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Phthalates in Sex Toys

Do Phthalates Make Sex Toys Toxic?

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There have been a number of news items recently about "toxic sex toys," specifically related to the use of phthalates in sex toys. Unfortunately, headlines about killer sex toys often fail to give us the information we actually need to make decisions about whether or not we should use sex toys that contain phthalates in them. Here is some basic information about phthalates and their use in sex toy manufacturing.

What are Phthalates?

Phthalates -- pronounded "thal-ates" -- are a family of chemicals used to soften hard plastics to make them more flexible. Derived from phthalic acid, and often called a plasticizer for its plastic-softening properties, phthalates have been produced since the 1920s and have been used in everything from perfumes to pesticides and medical instruments to sex toys.

Why are Phthalates Used to Manufacture Sex Toys?

Phthalates soften the rubbers and make sex toys have a soft cushy feel to them. They are used in a wide range of sex toys, but there are many other toys that are phthalate-free.

Is There a Health Risk?

There is simply not enough data to answer this question directly because few studies exist using sex toys. But the information regarding safety of phthalates in general is instructive.

A variety of individuals and research institutions have weighed in and expressed concern ranging from mild to serious. There is a growing body of research that suggests phthalates have a toxic effect, particularly on the male reproductive system. Most organizations (with the notable exception of the chemical industry) agree that phthalates pose some risk to health and reproduction, both directly and indirectly through the impact on the environment.

Studies on rodents have revealed that when exposed to very large doses, phthalates can cause damage to the liver, lungs, kidneys, testes and can cause hormonal disruption. Preliminary studies on humans (where they have measured phthalate levels in the body and compared them to other health markers) have suggested a relationship between phthalates and poor semen quality and a relationship between phthalates and genital development.

In 2002, the FDA issued a warning that infant males who were ill and undergoing treatment, as well as other "vulnerable patients," could be harmed by phthalate exposure from vinyl medical devices.

In 2006, the National Toxicology Program reviewed the science and concluded that:

"There is serious concern that certain intensive medical treatments of male infants may result in DEHP exposures levels that affect development of the male reproductive tract."

"There is concern for adverse effects on development of the reproductive tract in male offspring of pregnant and breastfeeding women undergoing certain medical procedures that may result in exposure to high levels of DEHP."

Phthalate molecules are not chemically bound to the plastics they soften, and as such, phthalates can "break free" from plastic fairly easily, causing rubber and jelly toys to deteriorate over time. Some studies have reported that phthalates may mimic the female hormone estrogen.

Most recently, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency released a report on the safety of phthalates in sex toys. According to the report, titled Survey and Health Assessment of Chemical Substances in Sex Toys, using sex toys with phthalates for one hour a day or less poses no health risks unless you are pregnant or nursing.

At the same time, there is a move on the part of healthcare leaders in the U.S. and Europe to prefer products that don't contain phthalates in the interest of both patient and practitioner safety.

Given all this, it seems reasonable to say that it would be better if nothing were made with phthalates. If you are able to afford sex toys that are phthalate-free, I would certainly recommend them over toys that contain phthalates.

Why Use Phthalates If they are Harmful?

There are always research studies that offer different opinions, and other studies have shown that neonatal phthalate exposure has had little effect on children, and the phthalate industry asserts that the level of phthalate exposure utilized in experiments with rodents was so much higher than the level of phthalate exposure incurred by actual people that the results were skewed.

But the main reason sex toy manufacturers likely use phthalates is that it is inexpensive, and it is the way they’ve always done it. Unfortunately, the industry is rarely proactive about the health of their customers and instead responds only when there is strong pressure to do so.

Who Do I Believe?

This is an impossible question to answer. You need to assess the risk for yourself. The sources at the end of this article will direct you to information on both sides of this issue. If you have any concerns you can use condoms on your toys, or you can choose purchase toys that are phthalate free, which are often better quality.

How Do I Know If My Toy Has Phthalates?

If you shop at a good sex shop, just ask them which sex toys are phthalate-free. Most good websites indicate which toys have phthalates in them.

As a general rule, the more that a toy smells like rubber, the more phthalates it contains. One researcher I spoke with referred to this as the “plastic shower curtain” test. If you take a toy out of the package and it has a strong "chemically smell," like a new shower curtain, it probably has phthalates in it. Sex toys made of the following materials do not contain phthalates:

Learn more about phthalates in sex toys:

  1. Greenpeace UK Statement on Phthalates in Sex Toys
  2. Brief on the Potential Human Reproductive and Developmental Effects of Di(2-ethylhexyl) Phthalate (DEHP). National Toxicology Program, Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction, US Dept. of Health and Human Services, May, 2006.
  3. Aggregate Exposure to Phthalates in Humans, Health Care Without Harm, July 2002.
  4. U.S. FDA Phthalates and Cosmetic Products Information Sheet , Updated February 7, 2008.
  5. 'Gender-bending' Chemicals Found to 'Feminise' Boys, New Scientist, May 2005.
  6. Phthalate Info Sheet from Introduction to Hormone Disrupting Chemicals, Dr A. Michael Warhurst.
  7. Why Health Care is Moving Away from the Hazardous Plastic Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

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