe plasticizers are natural and made from soybeans.
You've probably heard of phthalates before. They have had many studies proving they are dangerous and cause birth defects and death in rodents. They were banned in children's toys in the EU in 1998 and banned in 2018 in the USA.
The word phthalate which refers to three isomers—ortho-isomer or phthalic acid, tere-phthalic acid, and meta-isomer iso-phthalic acid. Ortho-phthalates are the ones commonly used with phthalates.
Chemistry: Grab your lab coats and test tubes, it's time for some technical details. Phthalates are made from reacting phthalic anhydride with alcohols such as methanol, ethanol, and tridecyl alcohol. When the phthalates are added to polymers like PVC they reduce the interactions between the neighboring polymer chains, almost like a mini molecular lubricant. This lowers the glass-transition temperature and makes it more flexible at room temperature. It's important to know that these are nonconvalent bonds meaning the structure is far from permanent. This means that when disturbed or stimulated by heat the bonds break and toys turn to goo, explaining the jar test.
So basically it is made from acids, and these acids will leak out into your body as you use the toy. No wonder it hurts.
Do sex toy manufacturers use them? Yes, especially the ones in China. Some toys can be as much as 70% phthalates according to Mantis Black from Tantus.
Smell - Dildos made from phthalates will smell like strong chemicals, similar to a new car. If you are exposed to too much of this odor you can get a headache and become sick.
Dangers - Most people who use a toy with phthalates get burning sensations, rashes, and blistering. The severity of the burns very depending on the number of phthalates and the amount the toy is used. Several studies show how the phthalate DNHP altered the male reproductive tract of rats during fetal development. These studies did use very high doses of phthatlates, almost 100 times what a child or mother would be exposed to. There haven't been any studies done on humans to do the risks involved for people. All we have are the large amount of accounts of burning sensations and doctor trips caused by using sex toys that contain phthalates.
Lately phthalates have been big news as bloggers and sex-positive shops push for awareness and try to hold manufacturers accountable. In response many shady companies label their toys as phthalates-free. This doesn't mean much though as there are plenty of plasticizers that are just as bad as phthatles.
Some phthalate alternatives:
Bio-based alternatives can be made from plant materials such as corn, soy, rice, wheat, and linseed, which makes them much less hazrdous. They are still new technologies and are mostly in the research stage. Theoretically they could be a future possibility for creating safer
Additives can be added to a mixture to change the color, make it more durable, more flame resistant, or more bacteria resistant. Usually additives try to make up for how unstable the mixture is, and it's better to just go for an inherently stable thermoset elastomer like silicone.
One example of this is sil-a-gel, a trademarked material of doc johnson. Another is antimicrobial silicone used in ear buds.
If you went to a bakery and every loaf of bread was labeled something like "Molly's awesome bread", how helpful would it be? You could look at the color and shape and get an idea if it interests you, but you wouldn't know what ingredients were in each loaf.
That's basically how shady dildo manufacturers label their sex toys. They make up names or use very vague and broad terms like "Skin-safe rubber".
Here is an example of some of the names the big manufacturers give their dildos.
On the spectrum of safe and dangerous sex toys there are a few that fall in the middle.
One characteristic of blended elastomer materials is that they are porous. Some other materials like unpolished stone dildos can also be porous.
Even though you can't always see the pores with the naked eye they are plenty big for bacteria to sneak in and get nice and deep beneath the surface. Almost like the toy is a sponge.
This is why the toy is so dangerous. You simply can't get it clean no matter what you do. The toy will retain vaginal fluids, lube, and any dust or dirt it comes into contact with. If you are guy it will absorb semen and if you use it anally it will have fecal matter stuck in it for good.
The main health risk of a porous toy is recurring bacteria infections. Because you can't get it clean the bacteria will culture and mold can even start to grow.
Nowadays we have plenty of non-porous silicone dildos to choose from, but for guys most penis toys are still made from elastomer blends. One toy that really sticks out is Fleshlight, which uses its on porous elastomer recipe to make its toy. Other companies like tenga also make toys from porous materials.
Because they are penetrable toys there isn't really the risk of bacteria infection in guys. However these toys can get gross pretty quickly and most guys have to throw them away after a few months of use. Even if it is cleaned right away they soak up semen like a sponge and no matter how well you wash it it will start to smell funny.
So far there are only a few silicone male masturbators like the fun factory ozone and the some bad dragon models.
Dangerous shapes are usually anal toys that can get stuck in your rectum when using them. If they do get stuck you need to take a trip to the ER to get them removed. Chinese manufacturers will market a toy on amazon as an anal toy, when it should only be a dildo. Only use toys anally if they are flared enough that they won't get stuck inside you.
Dangerous glass materials are those that are not properly annealed. Annealing is a delicate process that takes a lot of skill, resources, and proper machinery. An annealed dildo is strong and won't break as easily as other glass dildos.
It is also important to avoid glass dildos that are coated with a mysterious unknown varnish. These can contain materials like lead and cadmium, especially when they are made in Chinese factories.
Avoid toys that have sharp edges. This is a risk with some plastic vibrators that have an elastomer coating.
Poorly made vibrators and other toys with batteries can break while using them and lead to an electric shock. It is important to get a toy from a good company which won't break inside you.
As you can see every toy you buy from mysterious dealer is a box of mystery chemicals. I prefer to know what I am putting inside my body and more importantly, that it is safe!
Here are the best safe materials
Silicone is the worlds gift to sex toys.
Therefore Silicone is pretty much a no-brainer for most people. Progressive shops like Smitten Kitten, She Bop, and Babeland carry silicone instead of the other elastomer blends we mentioned.
Chemistry: Put on that lab coat again, it's time for technical details. Silicone is categorized as a thermoset elastomer which means that it can't be turned to liquid by heating it. The bonds are covalent chemical bonds unlike a thermoplastic like PVC which has noncovalent bonds that break when heated. If you do get silicone above 400 degrees (with a flame for example) it will turn to black ash.
Rubber silicone is made from the earth by obtaining a mineral called quartz. This can be seperated into pure silicon (notice the lack of an e) whic is a pure element on the periodic table. To get rubber silicone the silicon has chloral methane added and then goes through distallation processes. The kind used in dildos is called Difunctional chlorosilanes and that is what you can buy on amazon or what manufacturers buy to make their silicone dildos.
Glass is a non-porous material which makes it easy to clean.
There are two main types of glass material: borosilicate glass and soda-lime glass.
Borosilicate glass: This is one of the strongest types of glass there is. Almost all laboratory glassware uses this type of material so they can be sure it doesn't break. Borosilicate is made by combining and melting together boric oxide, silica sand, soda ash, and alumina. The boron atoms in the material are what allow it to handle heat much better than other materials. In fact it has a thermal expansion coefficient that is one-third of soda-glass, meaning it is three times more resistant to extreme changes in temperature.
Soda-Lime Glass: Is a common type of glass used to make all kinds of things, 90% of manufactured glass is estimated to be soda-lime. It gets its name because it contains sodium-oxide (soda) and calcium oxide (lime), but many other materials can be used to make it. It is weaker than borosilicate glass and when it has its temperature altered extremely it can shatter. Cheaper made-in-china sex toys use this material and they are more prone to breaking. But material isn't the only important issue the annealing (how it is heated and cooled) is also important.
Annealing glass is a delicate process that takes time, resources, and skill to be done properly. It slowly cools the glass to remove any internal stress making it as stable and strong as possible.
The ideal glass dildo is made from borosilicate glass and carefully annealed.
Glass dildos made from soda-lime and that aren't properly annealed, for example lovehoney and pipedream, still work and are much cheaper. Just know there is a risk of these breaking and some people that have them delivered find them broken right out of the box. It's important that you check a cheap glass dildo for cracks before you use it.
Glass toys that you must avoid
Some cheap glass dildos on amazon are sold with a glaze to them. This "luster" is highly toxic and can contain things like cadmium and lead. It's best to avoid these and stick to a glass dildo you can see through. Colored glass swirls are okay when made by glass artists, and are a common way to decorate an annealed borosilicate glass dildos.
Pull loops - Some glass dildos have glass loops that you can slip a finger through to control it. These are weak points in a glass toy and can break easily. There are a few stories of them breaking off when inserted analy.
The Bottom Line
Stick to see-through glass dildos made from reputable manufacturers. Properly annealed borosilicate glass is the strongest. Cheap glass dildos are usually made from soda-lime and more likely to break, and glass toys with a glaze and that have a hoop.
Toys made from 100% medical grade stainless steel are about as safe as it gets. They are super smooth and are quick to heat up. And feel nice and weighty in your hand. Medical grade stainless steel is also called surgical grade, and it's used in surgery tools, biomedical implants, and piercings.
You can't say metal sex toys without bringing up NJoy a company that specializes in metal sex toys. Their target market is people looking for elegant sex toys and their prices range from $70 to $300. They also make only 'omnisexual' products which means toys that can be used by either men or women.
If you have never heard of wooden sex toys it might not sound super appealing. But the reality is these are some of the silkiest and smoothest toys there are, and they look gorgeous!
The secret to making a wooden toy safe is the waterproof coating. After the toy is carved, polished, and smoothed a medical grade sealant is added that is completely impermeable. The sealant is made from a polymer of some kind and is phthalate-free, odorless, and non-porous. Most likely a type of epoxy or polyurethane finish.
Good places to find wooden toys are nobessence, lumberjill, and also Etsy. These toys come in all kinds of interesting shapes that aren't possible with other materials.
Ceramic is a great material because it is not porous and is very smooth. One of the best companies for this is myfuchisa.com which creates porcelain dildos in a fun a creative way.
Stone toys are made from highly polished stone and make for a heavy toy. You can find them with or without sealants depending on the type of stone. Some can be slightly porous so it is important to ask any Etsy craftor about the materials used and make sure it is safe.
Stone is mostly used to make buttplugs and dildos and there are a lot of options on Etsy.
A common material in jelly toys in benzene which is highly flammable. By taking a flame to your dildo you can check that it is silicone and not jelly.
This is a technique that Matis Black mentions in several of her interviews. You lick the toy and then if your tongue goes numb you know that it is dangerous. It's not my favorite test just because licking it is kind of gross in my opinion. As an alternative to this I just smell it and if it smells chemically I know it has phthalates - this takes more experience though.
You can use a polariscope to check if your toy is properly annealed. A cheap polariscope is about $30 on amazon and is used by jewelers and geologists.
It will reveal the flow of the glass and show you how it cooled. If the toy shows rainbow colors it is weaker and more fragile than a clear toy.
You can get a simple lead testing kit that will show you if a toy contains lead. Lead can appear in glass toys with a varnish coating on them.
There are still very few regulations on sex toys. The government is hesitant to fund any studies and there are many loopholes that shady companies use to get by with making cheap toys.
The FDA is responsible for approving medical devices. Since sex toys are considered novelties they don't have to approve them before they hit the market. So there is nothing stopping dildos filled with materials that are not approved for things like spoons and children's toys.
The consumer protection service commission does oversee sex toys. However they do not test them before they are released to the public.
It's only when the receive consumer reports of dangerous toys that they will investigate and do recalls on novelty items. But most people are too embarrassed or blame themselves when a toy causes burns.
While sex toys should be classified as medical devices, most are not. Instead they are considered novelties.
A novelty means that it is intended to be for visual and aesthetic purposes. By selling toys as novelties stores can get away with selling dildos made of cheap and dangerous materials.
Since sex toys have little regulation it's up to you to find the good sex toy manufacturers. Over the last 20 years there have been more and more sex positive shops you can choose from and most big cities have one by now.
XXX Shops - AVOID
These are shady sex shops with names like XXX World. You will find their shops near strip clubs and they will have all their toys in their packaging, and you can't touch or smell them. Much of the packaging is aggressive and disrespectful to women.
Amazon - Amazon brands itself a store that sells everything. But the way they do this is by allowing anyone to sell on the Amazon as a 'merchant'. This means chinese companies can put up copycat products for sale and can sell the most toxic and dangerous toys manufactured. This makes it a risky gamble to buy sex toys on Amazon, especially dildos. However for some niche items like sex swings and sex furniture it can have cheaper prices.
If you do buy something on Amazon be sure to read the reviews first to see what people say about it. I try to make sure that whatever I buy has at least 15 reviews. Anything with no reviews is probably re-listed because the old product had negative reviews. Don't be the first one to experiment with a new product that has no reviews.
Lovehoney, Adam & Eve - There are other big ecommerce stores online that sell all kinds of dildos. I try to avoid lovehoney and adam&eve because they don't clearly label the products and stock all kinds of made-in-china toys made from mystery rubbers.
The absolute best place to buy sex toys is your local sex-positive shop. These are usually woman owned and have very friendly staff and free educational workshops.
Many of these shops also have their own websites you can order products from if you are not close enough to their store.
Some manufacturers that swear by body safe toys
Phthalate Risks and Alternatives - University of Maryland - https://calce.umd.edu/phthalate-risks-and-alternatives
Phthalates and Male Reproductive Tract Development - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK453249/