Candles are lit. Bath is running. Smooth snazzy music in the background. Rose petals across your bed… you’re ready to indulge in some self-love. You slide your favorite toy out of its black velvet bag and get excited, fully knowing your favorite sex toy is made of medical-grade material, 100% sanitized, and bacteria-free. Alright! Hold up… it isn’t really quite like that is it? Reality, I mean.

I think we can all agree that sex toys are fucking fantastic, pardon the pun. Whether you’re someone who relies on a single trusty vibrator or someone with an ever-expanding array of toys to experiment with, the diversity of experience that sex toys bring into the bedroom (or anywhere) has to be appreciated.

But did you know not all sex toys were created equal? High-quality sex toys that are made out of medical or food-grade material are non-porous, hypoallergenic and safe for intimate contact. However, many lower-quality sex toys are made out of toxic materials that were never meant to be used on or in our bodies. Using these toys could cause side effects like burning, rashes, blistering skin, carcinogen exposure, allergic reactions, and bacterial infections, just to name a few.

How is this possible? Could it be that certain manufacturers are only interested in producing mass products at the lowest cost, completely disregarding the health consequences of the end-user? Bloody capitalism at work even in our bedroom and bodies!

Sex toy production is an unregulated industry and there are currently no FDA regulations on materials used. This means that manufacturers can get away with using dangerous chemicals in sex toys. Retailers can put false claims on packaging without repercussions – for instance, a toxic sex toy may be labeled “silicone” or “phthalates-free” to mislead the consumer. Refer to this guide before you get your next sex toy and use it to check your existing sex toys for harmful materials.

Toxic Materials

These are materials you should avoid at all costs! They often contain chemical additives and plasticizers and are known to cause irritation (or worse).

Rubber and Jelly or Gel, PVC, and Vinyl

Toxic sex toys are often made from rubber and are also sometimes called jelly or gel. Many toys are made from a mysterious concoction of ingredients including melted plastics and oils. Hard base materials are heated up and mixed with additives and plasticizers to soften. The issue here is that we can’t know for sure what’s in these toys unless they’re sent for an expensive lab test.

PVC or Vinyl are often used also, and although they aren’t toxic, they need to be softened with toxic plasticizers to create sex toys. Toxic plasticizers are volatile oils and acids that turn hard plastic into rubber, creating an unstable mixture that could melt easily.

When using these toys for oral, vaginal or anal stimulation, toxic plasticizers leak out, causing these harmful chemicals to be absorbed into the body’s mucous membranes. A common toxic plasticizer is phthalate. Phthalate exposure can cause organ damage and possibly cancer. Some toys can contain up to 70% phthalates! People who use sex toys with phthalates often report experiencing symptoms such as burning sensations, rashes, blistering, headaches, nausea and cramps. Not fun. Fucking terrible. Please avoid.

Retailers often take advantage of consumers by using misleading material terms. For instance, “skin-safe rubber” claims that rubber is latex-free and phthalates-free, but this may not be true. Also, this doesn’t mean the toy isn’t toxic as it could still contain other plasticizers that are equally harmful. Other harmful ingredients include polystyrene, polyethylene, SBS (styrene-butadiene-styrene), EPDM (ethylene propylene diene monomer) and more.

Non-Toxic, but Not Body-Safe

Use these materials with caution. Consider covering these toys with a condom, as they are porous. Porous toys absorb bacteria and can break down over time.

TPE or TPR

A commonly used material is TPE/TPR (thermoplastic elastomer/rubber), which is non-toxic but porous. The material is chemically unstable and will break down over time. Porous materials can harbor micro-organisms, such as bacteria, mold, mildew, and fungus, which can cause infections. Porous sex toys can never be completely sanitized or sterilized. This means that a porous toy should never be used both vaginally and anally. It should also not be shared between partners as there cannot be 100% protection against the transmission of STIs.

That being said, TPE/TPR toys designed for non-internal use like male masturbators and massager wand heads are fairly safe. You should still replace them over time though. We recommend every six months to a year, depending on how often the toy is being used. Examine closely before every use. Watch out for tears, black spots, discolorations, or weird odors.

Just chuck a condom on it! Or don’t?

If you think using a condom with a porous dildo made with chemicals and covered in bacteria will keep you safe, think again. The toxic oils seeping out of your dildo could cause a latex condom to disintegrate, rendering it useless. Consider using polyurethane or nitrile condoms, though you may notice the cost of doing so adds up over time!  Also, the condom will need to cover the entire toy to protect it completely, and it is unlikely a single condom can achieve this, particularly for large of unusually shaped toys. If you do go the condom route though, get non-lubricated ones. Many condoms use silicone lube which isn’t compatible with many toys.

The cost of polyurethane/nitrile condoms + the cost of replacing the porous toy every few months = More expensive than buying a good quality non-porous toy in the first place!

Safe Materials

These are 100% body-safe. Safe materials are non-porous, so they won’t absorb bacteria or break down over time.  Toys made of these materials will last for years to come.

Metal

100% medical-grade stainless steel is used in surgical tools and piercings – it is a very safe material for sex toys. Polished metals like aluminum sex toys powder-coated with body-safe coloring are also safe. Metal sex toys are super smooth, warm up quickly, and provide a good weight.

Silicone

Widely regarded as the gold standard sex toy material. The best, 100% medical-grade, silicone is platinum-cured and very safe. It’s super smooth and can be made in different densities to provide different sensations. It is also non-porous and can withstand extreme temperatures, meaning it can be sanitized by boiling and it won’t melt.

Beware: Retailers can make false claims and place a “silicone” label on the box even though the toy is made with primarily something else. Ridiculous but unfortunately true. Always look for “100% Silicone”, as some companies will use the silicone label for toys with as little as 10% of it in the ingredients. A silicone “blend” often means the toy is porous and could contain toxic additives. “Medical grade silica gel” is not the same as silicone.

Trademarked terms like Cyberskin, UR3, Fanta Flesh, Neoskin, FauxFlesh might sound realistic and safe but are not pure silicone.

Glass

Glass is a non-porous material which makes it easy to clean. There are two main types of glass material: borosilicate (one of the strongest types of glass) and soda-lime (cheaper, weaker and more common). The ideal glass sex toy is made from carefully annealed borosilicate glass. Cheaper sex toys that are manufactured with soda-lime glass are more prone to breaking. If a glass toy is not properly annealed, it will break more easily. Annealing is how glass is heated and cooled. It is a lengthy process that requires a lot of skill and resources. Properly annealed glass is very tough and stable.

Some cheaper glass dildos are coated with a glaze or varnish. Avoid these at all costs! The glaze can contain highly toxic materials like cadmium and lead. Stick to a glass dildo you can see through!

Wood, Ceramic, and Stone

Wood can be carved in unique shapes that are unachievable with other materials. When coated with an impermeable medical-grade sealant (usually epoxy or polyurethane), it is very safe. Glazed and kiln-fired ceramic is also safe and not porous. It is smooth and beautiful. Highly polished natural stones are safe and have a good weight to them. Some may be slightly porous and contain sealants. Ask the crafter about the materials used and make sure it’s safe.

Hard Plastic

Hard plastics, like ABS plastic and medical-grade plastics, are also safe sex toy materials. Hard plastic is non-porous. However, plastic can sometimes crack over time. Always handle toys carefully, if you notice a plastic toy is cracked, replace it immediately. Bacteria can collect on a cracked surface over time and cause irritation or infection.

With misleading names and labels rampant in this unregulated industry, it’s hard to confirm whether your sex toy is made from non-toxic body-safe materials. Always buy your sex toys from a reputable brand and manufacturer. Shop at sex-positive, feminist retailers which put your safety first. After all, isn’t investing in a quality sex toy the ultimate form of self-love?