How well do you know your sex toy history? Take the quiz to find out!
The last time I was at Smitten Kitten I talked to one of their SESAs (sex educator sales associates) about lube. When I asked what he thought of brands like K-Y his response was “Oh we hate K-Y here”, then gave me their lube safety pamphlet. After reading the pamphlet I was inspired to do some research of my own and I went looking on PubMed for scientific studies about K-Y.
For this post, I’ve rounded up every scientific study, report, and review on K-Y I could find. Surprise surprise, there’s more bad news than good.
Findings: K-Y Warming Jelly Causes Ten-Fold Increase in HIV transmission
In this study, K-Y warming jelly (KYWJ) was applied to the vaginal tissues of mice. Twelve hours later the mice were exposed to the herpes virus, and then three days after were checked again.
Compared to the control group, mice exposed to KYWJ were 10 times more likely to contract Herpes. The scientists believe the main ingredients to cause this are glycerol, propylene glycol, and PEG-8
Findings: K-Y Jelly kills Lactobacilli, the vagina’s natural gate-keepers.
This 2012 study was done at the University of Pittsburgh and led by Charlene S. Dezzutti, an HIV researcher. The goal of the study was to see what personal lubricants helped reduce the risk of HIV transmission.
The safest lubricants were silicone-based, and the most dangerous one? K-Y Jelly, which killed all three species of Lactobacilli in the vagina. Researchers attributed the kill-off to K-Y Jelly’s anti-microbial ingredient chlorehexidine gluconate.
Lactobacilli are a healthy bacteria that occur naturally in the vaginal flora, they keep bad bacteria from growing out of control. When Lactobacilli is killed, the bad bacteria and fungi grow out of control, leading to B.V., yeast infections, and increased STI suceptibility.
Findings: K-Y warming gel has an osmolality 27 times higher than the United Nations’s recommended safe level.
The World Health Organization or WHO is an agency of the United Nations that concerns itself with International Public Health. Their teams of scientists analyze new studies and issue health reports and advisories on their findings.
In 2012, WHO made an announcement about the importance of using lubricants with condoms for anal sex. Studies had shown that lubricant reduced the risk of condom breakage from 21.4% to 3% when used for anal intercourse.
In this same report, they advise avoiding lubes with an osmolality above 380 mOsm/kg. This advisory is based on four studies that found high osmolalities caused tissue damage. While the osmolality of the vagina is 260-290 and sperm is 380, most lubes on the market had osmolalities well over 1,000.
When measured in a study, K-Y jelly had an osmolality of 2424, 6 times the recommended safe level. K-Y’s other products like K-Y Warming Jelly had an osmolality of 10300, 27 times the safe amount.
Findings: K-Y has a minimal effect on the ability to conceive
Findings: K-Y damages the epithelial layer when observed under a microscope.
Done in 2018, this is the most recent study on K-Y. It is the first step to use 3D vaginal tissue models to test the effects of K-Y. Dr. Richard Cone says in the introduction that it is the closest thing to replicating the real world reactions.
The test used 10 lubricants on the vaginal tissue and a microscope to show the effects. Compared to the control, which looks smooth an uniform, the tissue exposed to K-Y was torn up and warped in appearance.
Findings: K-Y doesn’t have to display ingredients on the label.
If K-Y has nothing to hide, why wouldn’t they put the ingredients on the label? In this article of the ecologist, the author points out that since K-Y has FDA approval they aren’t required to put ingredients on the label of their product. The FDA allows this so companies can keep their recipes a secret. Like other scientists, author argues that the FDA testing process proves that K-Y is safe on the skin, but not on vaginal or anal tissues, where they are actually used. So the lack of a label prevents people from doing in depth research on the safety of K-Y for themselves.
With all this dirt on K-Y, it seems that there are few benefits of using its ingredients. It continues to be on the shelves though, probably because it has less side effects for penises than it does for vaginas and butts.
It’s also nuts that K-Y would ignore the United Nations health advisory. All they have to do is change some ingredients and maybe make a bit less money. Lubes without glycerin smell a lot better and last longer anyway. I’ll definitely be using silicone-based lubes and balanced water-based lubes instead of K-Y.
You can also check out my big lube guide if you want to learn more about personal lubricants and how they work.
Vibrator Nation tells the story of how women changed the sex toy industry and brought new standards of quality, education, and comfort to a previously seedy industry.
The author, Lynn Comella, is an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies, which I think brings the book a bit of an academic feeling. The chapters are fairly long and it's a book based on lots of data, interviews, and "ethnographic fieldwork" (like working at babeland).
Just because it's educational doesn't mean it's a boring read. The chapters are filled with stories from sex shops, an anything but dull industry. You get to hear about how Vixen Creations founder starting making dildos in her kitchen. How Dell Williams was inspired to start a sex shop after attending nude "Bodysex Workshops" in the early 1970s, which showed participants how to use a magic wand vibrator to climax. How employees at Babeland deal with pranksters that perform BDSM scenes in the shop.
This is a must read this if you love your local sex-shop, if you are interested in working in a sex-related industry, if you like progressive business that aren't in it for the money, or if you enjoy history.
Pages: 279 (8 chapters)
Author: Lynn Comella
Price: $15 - $25
Good Vibrations and Babeland play starring roles in Vibrator Nation (they make an appearance in every chapter). I always knew they were important, but as the book makes it clear, they were pioneers that started a new movement of sex positivity.
Many other woman-owned shops and creators carve out their own sections in the book. Some of my favorite parts were the Vixen Creations studio visit, or the section about Smitten Kitten returning all the jelly toys after they started to melt in the Minneapolis summer heat.
I put together a table that shows how many times each shop was mentioned in Vibrator Nation. Good Vibrations is mentioned 459 times!
Number of mentions in 'Vibrator Nation'
San Francisco, CA
Claire Cavanah & Rachel Venning
New York City, NY
Molly Adler & Matie Fricker
Vixen Creations (Manufacturer
San Francisco, CA
Early To Bed
A Woman's Touch
Many other companies and shops made brief one time appearances like Earth Erotics, ToyBoxxx, She Bop, LoveHoney, Doc Johnson, Cal Exotics.
The first few chapters focus on the people and events that led to these businesses getting started, namely Eve's Garden, Good Vibrations, and Babeland (in that order).
Eve's Garden - Founded in 1974
The first sex shop for women was started in New York City by Dell Williams. We get to hear the story of Williams attending progressive vibrator and sexuality classes organized by Betty Dodson. The classes were incredibly progressive and involved being completely naked, meditating, doing 'genital show and tell', and teaching women how to use the magic wand vibrator.
These classes inspired Dodson to go to Macy's and get a magic wand of her own. While there, she had an awkward experience with a male salesman, who asked in a suspicious tone "What do you need to use the massager for?". After coming home she decided that only women should be selling vibrators to women and started Eve's Garden, the first women-owned sex shop.
She started in her apartment with a mail-order business and opened to the public on Fridays. After a year she quit her job and moved to her own space. There she started selling more vibrators, massage oils, and books about sexual liberation and women's health.
Good Vibrations - Founded in 1977
Good Vibrations and founder Joani Blank are a very important part of this book. Together, they take up almost an entire page in the index. Part of the reason for this is that many other shops were inspired by Good Vibrations. The creators of other important companies like Sugar and Vixen Creations were first employees at Good Vibrations. And the founders of Babeland and Grand Opening participated in the Good Vibrations internship program in 1992 before going off to other cities to set up shop.
Before starting Good Vibrations, Joani Blank was a sex therapist and professional in San Francisco. She felt that adult shops only catered to men and there was a big need for a shop by women for women.
Through quotes and stories you get a sense of the incredible passion and dedication Joani Blank had for helping other women. She deeply cared about helping women and wasn't interested in making money for the sake of getting rich. One good quote that shows her approach comes from a job interview with employee Susie Bright:
“I don’t care if you don’t sell a damn thing all day. This is about education and it’s about providing an alternative place for women to explore their sexual self-interests.” - Joani Blank, pg 51
and another comment made to Joani by an employee:
“Joani you run your business like a social service” “Right. That is exactly it. Thank you. That is a compliment.” - Joani Blank, pg 195
The vibrators were on display and you could actually touch them and get a feel for how the worked. There was even a small fitting room with a curtain where people could test vibrations on the outside of their jeans. The friendly staff were sex-educators more than they were sales-associates and could answer any questions you had about how to use and care for a vibrator. In the 90s Good vibrations would add a book and feminist pornography library and start it's own feminist pornography studio.
Joani followed the briar-patch philosophy to business, which meant she care more about social change than making money. She had no problem letting customers walk out the door without buying things. There was one funny story where she turned down a date in high school when she found out he wanted to pursue an MBA.
In 1992 Joani turned the company into a cooperative, and by the early 2000s stepped aside completely. Good Vibrations struggled in the mid 2000s do to the increased presence of online sales and competition from sites like Amazon. Eventually in 2007 they were bought by an adult wholesale company called "General Video of American and Trans-World News". The purchase was devastating for some employees because these big companies are the opposite of their mission. However so far the purchaser, Joel Kaminsky, kept the company afloat and its image mostly intact.
I found this part to be a bummer, especially since GVA recently bought Babeland as well. Who knows how much unsafe merchandise they might try to sneak onto the shelves at some point. Smitten Kitten on the other hand is still owned by the original founder, so you know they will have good education and safe products.
Babeland - 1993
As part of Joani Blank's mission to help spread sex education and awareness about vibrators she held an internship program at her shop for entrepreneurs. The first two to successfully complete the course were Rachel Venning and Claire Cavanah, who would go on to create Babeland in 1993.
The author spent 6 months during 2001 doing her dissertation at the Babeland store in New York. The beginning of chapter three goes into detail about her work there. She would open the store by herself in the morning, handle the money, straighten the dildos, and most importantly, help customers with any questions they had about products. Babeland called her position a "sex educator".
Here is a snippet that helps explain how important her work was.
I turned around and noticed a young woman holding a small, pink Hello Kitty vibrator in one hand and the Rabbit—the vibrator that had catapulted to celebrity status thanks to the HBO series Sex and the City—in the other. “I want to buy a vibrator,” she said, “but I have absolutely no idea what I’m looking for.”
Since there are so many sex toys to choose from, this role of being a sex educator, someone who helped people understand what their different choices were, was a defining characteristic of women-run sex toy shops. This was not the kind of help you would get at men oriented shops with names like XXX-World.
Smitten Kitten - 2003
Smitten Kitten is where I bought this book and my favorite shop, so i was super excited to learn more about them. Smitten Kitten plays a starring role in chapter five "The Politics of Products" which discusses how they lead the way in getting rid of toxic sex toys.
Vibrator Nation goes into more detail about the story of Smitten Kitten sniffing out toxic sex toys (you can read an excerpt from that section here for free). Basically Jennifer was suspicious of the foul smelling and melty toys she ordered, after doing more research she found they contained toxic chemicals and decided not to sell them. Instead she only stocked body safe materials like silicone and glass. Eventually she sent some of the most popular jelly toys to a testing lab and discovered most of them contained phthalates, bringing more awareness to the issue of toxic toys and the need for safe ones.
Vixen Creations - 1992
When working at Good Vibrations Marilyn Bishara noticed that the Silicone products were always on back-order. They were difficult to get a hold of because they are trickier to make. She started making colorful silicone dildos in her kitchen and eventually moved to a 5,000 square foot studio space. What makes vixen creations so great is their emphasis on beauty and design. They try to make the best of the best when it comes to silicone dildos.
On page 124 of the book, Comella heads to the Vixen Creation's studio in the Hunter's Point neighborhood of San Francisco. We hear about the shelves of dildos organized by color & shapes, the 'pops' of removing a freshly born dildo from a mold, and about they enjoyed warm peach cobbler, part of the free lunch that all employees got... I submitted my application to work there after reading this.
Vixen creations was one of the first luxury toy creators that put an emphasis on quality and was created to meet the demands of shops like good vibrations. The other dildos available at the time were wavy and didn't hit the G-Spot properly. Vixxen created arched dildos, silicone butt plugs, double-headed dildos, and magic wand attachments - all innovations for the time.
As far as manufacturers go they don't get as much attention as the shops in the book.
News since publication - One important development since Vibrator Nation was published is the purchase of Babeland by Good Vibrations in August 2017. It helps to keep the news in mind since the book focuses on these two shops.
After introducing how the first feminist sex toy stores got started the rest of the book talks about their impact on the industry and the innovations they helped inspire. As well as their attempts to strike a balance between being a business and helping people.
One of the big defining characteristics of the women-run sex shops was the cozy feel. They are clean, have good lighting, and have chairs for sitting down and read books. Chapter 4 jumps into the details about these differences.
In the beginning of the chapter Lynn visits A-Action Adult Books in Las Vegas. It is a dirty shop that carries porn, jelly toys, and let's people hookup in the "arcade" section at the back of the store. It's $4 to enter the arcade area where there are adjacent video booths with glory holes. This is the main reason most people showed up at this store and was a hot-spot for hookups and sex.
This helps setup a strong contrast when she describes how the women-run stores did things. The following table helps sum up her findings.
Class (Typical Woman-Owned Shop)
Crass (A Typical XXX Shop)
The shops were all about making people feel comfortable and safe. Curious first-time customers were shy and really appreciated this safe atmosphere.
One way they made people feel comfortable was by organizing the store from "Mild to Wild". They put the less intimidating items like books, vibrators, and lubes towards the front of the shop. Then towards the back they had more intimidating items like butt plugs, realistic dildos, and restraints. This is definitely the case in Smitten Kitten, where there is a book corner at the front of the shop with some comfy chairs, while the VixSkin realistic dildos are at the back of the shop.
Changing the negative stereotype about sex shops was a challenge too. Especially when it came to zoning laws set up to deal with strip clubs and adult businesses. Self Serve in Albuquerque wanted to put their shop in a popular shopping neighborhood, but zoning laws required shops in these areas to carry less than 25% of their inventory in adult merchandise. To get around the law they sold lots of body care products and chocolate, and always made sure to add 3 new non-sexual products every-time they added a new sex toy to the store.
After reading chapter five, the word I would use to describe the products carried by women-owned shops is 'quality'. They don't carry cheaply made products and they don't carry products that promote ideas about sexuality that are not in line with the stores' missions.
I just don’t want angry-looking toys here. We try to make sex fun and happy. Not mad and mean. - Sugar owner, Searah Deyseach
They also refuse to sell quick fix products, or products that play off of insecurities. Things like penis pumps, vaginal tightening cream, and sexual enhancement drugs. Most of these products are carried by XXX shops and don't really work or are damaging to the body.
Being a sex-toy retailer with standards is not, Deysach concedes, a method to get rich fast—or really, at all. “If I sold poppers [a recreational drug used to enhance sexual performance] and penis enlargers, I could buy myself a Cadillac.” - Searah Deysach (pg 116)
This goes back to the theme that the stores in these books all follow their own form of the briarpatch philosophy, meaning they are using their businesses as vehicles to improve the lives of others, not just themselves.
The New Sex Toy Artists
The rise of sex-positive shops created more and more demands for high quality toys. Toys that would last a lifetime instead instead of just days. Here's a snippet from the book that explains how the sex-toy industry counted on people throwing out toys:
[Retailers] would stock the same items over and over again because the model [of retailing] was based on a guy buying a product, taking it to his hotel room, using it while he was on the road with whomever, and then throwing it away; so the fact that it wasn’t going to last very long wasn’t important. What was important was that it cost $20 and it was going to be there for the here and now. And the next time, that person is going to buy the same item for $20 because it worked for them before. - Metis Black, Founder of Tantus (Pg 127)
Good Vibrations started offering warranties and stopped carrying any products that it had to send back to a company because it broke. Companies like Tantus, Vixen Creations, Crystal Delights, Njoy, and Earth Erotics were all born out of the need for high quality and luxury sex toys.
The creator of Njoy, Greg DeLong, calls his customers"Intelligent perverts with disposable incomes". DeLong was a mechanical engineer with a degree from Tufts University. He saw the market as "begging for a new paradigm of quality and design" which encouraged him to create Njoy in 2005. DeLong says that he only sells "omnisexual products", a pretty nifty term that means he wants his creations to be usable by anyone of any sexual orientation.
The increase in quality usually means a higher price, which not all shops were cool with, like Tool Shed's owner Laura Haave:
We are an old school brick-and-mortar store. I am here for Milwaukee 100 percent. So there might be something that everyone in New York City and San Francisco loves. Fuck you, East Coasters. You know what I mean? It’s too fucking expensive for Milwaukee. We are a blue-collar town. We are in the Midwest. I am not going to carry a $200 vibrator that is a weird shape that no one is asking for. But I will do legwork to carry things that people come in and say, “I want this. I have to go to another state to get it, but I’d rather get it from you.” If people ask for it, then they value it. But I am not going to bring in the latest trendy thing because everyone has it.
The school system mostly focuses on teaching children how to protect themselves from the dangers of sex. But it dosen't teach them about their sexuality, about P-spots, or G-spots, leaving many adults confused about their own bodies.
That's where sex-positive shops come in to fill the gap. They offer weekly workshops on topics like how to use strap-ons, how to tie a bondage knot, and general Q&A.
Instead of sales associates Babeland calls employees working on the floors "sex educators". Good Vibrations called employees SESAs which stands for sex educators/sales associates. The SESAs attended ongoing education events to keep their fingers "on the sexual pulse of america" they learned about new products and had lessons from staff sexologist Carol Queen.
Chapter 7 is about the shops attempt to shift from women-only shops to shops for everyone.
In the beginning many of these shops were women-only, like Eve's Garden when it opened in 1974.
“The ban [on men] had to do with creating a comfortable place for women to explore their own sexuality, and in 1974, this necessarily meant gender privacy.” She eventually relaxed this policy and began welcoming men, but only during certain hours and only if accompanied by a woman. - pg 162, about Dell Williams
Good Vibrations and Babeland eventually began to recognize that men were one of their biggest customers. Most men disliked sleazy XXX shops as much as women and preferred a clean and safe place to shop. Babeland began to carry prostate-massagers, penis toys, and add new staff. Good vibrations hired Charlie Glickman, their first male employee, in 1996.
Queer-identified, Glickman had a background that included volunteering at Alameda County’s rape crisis center as the project coordinator for Men Overcoming Sexual Assault. He’s slight of build, with small hands and an alto voice. As a result, it wasn’t unusual for him to be mistaken as a trans guy. But he also knew how to act like someone’s “gay BFF,” he said. “You know, like Will and Grace.” He never hit on customers and projected a nonthreatening vibe, which he thinks made it comfortable for many women to have him help them when they were shopping. And yet not all Good Vibrations customers were happy seeing a man on the sales floor. At least one woman wrote to the company to say, “Please take me off your mailing list. There’s a man working there.” However, Glickman found this response to be the exception and not the rule. - pg 177
Another issue has to do with race diversity. Comella highlights how if you look at the Good Vibrations staff pictures from the 1980s all the employees were white women. Nenna Joiner was a regular Good Vibrations customer, and even though she enjoyed the shop she didn't feel represented there. This inspired her to create FeelMore in 2011, a sex shop that is about including everyone.
For Joiner, “inclusiveness” is more than just a buzzword; it is the organizing principle of her business. “The goal of [Feelmore] is to make everyone feel safe, regardless of what you look like or who you are.” - pg 167
Feelmore stocks many items you can't find in other stores like chocolate and carmel colored dildos and packers.
Some of the shops also struggled financially at times. In 2001 Babeland was losing money and had to make several changes to stay afloat. They cut salaries of the owners, laid off their assistant purchasing manager, put a freeze on hiring and raises, and cut back the educational workshops to once a month.
“What we are witnessing,” she reported dryly, “is the very real struggle between capitalism and the mission. We cannot do the mission if we don’t have the money, so the two need to be balanced" Carrie Scrader, general business manager of Babeland.
Both Good Vibrations and Eve's Garden said that making money wasn't their focus.
“I don’t think I was very good at the business side of things,” she admitted. “I always seemed to have problems with money and meeting payroll. Financially I should have gotten another partner or someone to handle that aspect of it, because it always seemed to be a struggle.” - Dell Williams, page 191
In one interview, Joani Blank said in her point-blank way "I didn't give a damn about profits." Blank was fortunate enough to have a cheap living situation and her family had some property that gave her extra income. She would often sell items for the same price she bought them, just because she really wanted women to have them.
Blank made regular trips to San Francisco’s Japan Town to purchase cases of the Hitachi Magic Wand for resale. According to Winks, Blank would buy the vibrators at a slight discount only to turn around and sell them at Good Vibrations at the same price for which they were being sold in Japan Town, thereby making a profit of only about two dollars for every one sold. Pg 192
Things only became more difficult with the rise of the internet. Now many people can buy sex toys anonymously from the comfort of their homes. This means shops now have to compete with Amazon and other shops websites. Shops have become less willing to help other stores or give advice to people starting their first stores, because there is a good chance they will be competing in the online world.
There was no mention in the book of online shops like SheVibe, which I was a little surprised at. As more and more shopping moves online it seems important that for brick & mortar shops to survive they will need to have good websites in order to compete with Amazon.
It's also worrying that Babeland was purchased by Good Vibrations, which is already owned by GVA. They are essentially owned by the company they were created to provide refuge from. I worry they will become more profit oriented and won't be the briarpatch forces for good that they once were.
It's still the wild wild west for sex toys and regulations are almost non-existent. Chinese factories can get away with putting toxic chemicals into rubber toys. If used these toys will cause chemical burns and rashes when used.
It's important to buy from trusted retailers and manufacturers that have full disclosure over the materials used in their toys.
There are still no government regulations when it comes to sex toy materials. They are considered novelties by the FDA and not evaluated at all for safety.
That means it is up to you to know what materials are dangerous and what to avoid. This usually means choosing a responsible retailer that only sells body-safe toys and isn't out there to make as much money as possible.
Here are some of the consequences of using a toy with toxic chemicals:
Most dangerous materials are made from a mixture of many ingredients and it's impossible to know what they are without an expensive lab test.
For this reason, it's safer to just stick to safe materials rather than take risks on cheap materials you find in shady shops. But let's explain how bad companies try to mislead customers by using material terms in a vague way.
Also called: TPE, TPR, PVC, Jelly, Elastomer, Skin-Safe Rubber
These materials are vague terms that could all be used to describe the same dildo. To understand how companies mislead people with labeling let's go over some quick chemistry 101.
Elastomer - The ultimate catch-all term for any rubber, including 100% skin safe silicone. It is the technical term used by chemists to describe rubber. There are two big sub-categories of elastomer: TPE and TPS.
TPE - TPE stands for thermoplastic elastomer. It just means any rubber that melts when it get hot, can be molded into a new shape, and then returns to its rubbery state when cool. Chemically speaking, TPEs have non-covalent bonds, which are broken by heat.
TPS - TPS stands for thermoset elastomer. This is the opposite of a TPE, and is created with chemical reactions that cause covalent bonds that can't be broken by heat. A good example of a thermoset elastomer is 100% medical grade silicone.
When cooking up a toxic rubber dildo companies start from a number of base materials. These are a harder substrates that are heated up and then have other additives and plasticizers added to get the desired softness.
PVC - PVC is a common base ingredient used to make TPE sex toys. It is also known as vinyl and is found in cheap plastic around the house like light switches, plastic pipes, and plastic window frames. It is made from industrial grade salt (chlorine) and crude oil (carbon) giving it the name polyvinyl chloride, or (C2H3Cl)n. By itself it is a hard and opaque material that isn't dangerous. But it needs to be softened to make sex toys and this requires toxic plasticizers like phthalates.
Polystyrene - Is another common plastic polymer that can take many forms including styrofoam, plastic cups, and DVD cases. It is made from Benzene and highly flammable. When used to make dildos plasticizers are added to make it soft and squishy.
Latex - Latex comes from trees and was the first type of rubber people used. It occasionally makes an appearance in sex toys, especially inflatable dildos. Oil from your body breaks down these toys over time and they won't last long. There is also the risk for having a life-threatening allergic reaction. Latex is another material that is mixed in to make toys extra soft. It is the oldest type of rubber and was used until 1943 when synthetic rubbers were discovered. Latex can cause allergies which makes it one of the most deadly materials manufacturers use. If you have a latex allergy you really need to stick to safe sex toy materials from reputable companies.
Polyethylene - This is the most common type of plastic in the world and is used to make things like plastic bottles and plastic grocery bags. Chlorinated polyethylene can be crosslinked peroxidically to form an elastomer which is used in cable and rubber industry. There are many formations of this but it is most commonly two parts carbon and 4 parts hydrogen.
SBS - This means Styrene-butadiene-styrene and is a common type of TPE. It is soft and used to make electrical wires. It can be softened even more by using different types of oil additives. Another form of SBS is SEBS which is usually less shiny and holds its color longer.
EPDM - This is a type of synthetic rubber and stands for ethylene propylene diene monomer rubber.
Bad plasticizers are what put the toxic in unsafe sex toys. They are volatile oils and acids like phthalates that turn hard plastic into rubbers. They act as a mini lubricant that fits inbetween the molecules of the base ingredients, making a highly unstable mixture that will easily melt. When using toxic toys the plasticizers will leak out and cause rashes and burns for a few days. Safe plasticizers are natural and made from soybeans.
You've probably heard of phthalates before. They have had many studies proving they are dangerous and cause birth defects and death in rodents. They were banned in children's toys in the EU in 1998 and banned in 2018 in the USA.
The word phthalate which refers to three isomers—ortho-isomer or phthalic acid, tere-phthalic acid, and meta-isomer iso-phthalic acid. Ortho-phthalates are the ones commonly used with phthalates.
Chemistry: Grab your lab coats and test tubes, it's time for some technical details. Phthalates are made from reacting phthalic anhydride with alcohols such as methanol, ethanol, and tridecyl alcohol. When the phthalates are added to polymers like PVC they reduce the interactions between the neighboring polymer chains, almost like a mini molecular lubricant. This lowers the glass-transition temperature and makes it more flexible at room temperature. It's important to know that these are nonconvalent bonds meaning the structure is far from permanent. This means that when disturbed or stimulated by heat the bonds break and toys turn to goo, explaining the jar test.
So basically it is made from acids, and these acids will leak out into your body as you use the toy. No wonder it hurts.
Do sex toy manufacturers use them? Yes, especially the ones in China. Some toys can be as much as 70% phthalates according to Mantis Black from Tantus.
Smell - Dildos made from phthalates will smell like strong chemicals, similar to a new car. If you are exposed to too much of this odor you can get a headache and become sick.
Dangers - Most people who use a toy with phthalates get burning sensations, rashes, and blistering. The severity of the burns very depending on the number of phthalates and the amount the toy is used. Several studies show how the phthalate DNHP altered the male reproductive tract of rats during fetal development. These studies did use very high doses of phthatlates, almost 100 times what a child or mother would be exposed to. There haven't been any studies done on humans to do the risks involved for people. All we have are the large amount of accounts of burning sensations and doctor trips caused by using sex toys that contain phthalates.
Lately phthalates have been big news as bloggers and sex-positive shops push for awareness and try to hold manufacturers accountable. In response many shady companies label their toys as phthalates-free. This doesn't mean much though as there are plenty of plasticizers that are just as bad as phthatles.
Some phthalate alternatives:
Bio-based alternatives can be made from plant materials such as corn, soy, rice, wheat, and linseed, which makes them much less hazrdous. They are still new technologies and are mostly in the research stage. Theoretically they could be a future possibility for creating safer
Additives can be added to a mixture to change the color, make it more durable, more flame resistant, or more bacteria resistant. Usually additives try to make up for how unstable the mixture is, and it's better to just go for an inherently stable thermoset elastomer like silicone.
One example of this is sil-a-gel, a trademarked material of doc johnson. Another is antimicrobial silicone used in ear buds.
If you went to a bakery and every loaf of bread was labeled something like "Molly's awesome bread", how helpful would it be? You could look at the color and shape and get an idea if it interests you, but you wouldn't know what ingredients were in each loaf.
That's basically how shady dildo manufacturers label their sex toys. They make up names or use very vague and broad terms like "Skin-safe rubber".
Here is an example of some of the names the big manufacturers give their dildos.
On the spectrum of safe and dangerous sex toys there are a few that fall in the middle.
One characteristic of blended elastomer materials is that they are porous. Some other materials like unpolished stone dildos can also be porous.
Even though you can't always see the pores with the naked eye they are plenty big for bacteria to sneak in and get nice and deep beneath the surface. Almost like the toy is a sponge.
This is why the toy is so dangerous. You simply can't get it clean no matter what you do. The toy will retain vaginal fluids, lube, and any dust or dirt it comes into contact with. If you are guy it will absorb semen and if you use it anally it will have fecal matter stuck in it for good.
The main health risk of a porous toy is recurring bacteria infections. Because you can't get it clean the bacteria will culture and mold can even start to grow.
Nowadays we have plenty of non-porous silicone dildos to choose from, but for guys most penis toys are still made from elastomer blends. One toy that really sticks out is Fleshlight, which uses its on porous elastomer recipe to make its toy. Other companies like tenga also make toys from porous materials.
Because they are penetrable toys there isn't really the risk of bacteria infection in guys. However these toys can get gross pretty quickly and most guys have to throw them away after a few months of use. Even if it is cleaned right away they soak up semen like a sponge and no matter how well you wash it it will start to smell funny.
So far there are only a few silicone male masturbators like the fun factory ozone and the some bad dragon models.
Dangerous shapes are usually anal toys that can get stuck in your rectum when using them. If they do get stuck you need to take a trip to the ER to get them removed. Chinese manufacturers will market a toy on amazon as an anal toy, when it should only be a dildo. Only use toys anally if they are flared enough that they won't get stuck inside you.
Dangerous glass materials are those that are not properly annealed. Annealing is a delicate process that takes a lot of skill, resources, and proper machinery. An annealed dildo is strong and won't break as easily as other glass dildos.
It is also important to avoid glass dildos that are coated with a mysterious unknown varnish. These can contain materials like lead and cadmium, especially when they are made in Chinese factories.
Avoid toys that have sharp edges. This is a risk with some plastic vibrators that have an elastomer coating.
Poorly made vibrators and other toys with batteries can break while using them and lead to an electric shock. It is important to get a toy from a good company which won't break inside you.
As you can see every toy you buy from mysterious dealer is a box of mystery chemicals. I prefer to know what I am putting inside my body and more importantly, that it is safe!
Here are the best safe materials
Silicone is the worlds gift to sex toys.
Therefore Silicone is pretty much a no-brainer for most people. Progressive shops like Smitten Kitten, She Bop, and Babeland carry silicone instead of the other elastomer blends we mentioned.
Chemistry: Put on that lab coat again, it's time for technical details. Silicone is categorized as a thermoset elastomer which means that it can't be turned to liquid by heating it. The bonds are covalent chemical bonds unlike a thermoplastic like PVC which has noncovalent bonds that break when heated. If you do get silicone above 400 degrees (with a flame for example) it will turn to black ash.
Rubber silicone is made from the earth by obtaining a mineral called quartz. This can be seperated into pure silicon (notice the lack of an e) whic is a pure element on the periodic table. To get rubber silicone the silicon has chloral methane added and then goes through distallation processes. The kind used in dildos is called Difunctional chlorosilanes and that is what you can buy on amazon or what manufacturers buy to make their silicone dildos.
Glass is a non-porous material which makes it easy to clean.
There are two main types of glass material: borosilicate glass and soda-lime glass.
Borosilicate glass: This is one of the strongest types of glass there is. Almost all laboratory glassware uses this type of material so they can be sure it doesn't break. Borosilicate is made by combining and melting together boric oxide, silica sand, soda ash, and alumina. The boron atoms in the material are what allow it to handle heat much better than other materials. In fact it has a thermal expansion coefficient that is one-third of soda-glass, meaning it is three times more resistant to extreme changes in temperature.
Soda-Lime Glass: Is a common type of glass used to make all kinds of things, 90% of manufactured glass is estimated to be soda-lime. It gets its name because it contains sodium-oxide (soda) and calcium oxide (lime), but many other materials can be used to make it. It is weaker than borosilicate glass and when it has its temperature altered extremely it can shatter. Cheaper made-in-china sex toys use this material and they are more prone to breaking. But material isn't the only important issue the annealing (how it is heated and cooled) is also important.
Annealing glass is a delicate process that takes time, resources, and skill to be done properly. It slowly cools the glass to remove any internal stress making it as stable and strong as possible.
The ideal glass dildo is made from borosilicate glass and carefully annealed.
Glass dildos made from soda-lime and that aren't properly annealed, for example lovehoney and pipedream, still work and are much cheaper. Just know there is a risk of these breaking and some people that have them delivered find them broken right out of the box. It's important that you check a cheap glass dildo for cracks before you use it.
Glass toys that you must avoid
Some cheap glass dildos on amazon are sold with a glaze to them. This "luster" is highly toxic and can contain things like cadmium and lead. It's best to avoid these and stick to a glass dildo you can see through. Colored glass swirls are okay when made by glass artists, and are a common way to decorate an annealed borosilicate glass dildos.
Pull loops - Some glass dildos have glass loops that you can slip a finger through to control it. These are weak points in a glass toy and can break easily. There are a few stories of them breaking off when inserted analy.
The Bottom Line
Stick to see-through glass dildos made from reputable manufacturers. Properly annealed borosilicate glass is the strongest. Cheap glass dildos are usually made from soda-lime and more likely to break, and glass toys with a glaze and that have a hoop.
Toys made from 100% medical grade stainless steel are about as safe as it gets. They are super smooth and are quick to heat up. And feel nice and weighty in your hand. Medical grade stainless steel is also called surgical grade, and it's used in surgery tools, biomedical implants, and piercings.
You can't say metal sex toys without bringing up NJoy a company that specializes in metal sex toys. Their target market is people looking for elegant sex toys and their prices range from $70 to $300. They also make only 'omnisexual' products which means toys that can be used by either men or women.
If you have never heard of wooden sex toys it might not sound super appealing. But the reality is these are some of the silkiest and smoothest toys there are, and they look gorgeous!
The secret to making a wooden toy safe is the waterproof coating. After the toy is carved, polished, and smoothed a medical grade sealant is added that is completely impermeable. The sealant is made from a polymer of some kind and is phthalate-free, odorless, and non-porous. Most likely a type of epoxy or polyurethane finish.
Good places to find wooden toys are nobessence, lumberjill, and also Etsy. These toys come in all kinds of interesting shapes that aren't possible with other materials.
Ceramic is a great material because it is not porous and is very smooth. One of the best companies for this is myfuchisa.com which creates porcelain dildos in a fun a creative way.
Stone toys are made from highly polished stone and make for a heavy toy. You can find them with or without sealants depending on the type of stone. Some can be slightly porous so it is important to ask any Etsy craftor about the materials used and make sure it is safe.
Stone is mostly used to make buttplugs and dildos and there are a lot of options on Etsy.
A common material in jelly toys in benzene which is highly flammable. By taking a flame to your dildo you can check that it is silicone and not jelly.
This is a technique that Matis Black mentions in several of her interviews. You lick the toy and then if your tongue goes numb you know that it is dangerous. It's not my favorite test just because licking it is kind of gross in my opinion. As an alternative to this I just smell it and if it smells chemically I know it has phthalates - this takes more experience though.
You can use a polariscope to check if your toy is properly annealed. A cheap polariscope is about $30 on amazon and is used by jewelers and geologists.
It will reveal the flow of the glass and show you how it cooled. If the toy shows rainbow colors it is weaker and more fragile than a clear toy.
You can get a simple lead testing kit that will show you if a toy contains lead. Lead can appear in glass toys with a varnish coating on them.
There are still very few regulations on sex toys. The government is hesitant to fund any studies and there are many loopholes that shady companies use to get by with making cheap toys.
The FDA is responsible for approving medical devices. Since sex toys are considered novelties they don't have to approve them before they hit the market. So there is nothing stopping dildos filled with materials that are not approved for things like spoons and children's toys.
The consumer protection service commission does oversee sex toys. However they do not test them before they are released to the public.
It's only when the receive consumer reports of dangerous toys that they will investigate and do recalls on novelty items. But most people are too embarrassed or blame themselves when a toy causes burns.
While sex toys should be classified as medical devices, most are not. Instead they are considered novelties.
A novelty means that it is intended to be for visual and aesthetic purposes. By selling toys as novelties stores can get away with selling dildos made of cheap and dangerous materials.
Since sex toys have little regulation it's up to you to find the good sex toy manufacturers. Over the last 20 years there have been more and more sex positive shops you can choose from and most big cities have one by now.
XXX Shops - AVOID
These are shady sex shops with names like XXX World. You will find their shops near strip clubs and they will have all their toys in their packaging, and you can't touch or smell them. Much of the packaging is aggressive and disrespectful to women.
Amazon - Amazon brands itself a store that sells everything. But the way they do this is by allowing anyone to sell on the Amazon as a 'merchant'. This means chinese companies can put up copycat products for sale and can sell the most toxic and dangerous toys manufactured. This makes it a risky gamble to buy sex toys on Amazon, especially dildos. However for some niche items like sex swings and sex furniture it can have cheaper prices.
If you do buy something on Amazon be sure to read the reviews first to see what people say about it. I try to make sure that whatever I buy has at least 15 reviews. Anything with no reviews is probably re-listed because the old product had negative reviews. Don't be the first one to experiment with a new product that has no reviews.
Lovehoney, Adam & Eve - There are other big ecommerce stores online that sell all kinds of dildos. I try to avoid lovehoney and adam&eve because they don't clearly label the products and stock all kinds of made-in-china toys made from mystery rubbers.
The absolute best place to buy sex toys is your local sex-positive shop. These are usually woman owned and have very friendly staff and free educational workshops.
Many of these shops also have their own websites you can order products from if you are not close enough to their store.
Some manufacturers that swear by body safe toys
Phthalate Risks and Alternatives - University of Maryland - https://calce.umd.edu/phthalate-risks-and-alternatives
Phthalates and Male Reproductive Tract Development - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK453249/