Study: What’s Really in Our Sex Toys?

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Before I begin, I would like to dedicate this very special video to my patrons at, like TK. Your support means so much to me, especially at a time like this when I’m putting out a video that is absolutely going to get demonetized all to hell by YouTube because I’m going to be talking about DILDOS and anal beads and sexual pleasure and sexual health and not only that but I’m not going to bleep anything out because we are adults here, this channel is for grown-ass adults who like to be treated like grown-ass adults, and to make matters even worse I just said all of that in the first 30 seconds. This is why I’ll never hit a million subscribers.

By the way, like and subscribe! Why not, life is short. Hey, you could even leave a comment! But, you know, considering the topic, maybe think long and hard (so to speak) before you hit that “enter” key to figure out whether the comment you’re leaving is funny or creepy. Just a little tip. So to speak. As an example, none of my double entendres just now were funny. Nor will be the next dozen or so.

Okay, today we’re talking about a new study published in Microplastics and Nanoplastics that found sex toys can shed both micro- and nanoplastics particles and they also contain hazardous levels of phthalates that are known to screw with your body’s hormones, including substances that may affect fertility. HOWEVER! This study did NOT investigate how these chemicals are released from the toys under NORMAL use, nor did it examine a wide array of toys at different price points and from respected brands. The authors are very clear about the fact that this study is NOT to be used to fearmonger, but to stimulate (so to speak) discussion and further investigation. Got it? Good.

And thus there are several reasons I wanted to make a video about it for a general audience: first, because there’s a chance that a mainstream news outlet might miss the memo and use this for fearmongering; second, because I want to encourage other scientists to see that this is a popular subject that deserves more attention; and third, because I want to encourage the average person to learn more about how the products they buy may impact their own sexual health.

And I DO mean the “average person,” or at least the average American adult, because surveys show that MOST of us use sex toys. Specifically, just under half of American heterosexual men, more than half of heterosexual women, 70.6% of lesbian women, 79.7% of bisexual women, and 78.5% of gay or bisexual men report using a vibrator at some point in their lives. So this isn’t some niche product that most of you watching this video shouldn’t care about. Statistically speaking, more of you have used a vibrator for sexual pleasure than own an iPhone. But it’s close, and yes I did look that up: 86 to 92% of Americans own a smartphone and of that number less than half own an iPhone. Anyway. Let’s talk about this study!

Researchers at Duke specializing in chemical engineering bought four commercially available sex toys (three of each): a “rabbit” dildo, which is designed to be inserted vaginally, anal beads that are inserted into the anus, a vibrator designed to be inserted into the anus, and a vibrator that is meant to be used externally for clitoral stimulation.

They took samples of each toy and pressed them against a rotating glass file that allowed them to collect particles: again, this is (probably) not the way most of us would use these toys. The researchers write that “this initial standard method was applied as proof of concept, in line with work on other product matrices.” This is the first step for products like children’s toys–I know it’s SUPER uncomfy to talk about children’s toys in the same breath as sex toys but the authors of this paper point out that it’s an important comparison. Both categories are products that are likely to come into frequent contact with the mucus membrane, but only one of these categories is regulated to ensure the products don’t contain potentially dangerous chemicals.

Amusingly, back in the early 2000s I remember shopping at Seattle’s Toys in Babeland and learning about their Japanese dildos, which had weird little faces on what would be the frenulum. The owner explained that they were there because that made the dildo a “doll”, allowing it to be sold with fewer restrictions. When looking up verification on that for this video, I found a lot of people saying that that’s why so many Japanese vibrators look like toys, but let me tell you, these straight up looked like big ol’ technicolor dicks with the tiniest, creepiest little face hidden on it. It was such a clear “fuck you” to government regulation that it should be on the Libertarian flag. I was sad to not find a picture of it but I did find a thread on the Straight Dope suggesting that the face may have been enough to just make it “fanciful” to avoid regulation but my point stands.

Anyway, from that abrasion test the researchers DID in fact find nano- and microplastics. The worst performer, so to speak, was the anal vibe, followed by the anal beads, then the vaginal vibe, as illustrated in this delightful chart. The external vibrator performed the best though it still had some micro and nanoplastics. This is the opposite of what we would hope, considering that the worst performers were all the toys that spend the most time in contact with the most permeable part of the body.

They then tested additional samples for their chemical makeup, finding that “All four sex toys contained phthalates that are either over the 0.1 weight % limit or banned under REACH ((Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals) by the ECHA (European Chemicals Agency) in the EU (European Union). For clarification, this applies to children’s toys and is not illegal to sell currently as sexual wellness products.”

Phthalates are chemicals that are added to plastics to make them more durable (which is why they’re also known as plasticizers, but that word can mean other non-phthalate substances so I’ll continue to use “phthalates”). There are many different kinds of phthalates, and an entire army of researchers are at work trying to figure out exactly how they affect humans. Studies on phthalates in humans have found a correlation with decreased sexual desire, greater risk of dying of anything, and greater risk of dying of heart problems. Many more problems, like malformed genitals and infertility, have been found in rats.

So they’re not really chemicals that you want inside you, though much like microplastics, they end up inside all of us at some point in some quantity regardless, because that’s the world we live in now. But if you CAN limit them, you probably should. 

Again, this study is NOT proof that these toys are dangerous. The researchers point out that this should encourage more research in order to understand how many of these chemicals can get into humans using these products normally AND how these chemicals in the quantities emitted actually affect those humans.

But this SHOULD encourage you to take some actions and think critically about some things. First, think about where you’re getting the products you are putting in your body. Scientists recommend that people stick to products made entirely of glass, silicone, and stainless steel. Unfortunately, sometimes manufacturers lie about their products–in this very study, the researchers note that one of the products they tested was explicitly advertised as “phthalate-free” despite being, well, not. The external vibrator was advertised as being made of “medical grade silicone” despite containing micro- and nano-plastics as well as a greater total number of different phthalates than any other product tested.

The toys that were tested here are all fairly inexpensive products found on Amazon. I mean, okay, the rabbit is currently listed at $75, but realize that it’s a knock-off of the original Rabbit, which is $159 and advertised as being made of “100% body-safe silicone materials.” Is that advertising honest?

Well, that brings me back to the question of regulation. There are some vibrators that are sold as medical devices to treat sexual dysfunction and pelvic floor issues, and thus are regulated in the US by the Food and Drug Administration. But the vast, vast majority of sex toys are completely unregulated, at least in terms of safety. Remember how Japan had those strict laws regulating sex toys? Well, I should note that apparently that regulation wasn’t about safety but about obscenity, and Japan isn’t “weird” for that. Several US states have also banned the sale of sex toys for puritanical reasons, with the most notable being Alabama’s Anti-Obscenity Enforcement Act, which passed in 1998 and is still enforced today.

But no governmental regulations exist to stop sex toy manufacturers from including potentially hazardous chemicals in their products. Should they? Well, Alabama’s law illustrates why that would be difficult to do: sex toys are actually still sold there, but they’re sold as “novelties” and “gag gifts” and, well, toys. Any regulation for safety would face the exact same problem, which is why many experts call for a broader ban on the actual chemicals, as argued in this note from Zach Biesanz, the Senior Enforcement Counsel at Office of the Minnesota Attorney General. He points out that phthalates like DEHP, which is correlated with birth defects and cancers, are in so many products that at this point the only sensible action is for Congress to ban their sale entirely. Not just in children’s toys, not just in cosmetics, but in anything and everything that might get anywhere near the inside of anyone’s body. 
He certainly has a point! But in order for that to happen, we would need a lot more research done on exactly how these chemicals affect us. Which, you know, we should really do anyway. If you’re interested in hearing more about the potential toxins lurking in our products and what we should do about them, check out my video from March about whether or not California should ban Skittles! And in the meanwhile, practice safe sex – not just by using condoms, but by only letting the very highest quality toys up in your business. They might cost more, but I assure you that you are worth it.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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