your sex toys safe – or toxic?
Materials linked to cancer and reproductive damage
Considering the intimate uses of sex
toys, it is a frightening thought that the material they are made
of might not be entirely safe – but this precise issue has surfaced in recent years.
In 2006, Greenpeace issued a warning to lovers of sex toys not to insert toys
that contain high concentrations of phthalate plasticisers, which are dangerous
to both human health and the environment.
Sex toys are not subjected to the same regulation or rigorous testing that governs
the manufacture of certain other 'intimate use' plastic items such
as medical devices or children’s toys, which need to be safe for chewing.
Toys releasing toxins
A popular material for sex toys is polyvinyl chlorides (PVC), which are plastics
that have raised the ire of environmentalists as they release toxins when manufactured
and disposed of. These plastics are frequently softened with a family of chemicals
called phthalates (pronounced thal-ates, derived from phthalic acid) to make
them more flexible and to produce more realistic and appealing jelly-like or 'cyberskin' sex toys.
Vinyl is a very hard PVC plastic if no softeners are added. Vinyl grades vary
from food grade, for plastic food storage containers, to economical grade, for
some shoes and other products. The more the PVC product smells, the lower the
grade of vinyl and the higher the amount of phthalates used in it.
Phthalates linked to cancer and sperm damage
PVC toys have become increasingly popular in the past decade and on the manufacturing
side, the material is inexpensive and easy to use. While few studies have been
carried out on sex toys, recent testing on phthalates in general has shown that
they may be linked to potentially serious health problems such as cancer, reproductive
system damage and sperm damage.
Tests on rats and mice indicated that exposure
to phthalates could cause cancer and reproductive system damage, while tiny quantities
of phthalates have been linked to possible sperm damage. Two studies in 2005
linked phthalate exposure in the womb and via breast milk to male reproductive
Toys gassing out dangerous chemicals
It has been reported that rodents exposed to high levels of phthalates suffered damage
to the liver, kidneys, lungs and developing testes. Moreover, a study in 2000
by a German chemist revealed that 10 dangerous chemicals were gassed out of some
sex toys in Europe. One of these was diethylhexyl phthalates. Some sex toys had such
a high concentration of phthalates that the levels were classified as ‘off the charts’.
Greenpeace tests show high toxin levels
Greenpeace also had a batch of sex toys tested and discovered that seven of eight
items contained high levels of phthalates (between 24% and 51%), including versions
of the chemicals that have been banned permanently in the EU from children’s
toys due to a possible health risk. Research initiated by Greenpeace
has shown that phthalates may disrupt the human hormonal system, reduce fertility
and adversely affect the liver and kidneys.
Phthalates especially dangerous for males
A growing body of research suggests that phthalates are particularly toxic for
the male reproductive system, it was reported more recently. Early
studies suggest there is a link between phthalates and poor semen quality, and
between phthalates and genital development. Most organisations, notably excluding
the chemical industry, have agreed that phthalates pose a risk to health and
Older toys may leak chemicals
Moreover, phthalate molecules are not bound to the plastics they soften and can ‘break
free’, leading to a deterioration in rubber and jelly toys over time. They
can leach out of sex toys at an accelerated rate due to heat, agitation and an
extended shelf life. Adding to the leaching problem is the fact that phthalates
are lipophilic, or drawn to fat, and so if they make contact with substances
with fat content this could further draw the phthalates out of the plastic.
No regulation yet of sex toys
While some countries such as the US, Japan, Canada and European Union have put
legislation in place to control the use of phthalates in children’s toys,
sex toys are not yet regulated. And many manufacturers are neatly side-stepping
the issue by labelling their sex toys as ‘novelty’ items, implying they
are not intended for actual use.
Considering that the sex toys industry is huge – and the potential health
impacts enormous – the lack of regulation of the industry is rather astonishing.
About 70% of sex toys are made in China and it is estimated that the North American
market alone is worth a staggering $400-500 million (around R2,8-3,5 billion).
Use condoms if toys not certified phthalate free
While regulation is still sorely lacking, many manufacturers and suppliers are
taking the initiative and offering phthalate-free sex toys, and others recommend
that lovers of sex toys use condoms over jelly and cyberskin-feel toys that are not labelled
Safer alternatives to PVC with phthalates
Some alternatives to PVC with phthalates in sex toys are hard
plastic, the silicone substitute VixSkin and thermoplastic elastomers. Others
are glass, metal, anodised aluminium (rendered body safe) and phthalate-free
medical-grade silicone and stainless steel. Alternative materials are often more
expensive but when offered the option, many people prefer to err on the safe
Meanwhile, the Phthalates Information Centre Europe has come out in defence of
phthalate plasticisers, claiming that there is no known health risk to humans
and minimal risk to the environment. It is noteworthy, however, that in 2004
the EU Competitiveness Council voted for a permanent ban on a number of these
plasticisers in all children’s PVC toys and childcare items that can be
placed in the mouth.