Medically reviewed by Sarah Melancon, Ph.D
There are still no government regulations when it comes to sex toy materials. The vast majority are labeled with a disclaimer “for novelty use only” and are not evaluated at all by the FDA 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:
- Blistering skin
- Carcinogen exposure
- Allergic reactions
- Bacteria Infections
- Reproductive toxicity and other health effects including type II diabetes, obesity, allergies and asthma
Sex toy blogger Epiphoria has collected some horrifying anecdotes about dangerous sex toys across the web:
A double-ended dildo that felt like fire in someone’s ass. A ball gag that numbed someone’s mouth for days after mere minutes of use. A butt plug that leached chemicals through a condom... Pain so severe that the person could barely speak... Recurring UTIs and other infections. Lists of symptoms that seem like they’re from a drug commercial: headaches, nausea, lower back pain, and severe discomfort when urinating.
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. Many are manufactured in China and have no available description of their materials.
Intriguingly, sex toy-related injuries appear to be rising. Rates were declining 1995-1999 but have been steadily and dramatically increasing since 2000. Researchers believe this may be because sex toy use has also risen during this period, as toys have become more easily accessible online, so with higher use comes a greater number of injuries. This would include increased exposure to toxic toys.
In 2001, German magazine Stern enlisted the help of a chemist to examine sex toy materials. They were shocked at the “extraordinarily high” levels of unsafe chemicals. A toxicologist from the University of Kiel deemed it “sheer insanity.” Greenpeace tested 8 different sex toys and found 7 contained phthalates, a common form of toxic chemicals (described in greater detail below). They found 24-51% of each toy was composed of phthalates. In addition, the Danish government tested 15 sex toys and found 10 to contain phthalates, in concentrations ranging from 0.07 to 70%. Some toys also contained lead, cadmium and tin.Many sex bloggers and sex therapists suggest using a condom on potentially dangerous sex toys. However, this isn't a perfect solution, as there are reports on the internet of chemicals leaching through condoms. In addition, some toys contain mineral oil, which would lead a condom to break down. Rubber toys themselves can also break down with latex condom exposure.
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.
Categories of Rubber
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. In fact, sex toy blogger Dangerous Lilly created a “jar of horrors” initially filled to the brim with jelly toys, which can be seen melting over time. 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. Phthalates may be absorbed orally, by inhalation or through the skin, including mucous membranes like genital tissue. They were banned in children's toys in the EU temporarily in 1999, then permanently in 2005. The US banned 3 types of phthalates from kid's toys in 2008, in concentrations greater than 0.1%, and added 4 more types in 2018.Alarmingly, the EPA has said 0 is the only safe level for DEHP, a type of phthalate, in drinking water. Similarly, the FDA recommends against medical supplies that contain DEHP when patients could be exposed at high levels. California’s Prop 65, which requires publication of known carcinogens each year, includes DEHP on the list. Further, the CPSC (Consumer Protection Service Commission) has labeled phthalate DEHP as toxic due to long-term impact on fetuses and to the liver, kidneys, testes, uterus, ovaries and thyroid. Though over half the population has used sex toys, there are no regulations to keep them safe.
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. Jelly toys are very common, and testing from the Danish government revealed the material to be PVC mixed with phthalates. Up to 70% of the toy may be composed of phthalates.
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. Early studies on phthalates showed toxicity to the male rat's reproductive tract. However now we have dozens and dozens of human studies. These demonstrate phthalates are toxic to both the male and female reproductive tract and are also associated with type II diabetes, obesity, allergies and asthma. This is definitely not something you want inside the most sensitive areas of your body!
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 phthalates..
Phthalate Alternatives, Better? Or Just Different
Some phthalate alternatives:
- Hexamoll DINCH
- acetyl tributyl citrate (ATBC)
- dioctyl terephthalate (DOTP)
- 2,2,4-trimethyl 1,3-pentanediol diisobutyrate (TXIB)
- trioctyl trimellitate (TOTM)
- di-(2-ethylhexyl) adipate (DEHA)
Researchers believe these may be safer than traditional phthalates, however, there is still a concerning lack of data to make this conclusion. Data on continuous exposure as these become more prevalent is lacking; what may be safe in small doses may become chronically unsafe. As these become more commonplace, risk ratios for toxicity may increase.
Bio-based alternatives can be made from plant materials such as corn, soy, rice, wheat, and linseed, which makes them much less hazardous. They are still new technologies and are mostly in the research stage. Theoretically they could be a future possibility for creating safer sex toys. Thus far, they appear safe with comparable performance of traditional plasticizers.
- epoxidized sunflower oil (ESO) (as coplasticiser)
- epoxidized soyabean oil (ESBO)
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. According to Doc Johnson (as described by sex toy blogger, Dangerous Lilly), Sil-A-Gel is an “antibacterial compound,” though no data exists to demonstrate it is safe or in fact, antibacterial. Notice that Sil-A-Gel sounds similar to silicone? Remember how companies try to mislead consumers? This is just one example. Another additive is antimicrobial silicone used in ear buds.
Trademark Material Names
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. Similar to Sil-A-Gel, 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.
- Doc Johnson
Toys That Aren't Toxic, But Still Aren't Great
On the spectrum of safe and dangerous sex toys there are a few that fall in the middle.
- Non-toxic but porous materials
- Glass toys that aren't properly annealed
- Dangerous shapes
There are porous materials that are generally considered safe and non-toxic for sex toys. These include thermoplastic rubber and thermoplastic elastomer. Unfortunately, a majority of toys are made of porous rubber polymers that are inexpensive and may be highly toxic or easily break down. Blended elastomer materials are also porous. Some other materials like unpolished stone dildos can be porous as well.
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. There is also a risk of STI transmission if toys are shared between partners. Human papillomavirus has been found present on toys even 24 hours after cleaning.
Porous Male Masturbators
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.
Unflared Anal Toys
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. Injury to the rectum are the most common documented sex toy-related injury. In a study examining data from emergency room visits, over 78% of all sex toy injuries were in the anal region; this included over 95% of injuries for males. A study in Sweden found increased rates of anal toy injuries between 2005 and 2016. The national incidence of “rectal foreign bodies” (a.k.a., foreign objects stuck inside the rectum) in Sweden grew from 1.4 to 2.3 per 100,000 for men, and 0.3 to 0.6 per 100,000 for women. 41% of these objects were sex toys, while the remaining 59% included cans, bottles, candles and food (please don't put cans, bottles, candles or food in your rectum!). 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 or have a well-attached string so they won't get stuck inside you. Lubrication is also very important to protect against trauma to the anal region.
Dangerous Glass Materials
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, which can cause cuts and tears. 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 or unsafe wiring, which can cause an electric shock. It is important to get a toy from a good company.
Safe Toys Made From Known Materials
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! Plus, non-porous materials are much easier to keep clean.
Here are the best safe materials
- 100% Silicone or Medical-Grade Silicone
- Borosciliate Glass
- Stainless Steel, or Polished Metal
- Finished Wood
Silicone is the world's gift to sex toys.
- It's non-porous, and can be cleaned to good as new condition
- Feels silky and smooth
- Can be made in different densities for different feelings
- Can't cause allergic reactions (it's also used in medical equipment)
- Heat and cold resistant - It can withstand temperatures up to 400 degrees F and temperatures as cold as -100 F. So you can boil it to sanitize it or stick it in the freezer to chill a drink.
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 non-covalent 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 separated into pure silicon (notice the lack of an e) which is a pure element on the periodic table. To get rubber silicone the silicon has chloral methane added and then goes through distillation 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.Be wary, however, about labels. Some toys are labeled silicone that have a very low percentage, and are mixed with other types of material. 100%, medical-grade silicone from a quality manufacturer is ideal.
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 anally.Some clinicians recommend against the use of glass toys anally, because broken glass in the anal canal will require surgery. In addition, extreme caution should be used for vaginal glass toys.
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.
DIY Sex Toy Testing
The Flame Test
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.
The Lick Test
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, and as the Danish government found, in other toys as well.
Sex Toy Regulations
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. That means the only “sex toys” approved by the FDA are considered “therapeutic” vibrators. These are very expensive devices intended for people with medically-diagnosed sexual dysfunction (including erectile dysfunction and sexual dysfunction due to spinal cord injury). They require a doctor's prescription and range in price from $179 to $850, far out of most people's budget. It is unlikely the FDA will oversee a wider range of sex toys because getting approval is much more expensive and time-consuming than most toy manufacturers can go through. Products overseen by the FDA must be designed for a specific medical problem and require extensive testing, but most people use sex toys for personal enjoyment more than medical problems. So sadly, the FDA cannot and most likely, will not, regulate consumer sex toys.
The Consumer Protection Service Commission regulates consumer products that cause injuries, but 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. Unlike other products (say, children's toys tainted with lead paint), it is highly unlikely sex toy users will organize to advocate for greater regulation, so sadly sex toys remain in a regulatory gray zone.
The Novelty Label
Sex toys typically carry a label, “for novelty use only.” 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. This label, however, is largely meaningless. Courts have ruled that manufacturers are still liable for their products. However, the label is used to dissuade consumers from pursuing litigation for faulty products and because there is a taboo against sex, consumers do not hold them liable.
Safe Sex Toy Retailers and Manufacturers
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.
Beware of Everything Shops
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, 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.
- Smitten Kitten
- Early To Bed
- Good Vibrations
- She Vibe
Some manufacturers that swear by body safe toys
- Vixen Creations
- Crystal Delights
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/
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[…] my goals is to promote awareness of toxic sex toy materials, and help put the companies making them out of business (or at least force them to switch to safer […]