Maybe you had a such a solid Thursday night with your vibrator that you conked out immediately afterward, or you met someone who is sex-four-times-a-day great and forgot to wash your wand during your weekend-long orgasmic fog. Or maybe you just came really hard and then… didn’t feel like cleaning your toy. Honestly, getting up to lather your Rabbit with soap in the bathroom (sneakily, because of roommates) every time feels kind of like a hassle. And, despite what every sex educator or Babeland description ever told you about the risk of bacterial infections from unwashed toys, you remain UTI- and yeast infection–free. You start to wonder: Do I really have to clean my vibrator every single time?
The answer is a resounding, YUP, YOU MUST.
Sex is often portrayed as needing to be “spontaneous” and “in the moment” to be hot, so it’s easy to dismiss the idea of cleaning your toys following sex as overly rigid or fussy. But the real mood-ruiner is bloody urine and a trip to urgent care on day two of a weekend getaway—or, honestly, whenever.
“You do need to wash it every time, even if it's just been used by yourself, because there are definitely places on the body where microorganisms can be naturally present,” said Kelly A. Reynolds, a public health educator and department chair of community, environment, and policy at the University of Arizona. “If they get transferred to other places, they can cause infections or problems.” Some of that bacteria can get on the toy and enter your urethra, causing a urinary tract infection, which requires antibiotics and can result in serious health problems, like permanent kidney damage or sepsis, if left alone. You could also end up with a fungal infection.
“Fungal infections are one of the big ones, because fungus is naturally present in the vaginal area. If that gets on the sex toy and it gets transmitted to other areas or to a partner, then it’s difficult to treat,” said Reynolds. “You're talking about a fairly long course of antifungal medication, which can lead to other side effects. Preventing ahead of time is a lot easier than treatment post-infection.”
Here’s the good news: Reynolds said the main thing is to just clean the toy before you use it again. If you wait a few hours before disinfecting, that’s fine. Of course, if you wait days, it can get…….crusty, which can make it more difficult to clean sufficiently. It’s a good idea to do Future You a favor and suds up that dildo sooner rather than later. The exception is anal toys. Since those can carry more serious bacteria, like E. coli, they need to be washed immediately after anal contact and before further use (even if it’s still within the same sex session) and especially before further vaginal or oral use.
Reynolds compared disinfecting your toys every time you use them to washing your hands before you eat or touch your face. If you held onto a subway pole and then immediately ate a slice of pizza, you might be fine... or you might catch the flu and be bedridden for a week. Just because you’re lucky some of the time doesn’t mean you’re not taking an unnecessary risk.
Quickly rinsing the toy with water won’t cut it. “Soap is really important, especially when you're talking about bodily fluids, because [the fluids] can create a biofilm”—a thin layer of bacteria—“on your toy and protect the microorganisms within mucus or semen,” Reynolds said. “If those organisms are protected, just rinsing [the toy] under the faucet is not enough to loosen up that debris and really clean your product effectively.”
If possible, use regular unscented hand soap for this task. “It's good to use soap that isn’t antibacterial because that can cause irritation and lead to build-up on your toys,” said Antonia Hall, a psychologist and sex and relationships expert. That means, unfortunately, that a glug of Purell or other hand sanitizer isn’t a great alternative. “It can damage your toys and irritate your genitals,” Hall said.
You should also take the time to thoroughly dry your toy with a paper towel or clean towel before you plop it back into the drawer. “Drying is important, as any surface that remains wet has the potential to grow biofilms that can harbor mold and bacteria,” Reynolds said.
In some instances, nonporous (silicone or metal) waterproof sex toys can be put in the dishwasher for cleaning, but doing this properly might actually take more effort than just washing them by hand. Hall said you'll need to put them on the top rack (they could melt or get damaged by the heating element in the bottom of the machine) and run the cycle without detergent (which can erode sex toys)... but because you’re not using soap and are solely relying on hot water and steam to sanitize the toy, you may not kill all the bacteria. If you’re just trying to get some residual lube off or be extra cautious after washing by hand, the dishwasher is fine, but anal toys or anything used with a partner should be cleaned by hand with soap.
Putting a condom on the toy so you can skip washing it later won’t let you off the hook. Using a condom is still a good idea if you’re using a toy with a new partner, but both Hall and Reynolds pointed out that bacteria can still get around the condom and stay lodged in a toy's crevices, so the barrier method probably isn’t enough to keep your toy clean.
“I know you just had amazing orgasms and want to be blissed out—the last thing you want to do is go clean your toys,” said Hall. But, she said, you can easily tack it onto the good practice of urinating after sex to prevent UTIs; when you go to the bathroom, just take your sex toy along for a quick wash. Think of cleaning your sex toys as something you do as a form of self-care, out of respect for your own health and well-being—because that’s what it is.
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