Just like the hard to pronounce, scientifically named ingredients in your food, the labels on sex toys and lube might leave you wondering exactly what it is you are putting in your body. What is a phthalate, and why is this toy free of them? What is the difference between food-grade, medical-grade, platinum, and 100% silicone? What is Sil-a-Gel - is it just a fancy name for silicone? What is a biostatic and why does it matter? Won’t that glass toy break in my body? TPE, TPR, PVC, ABS, huh? Here we’re going to look at the different materials sex toys are made from, determine which ones are the best choices to keep your body safe, and why it’s important to know exactly what that fancy sounding compound is.
Newsflash: Sex Toy Materials aren’t Regulated (although their use and sale might be)
The first rule of making an informed decision is to remember that not all sex toys are created equal. Many manufacturers still use materials that have been banned from baby goods and water bottles to make their products. Unfortunately, in the United States, Japan, Canada and the European Union there are no organizations, boards or coalitions that regulate the safety of sex toys.
One of the reasons for this is that, in order to regulate sex toy production, we would first have to admit that people are using them, something American society is clearly not ready to do. The sale of sex toys is still illegal in Alabama and there are laws in parts of Georgia and Texas, among other states, based on the ideology that the products are “immoral and obscene.”
Why are safe sex toys important?
Because sex toys are unregulated, it is up to consumers to make sure that they are well informed about how to find a body safe sex toy. Body safe means that the toy does not contain any chemicals or materials in it that are unsafe to use inside your body. Additionally, a truly body safe toy is nonporous and can be sterilized.
While one might hope that most sex toys on the market are being made with safe materials, that is not the case. Take the iconic Rabbit, brought into popular culture by Sarah Jessica Parker on Sex in the City - pink, may be glittery, transparent, smells like a shower curtain. The Rabbit that exists in our cultural consciousness is not body-safe.
Sex toys are commonly made from Jelly Latex, which is made of polyvinyl chloride or PVC and uses plastic softeners (some of which are phthalates--a carcinogenic compound added to hard plastics, making them more flexible). PVC is a type of plastic that is known to leak toxins after six months, when the material becomes agitated, or from heat. These toxins attach to your fat and stay there causing kidney and liver cancer in addition to damaging to your reproductive organs. Clearly, this material is not suitable for making a product that will be going inside one’s body and exposed to heat and friction, but because PVC is cheap and easy to get a hold of many companies still use it. And, without any regulating body, manufacturers are getting away with it by relying on an uninformed consumer base.
Defining Sex Toy Terms
Before we jump into different sex toy materials, let’s define some of the parameters that are generally used when determining the safety of a toy.
Regarding cleaning, toys can be washed, disinfected, and sterilized. Washing a toy, which should be done both before and after use, generally serves to disinfect the toy, as well as removing dust, lint, and pet hair from the toy before placing it on the body. Disinfecting a toy means that you are able to clean all surface level contaminants -- bodily fluids, infections, microbes, and bacteria. To sterilize a toy, the toy needs to go in the dishwasher or be boiled if it doesn’t have an internal motor, or soaked in a 10% bleach solution and then washed to make sure all contaminants have been neutralized.
Two important notes about cleaning your toys: First, a porous toy cannot be sterilized and may pass bacteria and infections to partners through shared use. Second, toy cleaners on the market are a reasonable short term solution for cleaning a toy (say, to toss in a purse and head home), but they function kind of like antibacterial hand gel -- washing does the same trick and doesn’t leave chemicals all over your toys.
Body Safe Materials
There are several materials that companies use to make sex toys that are safe for your body: silicone, elastomed, ABS plastic, stainless steel, or borosilicate glass. Additionally, elastomer (TPE) and phthalate-free TPR are considered body safe because they do not leech chemicals into the body, although they are porous and cannot be sterilized.
Silicone sex toys are probably the most widely available of body safe sex toys. This material is so popular because it can come in many different textures, it is easy to clean, non-reactive, not prone to microbial growth, and heats up to body temperature. Bearing in mind that toys are not regulated, some companies use proprietary material names that sound similar to silicone, but aren’t (sil-a-gel). You may also encounter food- and medical-grade silicone toys. The fundamental difference between the two happens in the curing process: food-grade is cured in tin, while medical uses platinum. On a base chemical level, medical-grade, platinum-cured silicone is more stable, meaning you are much less likely to accidentally ruin the toy by using the wrong lube.
Another body safe material used to make sex toys is borosilicate glass, also commonly referred to as Pyrex. Borosilicate glass is a type of tempered glass that is also used to make laboratory and kitchen ware. Because this kind of glass is tempered it is very durable and can withstand greater temperature extremes than other types of glass without cracking or breaking. In fact, most reputable sex toy manufactures put their glass toys through a serious drop test, so you can rest assured that your beautiful glass sex toy will remain intact.
Similarly to glass toys, stainless steel toys are very rigid which can intensify even the smallest motion. Therefore, these toys also tend to be made slimmer. However, what they lack in girth they make up for in weight. And for some individuals the added weight can mean added pleasure. Moreover, metal toys work well with any lubricant, they are dishwasher safe and can be easily disinfected in boiling water. Also, metal is a great conductor of temperature and can therefore be easily warmed or cooled.
Because of the extreme firmness and rigidness of glass and steel toys as compared to silicone, they tend to be made in smaller sizes. But this does not mean they cannot offer wonderful pleasure; the firmness can be especially stimulating for the G-zone or prostate. Furthermore, glass sex toys are also great for temperature play as they can be easily heated or cooled.
ABS Plastic and it’s less common cousin Elastomed (the fancy name for medical grade plastic) are also sterilizable. One of the best things about ABS Plastic toys is that they combine some of the features of stainless steel and glass with accessible pricing. A standard smoothie vibe, like the Ro series from Rocks Off are body safe, effective, and affordable for many people.
So on your next trip to your neighborhood sex shop, or your favorite online shop, remember your friends silicone, borosilicate glass, and stainless steel. You will end up with a body safe, higher quality sex toy, and your body will thank you.