Unfortunately at this point we simply don’t know the answer to this question. There has been research on phthalate exposure through a variety of routes, including phthalates in cosmetic products, medical instruments, food, and even phthalates in the air we breathe (well more precisely it’s in the dust from building materials). But there hasn’t been any research on whether phthalates can permeate latex condoms when used on sex toys (for that matter there is very little reliable data on phthalates in sex toys in general).
I posed your question to Dr. Ted Schettler, the science director at the Science and Environmental Health Network , and the author of several papers examining phthalate exposure and the potential impact this exposure may be having on our health.
With no scientific data on the subject, Dr. Schettler says that we’re not able to know whether or not condoms provide adequate protection from phthalate exposure. He points out that it is reasonable to assume that latex condoms will lessen the exposure, but he was unable to find any studies that examined the extent of the protection (which doesn’t mean they aren’t out there, only that neither he nor I could find any).
He explained that there are many factors that could influence the exposure to phthalates through sex toy use even with a latex condom barrier, including:
- The thickness of the latex.
- The integrity of the condom.
- Additives in latex condoms could also influence whether phthalates pass through. For example Nonoxynol-9, which used to be used as a spermicide in condoms, could actually increase the risk of phthalate exposure (Nonoxynol-9 is no longer commonly used on condoms or personal lubricants though).
- Dr. Schettler also guesses that the personal lubricant in pre-lubricated condoms could (but doesn’t necessarily) facilitate the leaching phthalates out of a sex toy.
Beyond those (very educated) guesses, Dr. Schettler says we'll have to wait for more scientific data.
I'd approach this question in terms of safer sex. Ultimately what we’re trying to do is reduce health risks that result from a sexual behavior. With any kind of sex play it is almost impossible to entirely eliminate the health risk. Following a model of safer sex practice, what might be helpful instead of worrying and waiting for some definitive answer is to consider how, in this case, given the information we have, you can reduce the risk of using sex toys. Given what we know, here are some ideas on reducing your risk when using sex toys:
- Educate yourself on the use of phthalates in sex toys.
- If you can, it is probably best to avoid using sex toys with phthalates.
- If you use a sex toy with phthalates, always use a fresh condom.
- Using thicker, non-lubricated condoms may provide extra protection.
I wish I could offer you a more definitive answer. It's worth noting that if sexuality was a less taboo subject researchers may have included sex toy use in phthalate exposure studies earlier on. The fact that we know so little is a direct result of the way we segregate sex in our personal and professional lives.
Hopefully in the future researchers will start including sex toys in their studies of phthalate exposure so we can have some reliable data from which to make our decisions.