Ask the Doctors: Toxic Sex Toys?

I’ve never used a vibrator and was ready to get one when I read all about how many contain dangerous toxins with all kinds of side effects. Are there safe, inexpensive sex toys out there? What else should I know before I buy one.

This is a really common concern and fortunately, it’s pretty easy to be safe. A little background: for a long time, sex toy makers used chemicals called phthalates (THAL-ates) in soft plastic and jelly rubber toys. Phthalates are softeners and they’re in lots of different types of plastic. There is some evidence that phthalates can cause problems, especially to the male reproductive system and when rats were tested, very high amounts could cause damage to the liver, lungs, kidneys, testes and endocrine system.

A few years ago, it was discovered that babies were getting exposed to phthalates in teething toys, so they were removed from baby products. This prompted a bit of a scare around sex toys, despite the lack of actual research. There’s only been one study of sex toys that I’m aware of. It was published in Denmark in 2006 and is available in translation here. But the important part is that that moderate use of dildos (less than 15 min/week) is not associated with any significant health risk. Heavy usage (1 hour/day) is not associated with any significant health risk, except for pregnant and breastfeeding women who should abstain from heavy usage. (thanks to Cory Silverberg for the info.) In any case, most sex toy makers decided to stop using phthalates due to public concerns and you’ll still see “phthalate-free on many labels. We stopped carrying products with phthalates and encouraged our manufacturers to stop making them.

Even though phthalates are pretty much gone, there are some other things to know about taking care of yourself when picking out a toy. Jelly toys are harder to clean because they’re somewhat porous, so dirt and bacteria can get trapped in the surface. They’re inexpensive, so they’re still pretty popular. I think it’s a good idea to cover these products with a condom, especially if you’re sharing it, using it for anal play, or are sensitive to yeast infections.

The materials that are easier to clean tend to cost a bit more, so if you’re not sure about using a vibrator, try a jelly rubber one and get a bunch of condoms. It’s a great way to take a test drive and if you decide later to get a silicone vibrator, having more info about what you like makes it a lot easier.

If you want to start off with one of the other materials, check out the vibrators made of hard plastic, silicone, or metal. Those are non-porous materials and are much easier to keep clean. And if you’re looking for your first vibrator, we have lots of great choices and some tips for picking one. So don’t worry too much- it’s easy to find a toy that’s fun and safe!

We’re dedicated to getting you the information you need about sex, pleasure and your health. If you have any questions, please email our staff experts, Dr. Carol Queen and Dr. Charlie Glickman, at! For product-related questions, please email or call our customer service staff at


Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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