As their descriptive name suggests, vaginal dilators are tools that are used to make insertion of something into the vagina more comfortable and (eventually) more pleasurable by helping to dilate, or open up, the vaginal opening in a progressive way. Vaginal dilators are usually produced as a series of cylindrical, insertable products and have been used for many years as part of treating pain associated with vaginal penetration (whether by fingers, toys, or penises).
Dilators are most often used by people who desire vaginal intercourse (whether it's with fingers, toys, or a penis) but who, for a variety of reasons, find it difficult or impossible to insert anything into the vagina. But professionals may also recommended them as part of a treatment plan for pelvic pain, even if the end goal isn't to be able to pleasurably engage in intercourse. In this way they are also tools of self-exploration or discovery, designed for a very specific kind of exercise.
In some countries, the term dilator is reserved only for medical devices that meet specific standards in terms of quality and manufacturing process. For this reason there are many products that are meant to be used the same way as dilators but instead are called "wands" or "massagers".
Who Are Dilators Good For?Really anyone with a vagina can use vaginal dilators (in most cases they aren't safe for anal use). But they are designed to be used by people with particular physical complaints and people whose bodies are undergoing significant change. Dilators are commonly recommended for treatment of pain conditions like vaginismus, and may be part of treatment for different kinds of pelvic floor problems. They are also used with people who have undergone treatment for a variety of gynecological cancers, whose bodies can change significantly as a result of treatment. They're also useful tools for people who have had sex reassignment surgery to make a vagina.
If you are experiencing some kind of pain or discomfort related to vaginal penetration of any sort, the first thing you should do is talk with your doctor. It might be a predictable result of treatment or surgery that you've had, but even if your doctor knows this, he/she may not have told you in advance. Because most physicians receive only basic training in the area of pelvic health (or even anatomy), you may want to ask for a referral to someone with a specialty in pelvic health. Often this will be a physiotherapist who specializes in the pelvic region. Depending on the factors that are contributing to the pain, it may also make sense to talk with a sex therapist.
In any case, this would be a situation where I would not recommend simply buying some dilators and following generic instructions that come with the product, or that you can find online. This may work for some people, but it's possible that you could actually make things worse—or at the very least cause yourself more pain (which can be very demoralizing and demotivating). Once you've been able to talk with someone who has experience addressing pelvic pain, you're in a better position to help yourself, which may include purchasing dilators and using them for regular exercise.
Different Kinds of DilatorsThere are some things that all dilators have in common. Most significantly, they are designed to increase in size by small amounts (so you aren't going from 0 to 60 in a few seconds, hours, or days). They often come in sets of 3,5, or even 7 sizes, starting from as small as half an inch in diameter going up to 1 1/2", and from 2 inches in length up to 6 inches. The sizes of the sets can vary if they are designed for treating different complaints. The best dilators are also smooth and seamless, and have a well-tapered tip so they're as easy as possible to insert.
Beyond this, there will be differences in material (some are made of hard plastic while others are made of softer silicone), and in color (the ones from medical companies are often white or beige, whereas the dilators sold by sex stores often come in soft pastels—you don't see a lot of neon green dilators). Some dilators vibrate as well. This is a recommended bonus as you never have to use the vibration if you don't like it, but many people find that a mild vibration helps them relax further into the exercises. Vibration also likely increases blood flow to the area and that too may help with relaxation and awareness, two keys to effective use of dilators.
Where Can I Purchase Dilators?There are several medical device manufacturers who make vaginal dilators. If you want to use a dilator for a current medical condition or treatment, your health care provider may be able to provide you with dilators, and he/she may also like a particular brand. There are also several small companies that have designed and produced their own dilator sets. Two sex shops that focus on education and pride themselves on being responsive to the needs of their customers - Come As You Are and A Woman's Touch - have each been involved in the design and distribution of dilators. One of the first companies to produce vaginal dilators in silicone was Soul Source. Many of the best sex shops carry these and other dilators from sex toy manufacturers (although as noted above, they may not call them by that name).
Before you buy a dilator set, it's important to make sure you know if the set you're buying is designed with your needs in mind. It also pays to do some comparison shopping, as the prices of dilators can range wildly. And finally, it makes sense to talk first with your health care provider, who is working with you to see what she/he thinks about the various options, and which would work best for you.