“What are phthalates?”
At She Bop, every sex toy we carry is completely body-safe and phthalate-free. But what on earth are phthalates, and why do we want our sex toys to be free of them?
Besides having a perplexing name (pronounced “thal-ates”), phthalates are a family of chemicals used to soften hard plastics. In the realm of sex toys, they are often the reason that cheap sex toys are squishy, smelly, and… potentially toxic.
Although we may not know it, phthalates are not foreign to us. They are present in a variety of everyday stuff: paints, deodorants, shower curtains, nail polish, vinyl floors, and even food (most likely because they can leach out of food processing machinery and food packaging). However, troubling research on phthalates has cast doubt on whether phthalates are as innocuous as they once seemed.
It is well-known that phthalates have a tendency to “off-gas” — escape from the plastic in the form of a gas. They also seep out in an oily film, which can be absorbed through skin, mouths, and mucous membranes.
In particular, researchers are worried about what phthalates could do to children. Canada, Europe, and the U.S. have all enacted bans on children’s toys that contain certain levels of phthalates (for example, Congress banned the sale of children’s toys and baby products that contain more than 0.1% of certain phthalates). The tendency of phthalates to off-gas is particularly scary, since children put toys in their mouths.
Unfortunately, there is a complete lack of government regulation within the sex toy industry (ever notice that ominous phrase, “for novelty use only,” on sex toy packaging?), so companies are free to use whichever materials they please. For some companies, this means using phthalates to cut production costs. Greenpeace Netherlands conducted a study in 2006 in which they tested eight sex toys and found that seven of them contained phthalates, in concentrations ranging from 24 to 51 percent of the toys’ composition. Compared to the 0.1% ban enacted by Congress, this is more than a little disturbing.
In a similar study conducted in 2000, a German chemist named Hans Ulrich Krieg identified ten dangerous chemicals gassing out of European sex toys, including phthalates. He found some toys that had phthalate concentrations as high as 243,000 parts per million. Krieg said, “I have been doing this analysis of consumer goods for more than 10 years, and I’ve never seen such high results.”
Can phthalates in sex toys cause health issues?
The jury is still out on whether phthalates in sex toys pose a risk to our health, but studies have shown that very large doses of phthalates may cause liver damage, kidney damage, hormonal disruption, reproductive organ damage, and liver cancer. More than one study has linked high levels of phthalate exposure in the womb and through breast milk to male reproductive issues. Minute levels of some phthalates have been linked to sperm damage in men; this has caused speculation about whether phthalates are to blame for a huge drop in male fertility over the past few decades.
Other studies are less frightening: one report from the Danish Environmental Protection Agency indicates that there are no major health risks if a person uses sex toys containing phthalates for an hour or less per day. Pregnant or nursing individuals, however, are advised against “heavy usage.”
Anecdotal evidence tells us more than most studies do. If you’ve ever experienced a burning, itching, or an uncomfortable sensation after using a sex toy, it may very well be due to the phthalate content.
And there are other reasons to avoid phthalates in sex toys. These toys are always porous, which means they tend to trap bacteria on the surface of the toy. They can never be fully sterilized, and over time, they will break down.
We simply don’t know what the long-term effects of continued exposure to sex toys containing phthalates may be. Considering that sex toys come into direct contact with mucous membranes, through which substances can be absorbed, there is reason to be concerned — especially when it comes to butt plugs and other toys that are meant to be worn for extended periods of time.
How do I know if a sex toy contains phthalates?
The biggest telltale sign of phthalates is smell: if a sex toy smells strongly like a new shower curtain, it probably contains phthalates. Sometimes the smell is so intense that it can linger on your fingers after you’ve held the toy. Often, the smell cannot be washed out, or it takes a vat of bleach to do so.
Worse signs can crop up later on. Sometimes a greasy sweat will appear on the surface of the toy. Over time, the toy may decompose into a sort of goo, and can melt into other toys that it touches.
Of course, if you are shopping for a sex toy, none of these signs can be observed unless you are able to handle the toy before buying it. While you can definitely handle the toys if you come visit She Bop, we have already done the research for you: absolutely none of the toys we carry contain phthalates. Anything you purchase either in person at She Bop or from our online store will be body-safe and phthalate-free.
What can I do if I think one of my sex toys contains phthalates?
You should cover the toy in a condom each time you use it. Always clean the toy with antibacterial soap. After use, store the toy out of sunlight and away from other sex toys and plastics. If the surface of your toy becomes dull, the material may be breaking down, and you should probably throw the toy out.
If you’re on the hunt to replace an old toy, look for toys made of 100% silicone — pure silicone toys are soft, non-porous, and completely body-safe. Replacing a rabbit? Try the Rabbit Habit, which is made of phthalate-free elastomer, or the Ina, which is covered in silky pure silicone. If you’re pinching pennies, opt for a hard plastic vibrator made of ABS plastic (not PVC). And remember, every toy in our catalog is phthalate-free, so shop with confidence.