What phthalates are and how to avoid them
Silence breeds ignorance, and ignorance breeds danger. That’s why dangerous chemicals, known as phthalates [link to CDC.gov], have existed in sex toys for such a long time: sexuality is still a source of shame for many people, so we also aren’t talking about the unsafe materials in our toys. And that needs to change.
Phthalates are an ingredient used to soften materials, so they’re often found in cheaper sex toys made of jelly and rubber. While that might sound innocuous enough, phthalates have actually been linked with developmental defects in babies, impairment of the endocrine and reproductive systems, and even infertility. They’ve been banned in children’s toys for years, because of their known detrimental health effects – and yet companies are still allowed to put phthalates in toys for adults. To call this “unacceptable” would be an understatement.
Aside from those extreme potential effects of phthalate exposure, some more benign effects are common. For example, many people who’ve used phthalate-ridden toys complain of a burning sensation, skin irritation, or even recurring bacterial infections. Because these symptoms are so mild, many people just assume they have sensitive skin or sensitive genitals, instead of blaming the true culprit: their unsafe sex toy.
It’s hard to tell, when shopping, if the toy you’re looking at contains phthalates or not. Even some toys marketed as "phthalate-free" can actually anything but. However, there are a few “tells.” If the toy is inexpensive and made of a soft and/or translucent material, it probably contains phthalates. Ditto if it has that “new car smell” – that’s the smell of the phthalates offgassing into the air! If the toy leaves a greasy residue on your hands even when it’s just been washed, that, too, is phthalates offgassing.
Those seeking to avoid phthalates should look for toy materials that are known to be body-safe. These include pure silicone dildos, stainless steel, hard plastic, acrylic, glass dildos, metal, properly varnished wood, and ceramic. These materials also all have the benefit of being non-porous, meaning that they don’t trap and hold onto bacteria from your body, which could increase the risk of infections and irritation. These materials are all-around body-safe!
Upgrading from toxic toys to better ones can be a bit of an investment, worthwhile though it is. If you’re not yet able to make the switch, you can get through the interim by using a new condom on your toxic toy every time. Condoms don’t protect you completely from the effects of phthalates, but in a pinch, they’re better than nothing.
Various organizations have pushed for phthalates to be banned entirely, but so far, it hasn’t happened. Despite this issue being what sex shop owner Jennifer Pritchett calls “a public health crisis,” the anti-phthalate brigade hasn’t been able to sway policy-makers yet. But if we keep talking about this problem and demanding better-quality sex toys, we can make change, little by little and day by day!