There’s a trust inherent in buying something from a store. If it’s for sale, it must be safe. While that’s mostly true in many industries in America, it’s not the case for one surprising sector: sex toys.
As a sex educator who specializes in sex toys and material safety, I have talked often with bloggers, educators, manufacturers, and retail store owners about toxic sex toys. This is a big issue that is only just beginning to gain traction beyond the murmurs that have been happening within the industry for the past decade or so.
“Most people are shocked to realize that nobody is stopping companies from making sex toys out of whatever materials they want, then labelling them however they please,” laments Epiphora, a snarky sex toy reviewer with six years (and 400 sex toy reviews) of experience. “It upsets me to see people so disillusioned with sex toys.”
If there’s any product customers want to make sure is nontoxic, it’s toys that they’ll be sticking into their most intimate places. But in a society where politicians are uncomfortable hearing the the word vagina, it’s unsurprising that there is little regulation of the adult toy industry and little research into the effects of sex toys and accessories can have on the body. Meanwhile, millions of Americans use sex toys and their acceptance is on the rise, with a 2009 study showing that 52.5 percent of American women have used a vibrator.
Manufacturers aren’t required to care about the toxicity of their toys. Although many sex toys are designed to be used internally, they’re not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration like medical-grade products. Instead, sex toys are considered “for novelty use only,” and manufacturers can fill dildos, vibrators, and cock rings with materials that are known to be harmful and that are regulated in other industries. They can be shaped in ways that are at best unpleasurable for implied use.
This was a serious enough issue for the Danish Environmental Protection Agency to take it on. In 2005, they randomly chose 16 sex toys and tested their chemical composition. Four had phthalates, a component of plastic that is banned from kids’ toys in the United States and EU because it has been linked to birth defects and changes in hormone levels. One of the sex toys also had trimethhyltin chloride, five contained phenol, and 14 contained toluene, all of which are chemicals on the California governor’s list of chemicals that are cancerous or cause reproductive harm.
“Chemicals illegal in pet toys and playthings for children are permitted in items designed for internal use,” says sex blogger and educator Lorax of Sex. “The companies are making these for use, and they need to be held to some sort of health and safety standards.”
Sometimes people using adult toys have reactions to these things—like chemical burns, itching, upper respiratory irritation—while others are exposing themselves to dangerous chemicals without immediate negative reactions. While many doctors often do not realize that the people complaining of irritation might be having these problems due to caustic sex toys, retailers and educators have been hearing about it for years.
“The story we often hear is from customers who have purchased cheap jelly dildos or vibrators, only to find the toy would cause severe burning and itching,” says Laura Anne Stuart, educator and owner of The Tool Shed, a feminist boutique adult store in Milwaukee.
Since the industry is unregulated, the burden of making sure sex toys are safe falls on retailers and consumers themselves. Some manufacturers and retailers have made it part of their mission to make sure the adult products they sell are safe. Blogger The Redhead Bedhead compiled a list of 17 “superhero shops” that guarantee they sell high quality, body-safe products and some stores, like Minneapolis' Smitten Kitten, overtly state that they sell only "nontoxic toys." Babeland, which has stores in Seattle and New York, says they spent years seeking out sex toys and lubes that they could make sure were safe. By 2009, they had eliminated all products with phthalates from their stores.
A Valentine's window display at Babeland's Seattle store. Photo via The Stranger.
Sex stores that strive to sell only body-safe products are frustrated that manufacturers are not required to accurately label all the ingredients in their toys. Some companies mislabel poor quality products while using buzzwords like “silicone” even if a toy isn’t pure silicone. Unfortunately, running actual tests on the materials of products is expensive. Upstart sex toy testing group Dildology (slogan: “In Dildo Veritas”) has recently started sending sex toys in for lab tests to determine their chemical makeup, shelling out $200-400 per test and publicly reporting the results. The manufacturer of the “James Deen Realistic” dildo that got Dildology’s “stamp of failure” in May took the time to rebut the group’s testing and declare its product safe.
Instead of being able to test products themselves, stores and consumers have to rely on know-how that is accrued over years and deal strictly with companies known to be trustworthy while avoiding companies that have gotten a bad reputation.
“We did a lot of research before we opened and we really limit the companies that we deal with to ones that we trust and have relationships with. It's really the less expensive toys from the big manufacturers that you need to worry about the most,” says Evy Cowan, one of the co-owners of She Bop in Portland. “We don't trust the softer materials from those bigger manufacturers because they can say whatever they want about what it's made of and it doesn't have to be true, which is extremely frustrating.”
To test whether a product is actually made of 100 percent silicone, sex toy retailers and reviewers have created an usual test: sticking the sex toy into a flame. If it’s pure silicone, the sex toy under investigation will just become smudged with black and can easily be cleaned. If it’s not pure, it will start to melt.
She Bop employee Wyatt Riot "flame tests" a silicone dildo—luckily, the dildo passed the test.
Flame testing is not 100 percent accurate—read more about the test before you try it yourself.
“I personally only really trust my silicone to companies who deal exclusively in silicone,” says Lorax of Sex. “The giant companies who made their names hawking jelly toys who are now labelling things as ‘phthalate free’ ‘silicone grade’ and such? I don’t trust them.”
The most obvious sign that the adult toy industry is largely unregulated is the “For Novelty Use Only” notice many manufacturers put on the packaging of their adult toys. While many consumers think this shields companies from liability, sex toy reviewer Dangerous Lilly believes the label is more of a relic than a successful way to prevent lawsuits or as a sign to consumers that the product could be unsafe. “It's done to show that it's not a product that would fall under ‘medical use’ which involves the FDA,” says Dangerous Lilly, who blogged about this topic. “Since the warning can appear on any sex toy, and has appeared on brands that we know are trustworthy, I don't feel it has any bearing on the accountability of the company.”
Even at a reliable store, there is still no guarantee that a sex toy you buy will be safe. The final burden falls on sex toy consumers to determine as much as possible whether a product they’re buying is safe. Talk to reputable, honest reviewers who speak openly about materials.
It’s important for people who use sex toys to get some knowledge about the products you’re getting off with. Learn about safe materials: silicone, glass, metal, specially treated wood, ABS hard plastic, and ceramic—all of which are non-porous and hypoallergenic if made by an honest company, and able to be sterilized. We need to have all-inclusive sex education that gives us the knowledge to have conversations with partners and ourselves for a healthy relationship with our sexuality, and since this isn’t readily available right now in public education systems, it’s something we have to seek out for ourselves. With a lack of standards and widespread education, many sex toy lovers, like reviewer Dangerous Lilly and myself, make lists of companies we trust.
Sex toys are called toys for a reason—they should be fun and carefree; there isn’t much that’s less sexy than itching and burning when you’re trying to relax and have a good time. But don’t hold your breath waiting for reform from above.
“When our society no longer sees dildos and vibrators and buttplugs as ‘weird’ or ‘abnormal’ or ‘dirty’ then we can start to see the honest health based discussions that need to happen,” says Lorax of Sex. “Then people might be more likely to step forward and take the steps towards legal action to get some regulation within the industry.”