Beware Toxic Sex Toys

Should vibrators be regulated like food?

Japanese silicone cock rings. Image via

It's the most wonderful time of year – the time when we jam a bunch of random crap in an oversized sock in hopes that the person we love will sleep with us. Family members aside, nothing quite says I care like sex toys, right? Whether it’s a vibrator for your eternally single roommate or a cock ring for the dude you pork on the reg, sex toys stuff stockings (and other things) in all the right ways.

Except when they're toxic. Nobody wants anaphylactic shock for Christmas, but America's Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates an average of 2,100 sex toy-related emergency room visits a year. Getting off just became pretty high stakes.

On the whole, sex toys hang out in regulatory limbo. America's Food and Drug Administration only pays attention to them if they fall under the category of medical devices, which means the tiny handful of vibrators that are presented as therapeutic massagers. It’s the manufacturer’s decision to classify their toys as therapeutic or not, so the majority of vibrators – not to mention all other sex toys – elude the FDA's gaze.

When I called the FDA to better understand this process, Morgan Liscinsky from their Press Office confirmed that no, they do not regulate sex toys. She politely suggested I contact the CPSC to see if anal beads and such fall under their jurisdiction. As it turns out, they do. Kind of.

The CPSC is a sort of regulatory catchall in America, and according to their website, a watchdog for thousands of products from acetaminophen to xylene. These folks are everywhere, banning lead paint on toys and slapping the do-not-remove label on your mattress. However, whereas the FDA does pre-market testing before giving a product their stamp of approval, the CPSC does not. I spoke with Alex Filip, Deputy Director of the CPSC, to see what they do instead.

Before explaining the CPSC's regulatory process, Filip confirmed that sex toys are indeed on their list of regulated products. Filip explained the regulatory process like this: "We look for a pattern of defect, a hazard out there that is, in fact, hurting people. If we see a pattern of defect, then we negotiate some sort of recall with a company." When asked what constitutes a pattern of defect, though, Filip said there's no hard and fast delineation. "Every situation is different—there is no 'number-of-reports' threshold. When a death is attributed to a product, an in-depth investigation is more likely. We have situations in which one report resulted in a recall and other situations in which there have been several reports, but no recall has taken place." In other words, the CPSC bases their regulations on aftermarket complaints, but that's where their formalised system ends. Filip told me that between 2010 and 2012 the CPSC estimated an average of 2,100 annual emergency room visits resultant from sex toy injuries. These toys are currently left to the industry to voluntarily regulate, and that industry hasn't exactly rallied around the cause. 

Sex toy dispenser. Image via

Metis Black is the President and Founder of Tantus, the largest producer of silicone sex toys in America. Black started Tantus in 1998 in hopes of bringing silicone toys (which are non-toxic and hypoallergenic) to the masses, along with a healthy dose of education about the dangerous materials used in most toys. She told me, "Phthalates are the number one issue in sex toy toxicity—they can make up to 70% of the content." The issues don't stop there, though. Black also told me that tested toys have also been shown to contain trimethyltin chloride, phenol, carbon disulphide, toluene, and cadmium. And this is just from a random sampling of 16 toys done by the Danish EPA in 2005. Depending on the materials used in a given toy, then, the risks run the gamut from a rash to brain damage.

The Smitten Kitten was the first sex toy retailer to refuse to sell toxic toys in the world. In 2005, it's founders, Jennifer Pritchett and Jessica Giordani, started the Coalition Against Toxic Toys (Tantus is a member) to combat, as they say on their website, "socially irresponsible, environmentally and personally hazardous sex toy manufacturing and sex toy sales practices." With the physical stakes of toxic toys clearly so high and the number of adverse incidences clearly not insignificant (even if the CPSC doesn't agree), I connected with Hannah Kuhlmann, a sex educator at the Smitten Kitten, to unpack the psychological impact of adverse reactions to sex toy materials.

Just as the physical risks of toxic toys run the length of the harm spectrum, so too are the psychological risks diverse. Kuhlmann was quick to cite incidences in which a toy gave someone a rash, but instead of suspecting the toy as the culprit, the person suspected their partner. She also said, "People sometimes internalise the problem, thinking that there’s something wrong with their body, that they’re too sensitive or that it’s somehow their fault that they’re experiencing pain instead of pleasure. It’s already difficult for many people to talk with their doctors about sexual concerns, and in that situation, talking about sex toy use might seem impossible. The physical pain caused by toxic toys can compound the shame or fear that someone is already struggling with around their sexuality." Considering the high number of toy-related emergency room visits, it's easy to see that the number of adverse reactions is much higher when more minor injuries are included. Filip told me that consumers only file two reports with the CPCS each year. When considered alongside Kuhlmann's assertions about the role shame plays in navigating toxic encounters, the number of adverse reactions to sex toys each year balloons out even further.

So what are we to do? There isn't a surefire way to test toys at home, which means the safest bet is to buy from a company with an established reputation as advocates for safe sex toys. As for the toys you already have, though, or those you've already wrapped up and put under the tree, Black offers this advice: "If it smells, it is releasing gasses because its chemistry is breaking down. Don't use it. Before you put it in your body, taste it with your tongue. If it makes your tongue numb or tastes nasty, it’s letting you know there are chemicals that don’t react well with your mucous membranes—don't use it." And, of course, steer clear of phthalates.

Until the sex toy industry self-regulates or the CPSC steps up, it looks like we'll just have to buy our toys from ethical companies and, when all else fails, lick and smell our toys on Christmas morning.