How To Know That Your Sex Toy Is Safe

Photographed by Megan Madden.
Kourtney Kardashian is concerned about our bodies, and she's taken her fight to Congress. In April, she joined the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in D.C. to advocate for stricter regulations of cosmetic products. You see, when products that we put on and in our bodies aren't well-regulated, then there's no way we can know that they're totally safe. That's true for makeup, and it's also true for sex toys.
When you realize that sex toys aren't regulated, you wonder what kinds of particles could be transferring themselves from dildos, vibrators, and other toys into someone's vaginal or anal canal or onto their penis or vulva. The short answer is: We don't really know.
"It's 'shameful' to even use [a sex toy], so why would they need to have regulation?" says Alexandra Fine, co-founder of Dame Products, about the possible thinking behind sex toys' non-existent guidelines. Sex toy manufacturers do have to follow compliance laws for the electronic parts of the toys, but there's hardly any research about how the silicone, plastic, and other materials that cover those electronic pieces interact with our bodies.
Even if sex toys did have to follow regulations, however, it still wouldn't guarantee long-term safety. "Remember when we thought margarine was good for you?" Fine says. Regulations and recommendations, even from trusted organizations, are sometimes wrong. And we're always learning more about how the products we use affect our health. So, short of not using sex toys at all, what can you do to protect yourself?
First, remember that reputable sex toy brands, like Dame Products, Lelo, We-Vibe, and Unbound, want to make toys that make people happier and healthier, Fine says. So, they're likely using materials that they think are safe. Cheaper, "novelty" sex toy companies might still be making jelly rubber toys, which are made using softening agents called phthalates. The Environmental Protection Agency has marked phthalates as "possible human carcinogens," which means that they could potentially cause cancer. Jelly rubber and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are also porous, meaning that bacteria can get inside the toy and make it almost impossible to clean.
So, even though Fine says phthalates (and PVC) are much less common in sex toys nowadays, look out for toys that say phthalate-free and are made of silicone or other non-plastic materials. Most reputable brands will use food-grade silicone and label their packages "body safe." But that term doesn't really mean anything when toys aren't following regulations. What you need to know is that food-grade silicone, like the material used to make silicone baking trays, has been tested to make sure that it doesn't transfer chemicals into food when it's heated or cooled. So if you have a food-grade silicone fork, chemicals won't move from the fork into your food as you stick it through something hot. The idea might be that if this silicone doesn't put chemicals into food, it won't put chemicals into your body. But, we don't know that for sure, Fine says, because how food-grade silicone interacts with a human body hasn't been studied.
That's why some companies (like Dame Products) go a step further and use medical-grade silicone, even though it's more expensive. Medical-grade silicon (the silicone used in breast implants) is regulated by the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health to ensure that the silicone going into your body doesn't negatively affect your health. "You want a material that no matter what happens around it, it's going to say exactly the same," Fine says. All silicone should be inert, meaning that it doesn't change over time and isn't porous, but medical-grade silicone is the only one that has actually been tested to interact with human bodies.
So, if you're really concerned about what you're putting into your vaginal or anal canal or onto your vulva or penis, then choose toys made of glass, steel, medical-grade silicone, or smooth hardwood, says Debby Herbenick, PhD, professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health and author of Sex Made Easy. Those are all inert materials that won't leak chemicals or harbor bacteria (as long as you're washing your toys correctly).
If you're using a toy made from food-grade silicone, putting a condom over your toy could help you avoid any potential risks, Dr. Herbenick says. So break out the condoms if you're really concerned about safety. Plus side: Condoms make using sex toys with multiple partners safer, anyway.
Read these stories next:

More from Sex & Relationships

R29 Original Series