Phtha-what? The Facts on Phthalates and Sex Toys

Sex Guides and Tips
By Amanda Holloway

Have you ever excitedly torn open the packaging on a brand new toy only to be practically knocked over – and worse, totally turned off – by the unmistakable plastic smell of new shower curtain? Ever had a "bargain" dildo leave you itchy and sore? More likely than not, phthalates are the culprit.

Phtha-what, you ask? Phthalates (say THAL-ates) are chemicals found in sex toys and many other products which we use on a daily basis. Although no study has been conclusive so far, there is some evidence these chemicals may be harmful to human health. The government doesn't regulate sex toys, so it's been left to adult industry to produce better products – and to you, the consumer, to find out the whole story on phthalates in order to make informed decisions. Lucky for you, is here to help!

Chemical Reaction

Phthalates are petroleum-derived chemicals used in many everyday products. They're often found in cosmetics and hair products, paint, carpeting and flooring, synthetic bedding, medical devices, children's toys, and yes, sex toys. They're used, among other things, as a plastic softener. Think about a child's rubber ducky. Without phthalates, the toy would be inflexible, un-squeezable, and squeak-less. In sex toys, phthalates are used to inexpensively produce vinyl (PVC) toys. On the one hand, these toys are great – they are inexpensive and their soft, squeezable texture makes them a favorite of many. On the other hand, some studies have revealed phthalates may have inadvertent and potentially serious health effects.

Phthalates are so pervasive that, according to a study by the US Centers for Disease Control, human exposure is ubiquitous.[1]Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. July 2005. The CDC's Phthalate Fact Sheet, updated 1/07 In fact, phthalates even contaminate our food and drinking water. But if these chemicals are everywhere, what's the fuss?

Here's the thing: studies on animals have demonstrated increased risk of liver damage, as well as reproductive organ damage, coinciding with increased phthalate exposure.[2]R. Poon, P. Lecavalier, R. Mueller, V.E. Valli, et. al. Subchronic oral toxicity of di-n-octyl phthalate and di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate in the rat. Food and Chemical Toxicology; Feb. 1997, 35(2):225-39. Also, phthalates have a demonstrated effect on hormones; in humans, phthalate exposure has been linked to lowered sperm quality in men,[3]S.M. Duty, M.J. Silva, D.B. Barr, et al. Phthalate exposure and human semen parameters. Epidemiology 2003; 14:269-277 premature breast development in young women,[4]I. Colon, D. Caro, C.J. Bourdony, O. Rosario. Identification of Phthalate Esters in the Serum of Young Puerto Rican Girls with Premature Breast Development. Environmental Health Perspectives; Sep. 2000, 108(9):895-900. and improper genital development in baby boys.[5]S.H. Swan, K.M. Main, F. Liu, et. al. Decrease in Anogenital Distance among Male Infants with Prenatal Phthalate Exposure. Environmental Health Perspectives; Aug. 2005, 113(8):1056-61. Exposure to phthalate dust has been linked to the development of asthma in children.[6]C.G. Bornehag, J. Sundell, C.J. Weschler et. al. The Association between Asthma and Allergic Symptoms in Children and Phthalates in House Dust: A Nested Case-Control Study. Environmental Health Perspectives. Oct. 2004; 112(14):1393-7. Scientists suspect some phthalates may be carcinogenic as well.[7]W. M. Kluwe, E. E. McConnell, J. E. Huff et. al. Carcinogenicity Testing of Phthalate Esters and Related Compounds by the National Toxicology Program and the National Cancer Institute. Environmental Health Perspectives. Nov. 1982; 45:129-133 The plastics industry is quick to defend their use of phthalates,[8]See – run by the Phthalate Esters Panel. From their about us: "The Phthalate Esters Panel (the Panel) of the American Chemistry Council is composed of all major manufacturers and some users of the primary phthalate esters in commerce in the United States." but the simple fact is that we just don't know, and it may be years before we have any definitive answers as to their safety.

Regardless, the European Union felt the risks associated were uncertain enough to enact a ban on six different phthalates used in children's toys.[9]BBC News. Europe Bans Chemical Use in Toys. July 5th, 2005. Canadian authorities have advised retailers and manufacturers to end the sale of baby's teething rings and dogs' chew-toys containing phthalates as well.[10]Canadian Institute of Child Health and Canadian Child Care Federation. Healthy Spaces. Now, if Canadians will not give toys with phthalates to their dogs, shouldn't we think twice about putting them where the sun doesn't shine?

In addition to all of the serious health concerns connected with phthalates, many can speak from personal experience about the irritating effects of phthalates in sex toys. The compounds leak out of products, producing that chemical, rubbery smell so characteristic of jelly joys, in addition to an oily film which can cause itching, burning, and swelling in the sensitive nether-regions where such toys are usually employed. Not to mention the fact that toys made with phthalates are porous, meaning unable to be disinfected, therefore can harbor and transmit infection.

Shop Smart

How do you spot a toy containing phthalates? There are several different warning signs. When shopping, look at a demo model of the toy if one is available, but also consider the signals are much more obvious in a brand-new, out-of-the-box toy.

If a toy has a chemical smell to it, or if it smells a little like perfume, it has probably been made with phthalates. If the packaging or description of the toy contains the words "jelly," "gel," or "rubber" it probably contains phthalates. Clear or translucent toys are more likely to contain phthalates. With the exception of Vixen Creation's VixSkin products and TopCo's Cyberskin, most "realistic feel" toys have not been tested for toxic content, so buyer beware (and bear in mind that while non-toxic, Cyberskin toys are still porous). When you unwrap a toy and it feels faintly slimy or greasy it is probably due to phthalates leaching out of the plastic pores (hence the term porous). Dark spots on a demo model of a toy are also a good sign the toy is porous and may contain phthalates.

Keep in mind manufacturers are not required to back up claims made on packaging about toys labeled "for novelty use," so these toys may be labeled "non-toxic" or even "silicone" when in fact they're your standard, run-of-the-mill, chemically softened jelly toys. While toys made with phthalates are often less expensive than their better-made counterparts, even the famous Rabbit Habit (of Sex and the City fame) used a jelly-rubber material.

Rabbit habit

The manufacturing company, Vibratex, has since come out with a non-toxic elastomer version of its most popular toy, with other toys to follow.

Rabbit habit

If you've decided you want to avoid toys with phthalates altogether, you still have plenty of options in the world of sex toys. Several companies, including Tantus ansd Vixen Creations, are producing high quality, very sexy dildos and vibes made of medical grade silicone. Toys made of metal and shatter-proof glass (Pyrex) are also good options, as they're non-porous and non-toxic. Glass toys are especially fun because of how slippery they get. And as I mentioned, you can always replace your Rabbit Habit with the new elastomer version!

O2 Revolution P spot Leo Dichroic spiral with handle
O2 Revolution
Dildo by Tantus
P spot
Probe by Tantus
Dildo by Vixen Creations
Dichroic spiral with handle
Glass dildo by Phallix

Keep it Clean

I have a confession to make: my favorite toy is made with vinyl. When the media buzz about phthalates in sex toys began, I decided not to use it any more. I cleaned it, packed it up, and put it away.

That lasted about a week. Nothing else in my collection quite compares to my favorite, and so before long I was unpacking it, popping in the double A's, and – now here's the important part – covering it with a condom before using it.

If you already have toys in your collection you think may contain phthalates, you don't necessarily have to give them up. Washing them with soap and water right before using them will help to remove the chemicals that have leaked to the surface of the toy. You can also minimize the immediate risk of irritation and potentially reduce the long term effects of porous toys containing phthalates by using latex barriers. A jelly dildo or vibe can be covered with a condom. A friend of mine uses a latex glove over her rabbit vibrator, with the index finger over the shaft and the thumb over the clitoral stimulator. You could also use nitrile gloves and polyurethane condoms if you have a latex sensitivity; but in that case you're better off sticking to hypoallergenic silicone, glass, or metal toys anyway. No tests have been done on the effect of phthalates on condoms, or on the efficacy of condoms in reducing chemical transmission from sex toys, so you have to weigh the risks and benefits for yourself.

What's the takeaway message? Don't let phthalate worries run your life, but keep in mind that there's more to buying a sex toy than picking a color. Arm yourself with the information you need to make knowledgeable decisions, and with a little luck all your adult toy wishes will come true!