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Living in a Material World: Why What Goes Into Your Sex Toys Matters

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So you think you're eco-friendly? Well, how big of a carbon footprint does your vibrator have, huh?

  We Now Interrupt This Apercu for a Brief Lexiconical Interlude: PHTHALATES!

Phthalates are a class of industrial plasticizers used to soften PVC vinyls. (If vinyls do not have any softeners added, they are very hard PVC plastic.) Phthalates have been prevalent in manufacture for decades, also seeing use in (among other items) perfumes, hairsprays, lubricants, children’s toys, catheters, IV- and blood-bags, infant feeding bottles, insecticides, adhesives, sealants, car-care products, and wood finishers.

Phthalates are also prevalent in sex toys, made all the more ubiquitous by the fact that sex toys are not subject to any regulatory standards.

Over the last decade, studies have shown that there are significant health concerns relating to prolonged exposure to phthalates, including reproductive damage, as well as reduced liver function – to the extent that the EPA has classified certain phthalates as “probable human carcinogens”. And carcinogens, for those keeping score, are agents that are linked to the promotion or increased propagation of cancers.

The easiest way to tell if a sex toy – or any other plastics-derived product – might contain phthalates is by the smell it gives off. If a plasticky, chemical smell emanates from the item in question, chances are that it does indeed contain phthalates.

Sex toys containing phthalates can still be moderately safe to use – providing you understand and agree to a couple of stipulations:

1. Sex toys containing phthalates cannot be properly cleaned, thus they cannot be shared with anyone but yourself without the use of a condom or similar barrier.

2. Sex toys containing phthalates should be considered temporary toys, and should be discarded as soon as the degradation process begins.

Another thing to keep in mind is that not all plastics contain phthalates. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

  The Exploding Porous Plastic Inevitable

Okay – now we know that plastics containing phthalates are bad for us. So what exactly is safe?

The answer to that question is a question in and of itself: how thoroughly can you clean your sex toys? Sex toy materials can be classified into two groupings: porous, and non-porous materials.

POROUS: A material that is designated as being porous contains pores; that is to say that it is permeable by water, air, or other agents. In terms of sex toys, a porous material – or, an item made from porous materials can be neither disinfected nor sterilized, meaning that the item cannot be thoroughly cleaned and thus should not be shared without using a condom.

Examples of porous materials found in sex toys include the following: jellies, rubber, CyberSkin (as well as similar elastomer composites), vinyl, soft vinyl, acrylics, nylons, leathers, wood, non-food/medical-grade silicones.

NON-POROUS: A material that is designated as being non-porous does not contain pores. Sex toys made from non-porous materials can be disinfected and/or sterilized. Thus, they can be shared between partners after thorough cleaning.

Examples of non-porous materials found in sex toys: 100% medical/food-grade silicone, glass (including Pyrex glass), metals, and hard plastics.

  Getting Your Clean Freak On

Okay, okay – that raises another question, doesn’t it: what does it mean to sterilize or disinfect a sex toy – and are there any differences between the two?

STERILIZATION: Sterilization is the process of killing or eliminating transmissible agents (including fungi, bacteria, viruses, spores, etc.) from a surface. This is generally achieved through the application of high temperatures in order to destroy microorganisms.

For applicable sex toys, total sterilization is rare. Boiling, while killing most microorganisms, does not kill everything, and thus is not technically considered to be sterilization by clinical standards. On the other hand, pressure-cooking or autoclaving is considered total sterilization.

DISINFECTON: Disinfection is the process of cleaning an article of some or all of the pathogenic organisms which may cause infection. In most cases, disinfection is achieved through the application of a chemical-based agent rather than by the treatment of high temperatures.

In terms of sex toy maintenance, disinfection means that an applicable toy can be cleaned with a 10% bleach solution. Disinfection to the point of near-sterilization can be achieved by boiling for 10 minutes, or by placing in the top rack of the dishwasher.

And as for the differences; well, the devil really is in the details – or the microorganisms, as it were. Sterilization, you see, is the killing of all life (microorganisms); disinfection is the removal of enough contaminating microorganisms to bring the level to one that is consistent with the maintenance of good health.

Autoclaving: Sterile (until removed)
Washing with antibacterial soap: Disinfecting
Trying to kill usual bacteria & easily-eradicated STDs: disinfecting
Trying to kill everything or hard to kill STDs: sterilizing
Wipe with alcohol: disinfecting
Immerse in cold sterilant: Sterilizing

A 10% bleach solution with 20 minutes of immersion is considered sufficient for sterilization; other cold sterilization would be to use a gluteraldehyde solution (there are a few such as Madacide, but really, for sex toys, this is serious overkill). While boiling is not technically sterilization, it kills enough STDs that it's essentially the same thing. Washing on top shelf of a dishwasher on a hot setting is also enough to kill STDs.

  Because Everybody Loves a Pop Quiz

Let’s review what we’ve learned. If you miss more than two, your sex toy purchase privileges may be temporarily revoked.

1. It’s important to know what your sex toys are made of because:

a. you might want to construct your own at some later date
b. the wrong materials can cause spontaneous human combustion
c. if it’s made from the wrong materials, you will experience substandard orgasms
d. it’s going in and/or on your body, and thus you have an absolute right to know what it is

2. Sterilization is:

a. an urban myth
b. the process of killing all forms of life on an object, rendering it thoroughly clean and safe for continued usage
c. what happens when your wear too-tight pants
d. overrated

3. Sex toys made from porous materials:

a. have the ability to regenerate and replicate
b. will make your genitals sad
c. should be considered temporary toys
d. are disease-ridden and should never be used by anyone under any circumstances

4. A good example of disinfection would be:

a. tossing the toy on the barbecue
b. spraying the toy with Raid
c. giving it a good talking-to
d. washing the toy with an antibacterial soap

5. Sex toys made from non-porous materials can:

a. do advanced calculus
b. teach the world to sing
c. be thoroughly cleaned via disinfection or sterilization methods
d. increase your orgasmic output by 13%

6. Phthalates are:

a. the proper term for blowing raspberries at someone
b. industrial plasticizers used to soften PVC vinyls
c. that really bitchin’ new punk band you saw last week at the Y
d. the chief cause of global warming

7. Sex toys are classified as:

a. class-A misdemeanors
b. class-C felonies
c. the bread-and-butter of class clowns everywhere
d. novelty items

8. Sterilization is to disinfection like:

a. peanut butter is to goat cheese
b. a Hitachi is to a Lelo
c. Merv Griffin is to Dean Martin
d. napalm is to Windex

9. Toys made from jelly should be considered:

a. armed and dangerous
b. a perfect pairing with jelly doughnuts
c. highly porous
d. impolite, boorish, and downright rude

10. Toys made from medical or food-grade silicone are:
a. edible
b. sterilizable
c. affable
d. a friend to one and all

Answer key:
1. d; 2. b; 3. c; 4. d; 5. c; 6. b; 7. d (although a and b are possible, depending on your jurisdiction – we’re looking at you, Alabama); 8. d; 9. c; 10. b.


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