‘Detox Your Sex Life’ – the title of an article on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop at first glance seems ludicrous. How earth could sex ever be toxic? Is this just another part of a culture which is selling us unnecessary products under the guise of detoxification, and on the premise that our bodies and lifestyles are somehow impure? Well, the answer may surprise you.
Dubious headlines aside, the issues Goop raises about the dangerous and disturbing materials used to manufacture sex products such as toys and lubricants are incredibly valid (albeit, you don’t necessarily need their expensive products to have good sex). Though it has arguably become increasingly acceptable to talk about sex and all that comes with it (pun fully intended) in recent years, there is still a lack of widespread understanding of some of the issues toys can present. Perhaps growing up surrounded by queer and feminist sex education skewed my perception, but it was only after seeing the backlash against this article that I realised how few people knew that oftentimes sex toys are composed of toxic or porous materials that damage the body.
The information about toxic sex toys is not new: In 2001, German scientists raised concerns about sex toy materials, discovering that the sex toys they were investigating leaked ten different dangerous chemicals and that phthalates – often used to soften plastic – were found in concentrations of 243,000 parts per million; when the maximum tolerable daily exposure is 1000-3000 ppm. Lab tests discovered that these chemicals can cause liver, kidney and testicular damage. Even not taking into account long term consequences, the levels of chemicals found in toxic toys can create irritation in the eye, respiratory systems, skin and the mucous membranes, causing headaches, cramps and nausea.
“Put simply, there is no regulation on the materials used in sex toys.”
It is worth noting that nothing is being done to protect consumers. Although the US, Japan, Canada and the European union have implemented various restrictions on the use of phthalates in children’s toys, there is no equivalent for adult toys. Put simply, there is no regulation on the materials used in sex toys. You have the literally toxic situation: a dangerous material present in a product and zero awareness about the risks, because of the stigma associated with sex.
You might hear the word ‘bodysafe’ be used to describe a sex toy. This means that the toy is both non-toxic and non-porous. It surprises many people to learn that sex toys are often made of materials containing phthalates, carcinogens and other toxic materials that damage the health of their use. In particular, toys made of so-called ‘jelly’ rubber, are particularly notable for this. Eva, a sex researcher and host of the show ‘What’s My Body Doing?’ notes that these toys may in fact describe themselves as ‘skin-safe’ and have materials including TPEM TPRM Elastomer and ‘silicone blends’. In these instances, Eva has one piece of advice: ‘run’.
Even toys which are non-toxic may also be porous. This means that the toy cannot be properly cleaned, meaning bacteria are able to grow. ABS plastic is a widely available sex-toy material and is non-toxic though slightly porous and consumers should be aware of this.
Eva recommends reading the box of your toys to make sure you are protecting your wellbeing. Safe materials to look out for include 100% pure silicone, medical grade stainless steel, glass (provided it isn’t painted’), wood with a medical grade finish, aluminium, and ceramic.
“Within the last 10 years there were still towns in the US that banned sex toys all together’.”
Eva thinks the lack of understanding around safe sex toys stems from the lack of conversations about sex more generally. ‘Sex that isn’t penis-in-vagina is still considered taboo in our society, so sex toys aren’t often talked about’ she says, noting that ‘Within the last 10 years there were still towns in the US that banned sex toys all together’.
Notably, Eva points out that ‘when they are talked about, it is largely within the context of cisgender women masturbating and because society doesn’t prioritise cisgender women’s pleasure (let alone queer and trans folks and other marginalised individuals), there isn’t much of a push to maximize their experience or protect their sexual health with body safe sex toy materials.’
When any sex that falls outside the penis-in-vagina norms (which are largely governed by cisheteropatriarchy) is still stigmatised, it will remain a challenge to change things. Clearly if change is to be enacted, an understanding of how the identities of the people using toys and how their pleasure is devalued needs to happen.
Although little is being done to protect harmful products being made or to regulate materials, there are some amazing campaigners, companies and organisations working to provide information, education and the toys themselves. ‘Mostly it’s been education within sex-positive and queer spaces to protect ourselves,’ notes Eva. The sex blogger ‘Dangerous Lilly’ comes highly recommended with some more in-depth guides on sex toy materials including experiments on the longevity and compatibility of different materials.
Eva recommends supporting trustworthy retailers and personally recommends Shevibe, Smitten Kitten, Come As You Are, Spectrum Boutique, and Good for Her – which all have explicit labels on materials that you can trust. ‘Amazon is not one of these – no matter how good the deal seems’.
“I would actively encourage you to try out different sex toys if you want – by yourself or with your partner(s).”
For once, it seems, Goop were right. Sex toys can be bad for you, toxic even. It might sound like I am putting you off sex toys, but this could not be further from my aim. In fact, I would actively encourage you to try out different sex toys if you want – by yourself or with your partner(s).
Sex toys can be fantastic tools for enhancing pleasure, but it is important to keep your body safe, by buying from reputable stores, researching your toys and looking for bodysafe materials. Fighting stigma attached to sex, especially types of sex which are considered taboo, sharing resources like this article and ensuring widespread awareness are all things you can do, regardless of if you use toys or not, to keep you and those you love safe.