Unsafe Sex Products and Toys – Consumer Beware

Sex toys are an awesome gateway to an incredible sex life. These silly, bizarre little (or big) things can lead to hours of orgasmic exploration, self-discovery, sexual self-reliance and even deeper intimacy between couples (or a hilarious comedy of errors, depending).

But not everything mass-marketed for sex is safe to use. Plainly put, there are “novelties” and there are toys made for sex. Confused? Most sex toys (and products) that you’ll find in garden-variety retail sex toys stores are created, marketed and sold “for novelty use only”, meaning that while the toy companies explicitly know that people are using their toys for sexual use, they sell them categorized as “novelties”. Why they do this is anyone’s guess; perhaps it’s so they can avoid responsibility for faulty merchandise, as many sex toys are made poorly (almost all novelty sex toys are made cheaply in Chinese factories), or perhaps it’s so they can make outrageous claims on the packaging and marketing materials.

* New research on phthalates — found in common jelly rubber sex toys — suggests we have more to worry about than we thought.

* It’s from 2008, but you should still read my San Francisco Chronicle article on this topic, Not all butt plugs should glow in the dark – As concerns grow about toxic sex toys, Violet Blue explores potential consumer health risks

* Listen to the audio version, Open Source Sex 29: Unsafe Sex Products (MP3)

The short of it is that because sex toy companies label their products “for novelty use only”, they can get away with anything — even though they explicitly know their products are for sexual use (genital application). It’s clear that they just don’t give a shit if anyone gets hurt using their products. Same goes for the scary chemical materials many companies use in the manufacture of their toys (mostly in China), but that’s another rant, for another day.

Novelty sex toys are the most widely available as they have a virtual stranglehold on American distribution, and they are the least expensive. In practical terms, this is not such a bad thing. You’ll find the widest selection and best prices in the novelty toy market, making these toys a great place to try new things without breaking the bank; getting a certain size, shape or functionality you desire; or for finding that exact shade of pink you prefer. Novelties often feature the latest innovations in design and use — but also tend to break easily, some are made with noxious materials, and they can ship defective with user-unfriendly return policies.

Technically speaking, novelties aren’t made for sex, but they can conjure an orgasm pretty well. Identifying these toys in stores is easy, as they have the most polished, or garish (and sometimes offensive) packaging, “for novelty use” is printed somewhere on the package, and they typically come from companies such as Doc Johnson, Pipedream or Adam and Eve. In any case, it’s always “buyer beware” when purchasing a sex toy, and nowhere is it more essential for the consumer to be prepared with knowledge about the products, even before plunking down $5 on a plastic discount vibrator.

Not all sex toys are sold as novelties; the ones made for sex that come from independent manufacturers are created with the consumer’s pleasure as their express purpose. There are a growing number of high-quality sex toy companies in the United States and the U.K. who do not market their toys as novelties, and prize sexual health and pleasure as the key building blocks of both their businesses and their products. Many of these companies are women-owned, though many have as yet to break into the “old boys’ network” of distribution to novelty stores. You can find products — or rather, “pleasure instruments” — from Tantus, Vixen Creations, Fun Factory, d.vice, Vibratex and Sportsheets online and in sex toy boutiques that hand-pick their product selections. These companies have raised the bar on what people expect when they plunk down their hard-earned cash for something nice to shove up their (our) butts.

Novelty Products Not Safe At Any Speed

* Nonoxynol-9 removes skin. Really. Avoid any and all lube, condoms and “toy cleaner” with Nonoxynol-9. N-9 is a detergent that has been shown to cause cervical abrasions, strips away rectal lining, and only kills HIV/AIDS in clinical settings. if you’re curious, look for the article, “The Nonoxynol-9 Scandal: How ‘AIDS Prevention’ Put Women and Gay Men at Risk by Patrick Califia” and also read, “The Scandal of Nonoxynol-9“.

* Anal-Eze can really hurt you. Lubricants with benzocaine, and numbing agents such as Anal-Eze, “good head gel” and desensitizing creams contain oils, flavors and colorings, and they are very unsafe. Numbing the back of your throat, the penis, the vagina, and especially the anus can lead to serious injury and infections that can (and often) land users in the doctor’s office or ER. Think: you can’t feel the skin breaking or tearing, and if it’s the anus, there’s fecal bacteria. When you can’t feel pain, you are getting injured, period. Pain sucks, but it’s an important tool during anal play, telling you something’s not right. If it hurts you’re either going too fast, you need more lube, the item is too big, you’re not aroused enough, or you’re not really in the mood. And when I researched my fellatio book, I communicated briefly with a dentist who’d seen signifigant bruising *inside* the throat of a female patient — again, just think about it.

* No one knows if “Shrink Creams” can hurt you. Widely available “shrink creams”, “sure grip”, “tighten up” and “feel like a virgin again” claim to make the vagina smaller or tighter. The key ingredient in these creams is alum. Alum absorbs water out of the outer layer of the skin; as more water is absorbed, the cells begin to swell, closing the ducts that water would normally flow through. No study has been done on the effect of these creams on the cervix, which is what they eventually end up getting rubbed on during penetration, but I’ll wager it’s not good. I kind of want to make the manufacturers snort a thick rail of alum, so they can study the effects on their own mucous membranes. What I really hate about these “shrink” creams is the fact that they’re trading on female insecurities about the vagina not being tight, pretty or good enough for their male partner — like we need any negative reinforcement from our pussy-phobic culture about how we look, feel or smell down there. The marketing text runs, “China Shrink Cream is formulated to tighten the vaginal walls. China Shrink Cream is to help with loose vagina due to multiple child birth and frigidity.” I also want to throw up every time I see the packaging on these creams, as they are often called “oriental” or “China Shrink Cream”, paralying off of racist stereotypes and exotifying Asian “sexual mystery”, much the same way the porn industry fetishizes skin color and markets (I think racist) negative stereotypes about black male sexuality with its “interracial” videos.

* Beware any toy sold as an anal toy that doesn’t have a flared base. Novelty companies put “anal” on the packaging of toys unsafe for anal use *all the time*, and no one wants a trip to the ER to get a Pocket Rocket removed, even if the package said “anal” on it.

Sex Toy Materials

There’s no doubt: what the toy is made of makes all the difference in the world. Most commercially available sex toys are made of hard plastic, jelly rubber, silicone, vinyl and softskin (aka Cyberskin or Futurotic). But there are two basic hygienic differences you’ll need to know when choosing a toy: porous versus non-porous materials.

Non-porous toys are made of materials (like silicone, hard plastic, glass, metal and stone) that are easy to clean and do not retain bacteria in the tiny pockets or pores in the surface. What this means is that when you clean one of these toys, they’re completely clean and don’t have the potential to carry STDs or bacteria that can infect (or re-infect) the user. Plastic, glass and Pyrex, metal and stone sex toys can be rendered sterile surfaces by washing with unscented antibacterial soap (like Hibiclens) or a solution of 1:10 bleach and water (1:10 alcohol and water is a fine alternative).

Many consider silicone the perfect sex toy material. Of course, the popularity of silicone toys caused the ethics-free novelty sex toy industry to start incorrectly labeling jelly rubber toys as silicone (or sili-gel) to make more sales — again, buyer beware. Private companies make silicone toys from medical-grade silicone, so you should never be able to see through a silicone toy; real silicone is always opaque. The surface is 100% pore-free, and these toys have a silky-smooth surface, can range from very firm to floppy-soft, and they warm quickly to body temperature and retain their heat for a long time. Silicone toys can be boiled for up to five minutes or run in the top rack of the dishwasher for complete sterilization, which is especially awesome for anal toys. Some silicone toys react badly to silicone lubricants, so it’s best to use water-based lubes with your silicone toys.

Most sex toys are made of a material usually referred to as jelly rubber, though you’ll also see variations like jel-lee, latex jelly, or derivatives like glow-in-the-dark and “realistic” materials such as softskin, Cyberskin or Futurotic. Jelly rubber toys are very colorful, clear (though not always), shiny and visually appealing. It’s the ultimate “mystery material”, mass-produced in mostly Chinese chemical factories with so many mixtures and versions of the material it’s difficult to pin down a set of manufacturer’s ingredients.

It is known that these mystery materials contain latex and phthalates, they have a very chemical smell, they leach oils and can leave spots on fabrics and wood, and the surface breaks down over time. Softskin, Cyberskin and Futurotic toys are especially strange; while they feel amazingly real, they react bizarrely with other jelly rubber toys and actually melt into wet puddles of chemical goo upon contact — needless to say, don’t store these two materials side-by-side. Softskin is the most porous toy of all, able to absorb color from lipstick and even text from newsprint.

No one knows for sure how safe these toys are for internal use; again, it’s the novelty industry so we can surmise that it’ll be about 800 years before clinical tests are done on the long-term effects of jelly rubber chemicals are on the cervix and lower colon. Some people have no problems with jelly rubber toys and have used them for years uneventfully (except for the orgasm part, which is certainly an event). Others have had serious reactions to the latex, or other unknown chemicals, ranging from anaphylactic shock from latex allergy to recurring infections. Here you’ll find an article about the possible harmful and carcinogenic nature of these toys; here is a startling piece about a German chemist’s study that found ten toxic chemicals in jelly rubber.

Which is why many sex toy boutiques (and I) recommend that you use a condom on any jelly rubber or softskin toy that enters your body. If you have no reaction to jelly rubber, and most people don’t, remember to keep the toy really clean. Wash these toys with unscented antibacterial soap (like Hibiclens) or a solution of 1:10 bleach and water (alcohol and water is a fine substitute). Waterproof toys are wonderful in this regard, as they can be completely submerged during cleaning. Consider porous toys disposable, and once it’s been used for anal play, make it an anal-only toy. Keep an eye on the surface; once it becomes dull it’s starting to break down and you can never be sure you’re getting it clean; toss it out and get a new one. And hey — doesn’t everyone want an excuse to go sex toy shopping?

Good Pussy Health Precautions

* Avoid lubes with sugar, colorings and flavors in them. Glycerin/glycerol is a sugar — read the lube’s ingredients, because yes Virginia, Astroglide contains sugar. Sugar feeds yeast: think about it. Nine times out of ten when I worked in sex toy retail this was the cause of most women’s irritation.

* And that means no whipped cream, chocolate or pussy sundaes, either. Sugar caution also applies to well-meaning lovers who go down on you with a cough drop or mint in her/his mouth.

* Don’t get oil in there either — oils are difficult to flush out of the vagina, though silicone lubes are fine (even though they feel a lot like oil). Mmmm, silicone lube (one brand recently tested and passed FDA regulations for safety). Try to use pussy friendly water-based lubes.

* Always pee after sex, even if it’s sex with yourself. If you have frequent bladder infections, this might be your solution.

* Avoid harsh soaps with intense scent or a high pH, like Ivory and ‘deodorant’ soaps. Use glycerin soaps if you think the soap might be a factor.

* Don’t douche. Just don’t. Douching kills all the good flora and fauna that keeps your pussy healthy.

* Drink plenty of water. Ever drink lots of coffee and no water and have your pee sting? That’s your urethra (G-spot area) getting irritated and pleading for water.

* Is your lover touching your pussy with clean hands? Don’t ever be afraid to have them use a glove or ask them to wash their hands.

* Never go from back door to front (anus to vagina).

* What’s your sex toy made of? (See above section.) When in doubt, try to use silicone sex toys (or metal, glass or Pyrex), or cover your toy with a condom. Keep condoms handy so you don’t have to hassle with washing a toy when you don’t want to get out of bed.

* If you’ve been using a jelly toy with no irritation but suddenly start experiencing irritation, time for a new toy (or start using it with a condom). Jelly toys are porous and can retain bacteria even after washing.

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Responsible retailers:

Babeland (blog) * Blissbox * Blowfish * Come As You Are * Condomania * Eve’s Garden * Forbidden Fruit * Good Vibes * Hidden Self * Libida * Pleasure Chest * The Smitten Kitten * South Coast Pleasure * Stockroom (blog, forums) * Tickled Online * A Woman’s Touch * Womyn’s Ware

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Reader and listener comments, via email:

* You list Vibratex as one of the companies that carries cheap, unsafe products with “often … garish packaging”. I disagree — I think Vibratex is one of the most responsible, innovative toy companies around today. Their products are almost all very high-quality, and they are doing great work with improving the materials their toys are made of. They have been using lots of elastomer in their newest toys (information is available on their website, at www.vibratex.com), which is a big step forward in the industry, and something no other companies are delving into. Elastomers are silicone-free, latex-free, and phthalate-free, but still flexible and very durable, and easy to clean. It doesn’t get more safe than that! I do want to thank you, though, for writing this article in the first place. At our store, we had a chemist test all our toys for phthalates as soon as we heard they might be dangerous, back in the late ’90s. Every toy that was found to have phthalates was taken off our shelves. Thanks for helping publicize this issue! Sincerely,
Molly Webb, A Woman’s Touch

* Currently I head a basic research department at a multibillion dollar international pharma company. I can’t offer to perform any analyses of sex toys for you, but I’d be happy to give you an off the record opinion on chemical and health related matters if it would help you prepare your outstanding podcast. The least I can do is help you with the pronunciation of “phthalates”. The hard part is the “phth-” which is pronounced F-TH in one breath. Most people fake it and only pronounce the TH. If your friend Hal came over for dinner, you’d say “Hal ate.” Say it with a PHTH or just TH and it’s pthalate. The plural ends like “eights”. Hope that’s clear. I’m a huge fan! It’s refreshing to hear someone telling the truth. All my best, S

* While I’m not strictly an epidemiologist, or an infectious disease specialist, those are part of my practice (emergency medicine). (..) bleach 1:10 is rapidly falling out of favor for disinfection purposes. It is known to break down rapidly and have limited disinfection properties, some studies say within 10 minutes of mixing it. Various forms of OSHA are hammering down on agencies that use bleach for disinfection. Alcohol is also not a good method to decon, as the concentration range is pretty thin….outside the range doesn’t kill much, and in some circumstances can encapsulate the bug and make it more survivable in the short term. It would
be interesting to see a study done on the various forms of home decon… I suspect boiling water would be best, followed by a dishwasher as a close second. And THANK YOU for this show specifically, a lot of people deserve to know the risks they undertake by purchasing inferior products, I really appreciate you taking the time to do this. Take care, J

* I’m a chemistry graduate student, so I thought I’d try to answer your chemistry questions. I’d like everyone to know a bit more chemistry, because it’s not all bad for you.

Phthalate is pronounced with a silent ph (don’t ask me why) and with the accent on the first syllable so it’s “thal-ate” with a long A at the beginning so it rhymes with the first syllable of phallic. I’m guessing that the jelly rubber is partly a phthalate polymer and this is leftover monomer that’s leaching out.

The list of toxic chemicals found in the sex toys is mostly common solvents. Off the top of my head I know that: Toluene and especially Phenol are nasty carcinogens. Dimehtylformamide is an embryo-feto toxin. “Alkane” is amusing to me because it’s not a specific compound, its a more general term for a class of chemicals, but gasoline is mostly made of alkanes, so it’s not exactly good for you. I wouldn’t recommend eating or breathing any of the things on the list in large quantities.

With any chemical that you have a safety question (or even household products) you should be able to look up a “Material Safety Data Sheet” or MSDS for it. They’ll usually tell you what routes they’re toxic by and have some data from testing in animals. The MSDSs for the phosphites seem to say that they to are cause cancer and aren’t good for babies. It also says that the dimethyl phosphite is incompatable with water, which makes me wonder how it lived in the air long enough for this guy to detect it.

I hope that was helpful. I’m certainly sticking to silicone. The Fun Factory toys are great, although they like things with faces and animal shapes and I find that a bit disturbing. Keep up the good work, M

* More comments at the Open Source Sex audio show notes for this podcast episode.

Violet Blue

The London Times named Violet Blue "One of the 40 bloggers who really count" and Self Magazine named TinyNibbles one of the “Best Sex Resources for Women.” Blue is an autodidact and pundit on sex and technology, hacking and security, porn for women, privacy and bleeding-edge tech culture. She is a journalist for ZDNet, CBS News, CNET; she's an educator, speaker, crisis counselor, volunteer NGO trainer, and the author and editor of over 40 award-winning books.

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{ 3 comments }

1 Vanessa Davies January 4, 2010 at 8:56 am

Thank you for this important information! I am Canadian, and Canada still does not regulate safe sex toys, so it’s up to consumers to be aware. Thanks to some sex positive entrepreneurs in Toronto, discussion has recently emerged and one Member of Parliament is advocating for reform (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/urgent-need-to-regulate-sex-toys-mp-says/article1404702/).

I subscribe to your podcast and look forward to every episode.

Cheers,

Vanessa

2 H December 28, 2009 at 11:10 am

Hi there,
Just a FYI, the reason many of the toys from Asia are marketed as “novelty” or have animal faces/cartoons on them is that they cannot otherwise export a “sex toy”, it has some legal boundary with repercussion. Thanks for the great blog

3 takumi December 9, 2009 at 2:57 am

hello violet i would like to know are fleshlight is safe toy for men?. thank you.
violet you always look gorgeous and sexy.

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