Photo by Christina Xu
If you’ve spent any time reading sex blogger Twitter in the past couple of weeks, then you have almost certainly witnessed the exasperation caused by a panel at the recent Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit titled “The Truth About Body-Safe: a frank, evidence-based discussion of what body-safe really means“.
The Summit description for the panel stated:
The term “body safe” has become as influential (and common) in consumer marketing as “organic.” But without a universal definition, nor legal or federal designation, the term has been left open to eclectic interpretation with a bias toward higher-priced, less-accessible brands. This panel will provide a frank, evidence-based discussion that will leave attendees with a stronger, more confident understanding of body-safety and how to incorporate it into their professional lives.
What it ended up being was an absolute garbage fire of vocabulary nit-picking, contradictions, bias, and bad advice.
To make matters worse, about a week and a half after the session, sex toy company Screaming O put out a press release not only falsely claiming that they had sponsored the panel and that it was “presented to a packed hall and met with emphatic acclaim at its conclusion,” but also including an unauthorized video of the entire session — including the voices of attendees — without their knowledge or consent, threatening the anonymity and safety of people who trust Woodhull to be a confidential space.
Woodhull quickly got the video taken down and published an official response on their website. While this was an important and necessary step to take and the video should absolutely never have been published with attendees’ voices in the first place, many of us in the community still believe that it is useful for the content of the panel to be made public in some way.
With this in mind, I have compiled a full transcript of the body-safe session for anyone who wishes to read it. All attendees identified within this transcript have been contacted and have given their consent to be named. (And just to clarify, the Erika on the panel is not me).
METIS: I think I know just about everyone here. [LAUGHTER] I can’t tell you all your names, but you know. I’m Metis. I own Tantus, but I am also a board member from Woodhull. And I really want to thank each and every one of you for coming and participating in this event and especially this panel, which is near and dear to my heart.
Anne I have known for…
ANNE: 10 years, I think.
METIS: 10 years?
METIS: Probably a little more…
ANNE: Only 10.
METIS: No, I think it’s closer to… no… Okay. One of the interesting things about Anne is she used to be an editor and allowed me to write in her rag way back when about controversial things like what we call sex toys vs. sexual health products vs. novelties.
So I have a long history with this wonderful person who’s going to speak today. And I think you’ll all enjoy the show.
ANNE: Thank you, Metis. Well thanks everyone for coming. My name is Anne Hodder. I, yes, started as an editor back in the day writing about sex toys. And then was a sex blogger for a little while. And now I’m a sex educator who works with sex toy companies to, among other things, assure accuracy and responsibility and accountability as much as possible in marketing to the consumer.
As part of that job, I have learned a whole lot more than I ever did even as an editor about the ins and outs of the manufacturing process, as well as– because I’m a consumer as well, I have a sort of two-pronged approach to the conversation about sex toy safety.
It’s an important issue. It’s relevant to most of us. And I credit Metis with starting the conversation or being one of the few that started the conversation years and years ago, specifically phthalates.
Because the sex toy manufacturing industry is unregulated by federal regulatory agencies, it’s been often up to us– some select manufacturers, but really a lot of sex educators, sex bloggers, people with a public forum– to hold as many manufacturers as possible accountable. And use the tools that we have access to as consumers as well as educators to educate ourselves and educate everyone else.
And so I got the idea for this panel even about a year ago. I was working with a company called Screaming O who wanted to do some materials lab testing, and that was a whole new world for me. That was actually how I first met Jarret, and Jarret will introduce himself in a moment.
And then I was also able to work with Erika, who is a molecular biologist who was able to really school me about some things that I thought I totally knew and had down pat. And it was really enlightening and nice to build my foundation and understanding of what body-safe actually can mean and what the sex toy production process is and to really understand it from unbiased, independent sources.
So we decided to bring the panel here. And I wanted to thank everyone who has kept this debate, this conversation, alive. Helping people figure out what is safe for them, what might not be. Really appreciate that.
And so the goal here, of course, among other things, is just to provide you with some of the information that I ended up getting over the last couple of years that I have found to be really interesting and helpful. So first, Jarret, would you like to introduce yourself for me?
JARRET: My name is Jarret Wright, and I’m a lab manager at a company called Polymer Solutions. We’re an independent testing lab in Christiansburg, VA that works with a variety of chemical analyses and material science.
ANNE: Thanks, Jarret. Erika, who are you?
ERIKA: Full disclosure, I went to high school with Anne.
ANNE: We actually coincidentally went to high school together, yeah. She just conveniently became a molecular biologist though.
ERIKA: Yeah, so right after school I got into molecular biology at MIT, where I studied cancer and the effects a lot of things have on cells at the developmental level. And then I started working with embryonic stem cells at the [INAUDIBLE] and then got into a position where I got to be a part of the EPA ToxCast program, where they’re doing a bunch of toxicity testing on the development of human cells. And that’s currently where I’ve spent almost the past decade of my life. So I’m very familiar with the effect that some chemicals can have on cells.
ANNE: Thank you. And before we begin, some of the images or some of the words that are on the screen are a lot smaller than we anticipated, so if at any point somebody has a difficulty reading or seeing on the screen, raise your hand and I’d be happy to read it out loud for you.
So the title of this session is The Truth About Body-Safe: A Frank, Evidence-Based Discussion of What Body-Safe Really Means. So why are we actually here? First, of course, we really want to better understand what does and doesn’t make a material body-safe. We want to more accurately define body-safe for ourselves and assist our clients or our customers to better define it for themselves.
We also want to avoid misunderstanding and miscommunication. There’s been maybe 15 years of a variety of information, or more than that of course. When did you even start, Metis?
ANNE: So 20+.
METIS: And the information was slow but trickling back before I was around. So before.
ANNE: Yeah, so it’s been a slow burn. And some information that has come in more recently sometimes contradicts other information or it just kind of confuses the conversation. It can kind of be a lot to muck through, so we want to help muck through that. Because I’ve had the experience over the last couple of years of mucking through, and it definitely caused a lot of headaches and it took a lot of time.
So we’re going to try to make that more of an easier process for everyone here. And of course on even a micro level, great, now that we have all this information, what can we actually do about it, just as humans here.
So first, words have power. We want to go over some terms that we’re gonna be using here, as well as terms that are commonly used in the sex toy safety conversation. Some terms are more accurate than others, and so we want to just make sure that we’re all on the same page.
And so we want to see that we’re all on the same page. And this is also stuff that I even learned myself. So the first, of course, is toxic. We hear the term toxic toys a lot. Partly because it beautifully rolls off the tongue. It’s got great alliteration. It makes an amazing headline.
Yeah, and it catches people’s attention.
It’s not easy to really get people to care about issues like this, about sex toy safety or what’s in our sex toys. A lot of average consumers are just, “ahh, I don’t care.” So we do have to grab their attention.
However, utilizing the term toxic when it comes to toys is actually a little bit misleading. And for people who aren’t as knowledgeable as some of us might be, it can be kind of a deterrent to even try toys in the first place. Because it is so difficult to actually know what really is in a toy.
So if somebody that we trust designates something as toxic or a toxic toy, they may be less likely to actually experience that toy. And that might actually miss out on something that could be very beneficial to them and their sexual wellness.
Erika, when we talk about toxic toys or toxic sex toys, what do you think about the way that we’re using that term?
ERIKA: Overusing it, first of all. That’s definitely true. So toxic alone, the word doesn’t mean a heck of a lot. And I think that comes from the fact that it’s not enough information. And everything is toxic. Everything. Water is toxic. It’s not enough information on its own.
What matters is the compound– for example, water– the organism that’s being affected, and the dosage that that organism is receiving. Without those two additional parts– you know, who is it affecting and the dosage– the word toxic means nothing.
ERIKA: It’s just an eye-grabber.
ANNE: We have an example of that. It’s a good eye-grabber. A non-sex-toy example, though it can apply to some plastic sex toys, is BPA in plastics. That is a toxic compound in plastic. One of the reasons why we are not supposed to microwave plastic tupperware or leave our water bottles that are made of plastic out in our cars– it can let BPA leach into the substance that we might be ingesting.
So basing off of what Erika said, it really matters the dose and then the individual itself.
ERIKA: This is eye-catching.
ANNE: Right. So it says “chocolate is toxic.” So if we were to say chocolate is toxic, I know I would mourn the loss of chocolate and I’d be very bummed out. But “chocolate is toxic” is not technically true. It is not actually true to even say all chocolate is toxic.
ERIKA: It’s not inaccurate either.
ANNE: Exactly, so it’s very confusing, this weird grey area purgatory that we kind of sit in. So it’s really not an accurate way of using toxic. So now we apply the individual or the organism. In this case, “chocolate is toxic to dogs.” Okay, we’re getting closer to that.
But it’s still not entirely accurate. So if my labrador eats an M&M off the floor, my labrador is not going to keel over immediately. Most likely not. It also matters, of course, the size of the dog. But even a pomeranian eating a small piece of chocolate is very different than if a pomeranian was to eat a mass quantity of chocolate.
“Chocolate is toxic to dogs in large quantities” is the most accurate way we can use the term toxic in any conversation about a toxic material.
ERIKA: Without actually having a measurement in there.
ANNE: Right. So, ding, that’s what we ideally would like to use. Especially when it comes to using toxic when it’s human beings. We are all unique snowflakes. We all know that. And we all react to substances very differently. And so something might actually have a toxic reaction to me does not mean that Erika is going to have the same toxic reaction.
So we just want to use responsibility when we are describing especially anecdotal evidence about a reaction that we had with something. It’s a valid, very true experience that we had, and it’s important information.
However, we can’t use that as information to now blanket define an entire category of material because we may inadvertently scare a bunch of people or prevent them from having an experience with a product that’s made of a material that might actually benefit them and be okay for them to use.
So the next term: toxin. We hear about toxins in sex toys a lot. It irritates Erika, apparently. Toxins are things that are made by animals and living things. They can’t be made by humans. So actually there are no toxins in sex toys. An example of a toxin would be snake venom. So it can’t be human-made at all.
So if we can, let’s avoid using toxin, and instead let’s use toxicant. Toxicant is something that is human-made. Absolutely synthetic. It can be harmful to humans in very specific doses or when exposed to certain doses over periods of time. An example is pesticides. No one likes those.
Next term we’re going to be using relatively frequently is inert. Inert essentially means it’s chemically inactive. It’s less likely to maybe react when touching another polymer, for example, or another compound. And less likely to cause an allergic reaction or a reaction to a user.
The golden child most famous inert material in the sex toy world is silicone. Silicone is sort of a go-to material in the sex toy world and kind of understood– or maybe even misunderstood– that if something is now made of silicone then now it’s the best it can be. It’s silicone. It’s non-porous. But not all silicones are the same, and we’ll get into that a little bit more.
And I just said this word: polymer. It’s just a term for all materials that can create certain sex toys, like all of these. All of these.
ERIKA: Silicone is a polymer.
ANNE: Silicone is a polymer. Anything where it’s multiple compounds together to make a material. So yeah, all of these are polymers.
Porous. Really important word that we hear a lot about, understandably so. Porous kind of carries the same weight as toxic almost these days. And they are literally empty spaces in a material. Also any kind of surface groove. So even if it’s not an actual hole, it’s really anything that is not a perfectly microscopically smooth surface.
Bacteria like to hang out and make happy homes in all of those little spots. So likely all of these are porous as well, including the silicone items. And we’ll talk a little bit more about pores and how these form in a moment. But pores absolutely can hold surface contamination. I think the majority of us know that.
But how to pores actually generate? Can you explain? How do pores even form in these materials, even the highest quality silicones?
JARRET: So polymer materials are made up of a bunch of clumps or chains of the polymeric building blocks. And as those fit together, there are going to be some little spaces that are left between. They don’t often fit perfectly together, like a latticework or something.
So within those gaps that are left between the chains or between the globs of the compounds, you’re left with some type of texture on a microscopic level. Now with some materials like a cork, you can actually see those pores with the naked eye. With certain polymers, those pores are there on a level that is large enough for microbes to be able to grow and thrive.
In really high-quality polymers and something like borosilicate glass, the surface is actually so fine that the microbes can’t bind to it to survive and thrive.
ANNE: Okay, cool.
ERIKA: Just so that everyone knows, the binding isn’t really what I’d be considering the surface area. Whenever you have pores, grooves, indentations, you’re increasing the surface area. And by doing that, you are giving bacteria lots of homes to hide in. And you’re also protecting them.
There’s a lot of different ways that help bacteria grow, and darkness and moist environments are ideal. And pores create them. However, bacteria are really small, but some pores in a porous material can be even smaller. In which case it’s not going to affect the increase in biofilm activity, but you can still say it’s a porous material.
There’s a lot of implant materials that physicians are using and surgeons are using to put into bodies that are specifically designed to be porous because of their flexibility and their ability to let liquids pass through them. So you can have a porous material and have it be safe.
ANNE: And when it comes to sex toys, there are certain materials that, if they weren’t porous, they wouldn’t have the same flexibility and give that the sex toy needs to have in order for it to be comfortable to use.
And so when we talk about pores, I just want to take some of the intensity maybe down from the conversation because we immediately think, it’s porous, it must be bad. But actually it’s relative. It depends on the person and how we’re using it and where we’re using it and what the function of that toy even is. Something very interesting that I didn’t even know about porousness until maybe a year ago.
And of course the million dollar word to define is body-safe. What does that actually mean? That’s also relative. It’s subjective. There isn’t a universal definition of what makes something body-safe in the sex toy world because this isn’t one. There are too many variables that come into play.
What’s body-safe for me might not be body-safe for Jarret. And that’s not because I’m better than Jarret. It might just be because he has a different body. Maybe he’s allergic to something. There might be some other factors that come into play for that.
So it’s really entirely up to you. We get to self-identify a variety of things in our lives, including what’s body-safe for us. This is very important to understand that we can’t use our experience to define everyone else’s body-safe experience.
And back to this of course. There is a way that the government does have their own definition of how to detect body-safety in a material, but it requires some intricate testing and some relatively unpleasant testing.
ERIKA: Yeah, so the term body-safe in the sex toy industry doesn’t hold a lot of weight.
ANNE: We use it for marketing. It’s good. It works, but–
ERIKA: The term is applicable in things like medical devices and foods. Things like that. And in order for a piece of silicone, for example, to be able to be implanted in a body, it has to pass bio-safety testing.
And the first thing that they’ll do is they will pull as much of the chemical out into a liquid form as they can, and then they apply this liquid form onto cells. And then they half that dose, put it on cells. Half that dose, put it on cells. They keep diluting it until they get to the point where cells aren’t affected.
And that right there, that number, is your body-safe number, once it stops affecting. That spot is going to be different for everybody, and it’s going to be different for different organs, different cells. And so once they know that information, then they go and they implant the material into usually rodents to see if it has an effect on the rodent.
If it does have an effect on the rodent, guess what. Thank you, rodent. Now you guys don’t have that effect. You know, little sacrifices. But it doesn’t go any further than that. If it looks good on the rodent, then it’s good for people, according to the testing.
ANNE: According to the testing. And of course most of us, I think, are not rodents, right? We are humans, so–
ERIKA: And it’s not perfect.
ANNE: Yeah, it’s not perfect. So even that’s not necessarily officially reliable.
ERIKA: Even on a medical level. You can have an allergic reaction– I mean, we’re all snowflakes. You might have an allergic reaction someone else might not have, and it could be to even a medical device.
ANNE: Which brings us back to you. The royal you. So what even makes something toxic then in the first place?
ERIKA: First is, of course, exposure.
ANNE: What do you mean by that?
ERIKA: Since everything is a poison, you don’t have anything that’s toxic unless you are exposed to it.
ANNE: So you need that.
ERIKA: Yeah. There’s different ways to be exposed to things on a toxic level. You can have small exposure over a long period of time, or you can have a really strong acute exposure in a short period of time. And that’s going to matter, depending on the chemical.
ANNE: And dose also matters.
ERIKA: Hugely. Even with medicine. If my little sister and I are on the same medication, she’ll probably be taking less of it because she’s smaller body-weight-wise. And so dose is extremely important.
ANNE: And, of course, the individual. There are a variety of factors, of course, that come into play for something to have a toxic reaction on one person and not another. What are some of those?
ERIKA: So your age, the state of your immune system, your particular genetics. My mom and I are both pretty sensitive to nickel, and that’s something that’s a genetic allergy. And so we try to avoid those substances.
ANNE: Okay. And this is sort of how we measure toxic risk, but it’s more complicated and really is necessary. It’s really about exposure dose and the individual being exposed to that does. So really, it’s about you.
And also something that was important that I learned, material + hazard. So a material that might have something that’s a hazard inside the material does not now make that material hazardous. Can you explain a little bit more why that is?
JARRET: So one of the examples that we’re going to talk about in a little bit is plasticizers. And this is a good time to point out that not necessarily all materials that have a phthalate or a BPA are going to be toxic to the consumer.
A sponge is sort of a good analogy for it, where if you have a completely dried out sponge, then it’s going to be hard and rigid, and that’s not going to be very good to play with. If you have it a little bit damp, then it’s soft and supple and pliable, and it performs the way you want it to. But no matter how hard you wring it, you’re not going to get drops of water coming out of it.
Whereas if it’s saturated, then you hold it up or squeeze it a little bit and some water drips out. So if there are trace levels of the correct plasticizers in a product, even though a direct dosage of that plasticizer might cause a reaction like a chemical burn or something, if they are bound within the polymer the right way and it’s taken care of, then those aren’t going to leach out and affect the user.
ERIKA: And it’s important to think of scale too. And this is just, I guess, more of a personal note. The amount of these hazards that we are exposed to in an uncontrolled way is extremely high anyway. Like my arm resting on the airplane seat on the way here, that plastic on that armrest that I have direct skin exposure to probably has far more phthalates in it than something that people are actually paying attention to.
RUBY: I’m sorry, but the armrest doesn’t go in your vagina.
ERIKA: No, it doesn’t, no.
ANNE: We’re not here arguing that phthalates are A-okay everyone.
ERIKA: No, no, no. We’re putting it in scale.
ANNE: Putting it in scale so we can kind of understand that there are particular levels of– I also did not know this until recently. In the glasses we’re wearing– we’re wearing plastic glasses– we are exposed to a lot of these compounds on a daily basis.
Which is one of the reasons why they’re tested and regulated by FDA, so FDA get to determine how much of that is okay for one human to really be exposed to just by existing as a human in a community. Because it’s so apparent and it’s present everywhere.
ERIKA: It’s in your pipes that bring your water to your house.
ANNE: It’s just information that helped me sort of understand exactly how much we’re really exposed to all of the time.
ERIKA: It is important to limit it where you can.
ANNE: Of course. We don’t want to bathe in a bucket of PVC or something, but it’s just good to know. And leading off of that, I ended up learning often the reactions that people are having from sex toys themselves, it might not actually be the material itself as a toxic substance or having a toxicant inside of it.
One of the factors that matters very much about how a material might react or how how a body might react to a material is UV exposure. Jarret, can you explain what happens, even to the highest quality silicones, with UV?
JARRET: So typically polymers are sensitive to UV and heat exposure. And even polymers that don’t melt readily in heat can still have degradation products. Certain volatile compounds can be released. The building blocks of the polymer can sort of change a little bit. And you can see that often as a discoloration or as a small that’s given off.
And those processes can release those things that, in normal use, would be bound within the material. But now as degradation happens those chains can slip and some of those additives can start to leach out.
ANNE: And a bunch of us– I know not all UV rays are the same. Because some people are using UV to sterilize some of their toys. Can you tell us a little more about the difference between those?
ERIKA: So the main ones, there’s three. UVA, B, and C. UVC is the most, I guess, aggressive, the highest energy. So it has the highest potential to do damage to polymers. Unfortunately, that is the same wavelength that’s being used to sterilize toys.
If you do it infrequently, obviously, you’re going to have less damage. But even a little bit of UV over a long period of time can cause microcracks and dry in different silicone and different polymers, and that’s where you get more pores. You’re going to have a lot more spaces for bacteria to hide in.
ANNE: Speaking of bacteria, of course, unclean sex toys. No brainer to all of us, of course. I would guess that the majority of us in this room are militant about cleaning the products that we use, mostly because we have that knowledge. We learned that that was really important.
So I found with working– I also work as a sex educator. What I have found with a lot of clients even that I’ve worked with is they just don’t have that same knowledge and they’re not quite sure exactly how to clean toys. Partly because some people say put it in the dishwasher, some people say put it in boiling water.
But there’s an understanding that, depending on the material, including many silicones, they’re not built to withstand that high amount of heat. So it actually might ruin the toy. So if you can’t do that, how are we supposed to actually sterilize some of these products?
So it can be a little bit complicated. Erika, what can actually happen, often, from an unclean sex toy? What are some of the more common biological responses?
ERIKA: So I guess, on a personal level too, I find that this is a larger issue than the actual materials. Like the likelihood that someone is going to have a rare allergy to such a small amount of the bad things that are in the toys to make the toys is pretty rare.
But when you look at how likely it is that someone is going to be less than meticulous at cleaning their toys and then they’ll use it again, that’s going to be significantly more likely. Because it can be hard to know how to clean it properly or to use a material that you can’t sterilize.
Unfortunately, what can happen is that you’ll get a bacterial infection in your… bits.
ANNE: You can say them.
ERIKA: Well, in a more– genital, anal, your mouth, everywhere. Pretty much you can’t rely on the fact that bacteria doesn’t live very long outside the body to keep you safe. Biofilms from bacteria colonized from the anus can live outside the body for up to five months.
So your toy could stay dirty for a very long time if you’re not meticulous. And what can happen is you could get a rash, get inflammation, you could get a UTI, you could get bacterial vaginosis. And one of the worst case scenarios would be you could get toxic shock syndrome, which is actually lethal.
So making sure that your toys are clean is really important. Yes?
METIS: Just wanted to tag on. Clean them before you use them.
ANNE: We’ll be covering that.
METIS: Because no one’s in cleanrooms putting toys in packaging.
ANNE: Totally, and we’ll be adding onto that towards the end. It’s really important and something that we don’t always even think about. And of course, allergy. A lot of the time some of the contact dermatitis that we are experiencing, the rashes or the soreness, might actually even also be from an allergy we don’t know that we have. How common are allergies to polymers?
ERIKA: Like I mentioned, if someone is particularly sensitive to a type of metal that might have been used or is sensitive to a different plastic that might be used to package the material, allergies can pop up. And it could be scary, and you might want to first blame the toy for it.
But unfortunately those rashes, the heat, the redness, those symptoms are all the same for things like allergies, for dermatitis, for bacterial infections. Those low-grade symptoms are all the same, so it can be really confusing to figure out the source of your irritant.
ANNE: So really the main ways to know for sure, of course, would be go to a doctor. See if you do have an infection, and see if that’s a thing that’s happening. Getting allergy tested for certain compounds absolutely can be useful as well. Or if we have the means or the ability, we get these materials tested professionally so we can actually see what’s inside.
Because many of these materials, even silicone, it’s not just silicone. There’s no such thing as pure silicone. To create silicone, you have to utilize metals to turn the molecule into a thing that can be turned into a dildo. So there’s a lot of stuff that actually goes into these materials, more than we actually might know. And they’re not necessarily huge amounts, but they are enough that we could find in a test that, say, Jarret would do.
And because some of those symptoms are all so overlapping, it can be kind of complicated. Even after doing all of these three things, we don’t necessarily know for sure what it could be. But we do know for sure that we, uniquely, our body reacted that way. And that’s valid and important to keep in mind, of course.
And speaking of materials, I think it might also be useful to go through some of the more common polymers that we see in the sex toy world to get on the same page about what everything actually is. This was actually very useful to me even when I started doing this a few years ago.
So I want to start first with silicone, which I like to joke is the golden child in the industry. Even some of the mass manufacturers have sort of caught on that silicone is a good material to use.
METIS: All of them. All. All of them.
ANNE: All of them, Metis says. Yeah, and it’s valid and legit because, yeah, silicone, a variety of qualities, is more inert than some other polymers.
ERIKA: Although these materials are not regulated. A manufacturer can say something is silicone if it contains as little as 10% silicone. They can say “this is a silicone product” because it’s not regulated.
MARY: They can actually just put silicone on the box. The manufacturers are not regulated.
ERIKA: Yeah, that’s– key word there, not regulated.
MARY: The 10% rule has been debunked. There’s no–
ANNE: What we’re saying according to FDA, that’s their– you know, the people in the sky that no one knows who’s there and who they are and make rules for us– 10% exists as a thing.
METIS: But we’re not FDA-regulated, so it’s just a–
ANNE: Everyone, I understand! I’m on the same page as you. There’s really no argument here. This is just information that helped me build my understanding of this. There is no regulation. There literally isn’t, and we’re actually going to cover what we can do because of that lack of regulation.
ERIKA: Yeah, that’s what I was saying. The danger is they can mislabel it.
ANNE: Right. And so even if something is on a package, it’s still– there’s nothing we and really do with that. It doesn’t mean, oh, if it’s stamped on there they’re official, right? And that’s what it’s like to be a consumer these days.
Silicone is synthetic. It is made by humans. It is not natural. It can’t be called natural. And like we said earlier, it’s made more commonly using either peroxide or platinum as a catalyst to create a physical compound out of a silicon molecule. So there are multiple components that even go into making a silicone toy.
It doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means that there’s more to it than even some of the packaging that we see or some of the marketing that we see says. Most often silicone is porous. It could be super tiny pores that bacteria can’t fit into. It also could be larger pores that bacteria could hang out in.
The thing with pores is it’s not universal from material to material, something also I did not know. It’s actually more about batch to batch. There is testing that does exists where you can measure pore size, but it needs to be done between each patch of polymer being made because pores are a result of air being trapped in the material itself.
So one batch of toys might have a very different pore size than another batch of toys of that same material. So that’s how difficult it is to track how big pores actually are and how difficult it is to really know universally if X material has bigger pores than L material because there’s a good chance that that could change depending on the batch and how it’s actually made.
Often in the industry silicone tends to be a higher markup lately, partly because silicone is more demanded by consumers, understandably so. I think that it should. But when we think about this on an economic level, it’s less accessible to the masses.
If we can’t afford a product that is designated by someone we trust– like a blogger or a doctor– that is deemed inert and less likely to cause an allergy and is not toxic, it’s almost telling me that I don’t deserve access to that because I can’t afford it.
There’s less information given, really, publicly about, well, if I can’t afford that, I don’t want to be othered. How do I make this less inert toy as safe as possible for me to use? Because I think we all in this room agree, among other things, that everyone deserves access to body-safe materials that they can also afford.
So something to keep in mind when we’re suggesting toys– I know I’ve also been guilty of this with some of my sex toys workshops, is a lot of focus on materials that tend to be a lot higher priced. Because good intention, I want people to use materials that are as safe as possible. But it’s important to remind myself frequently that not everyone has access to that.
So we see silicone marketed in a variety of ways, almost like grades. And actually there is no official grade that’s been deemed by any regulatory agency. So often we see– or it’s like premium. Premium silicone. That’s actually used as a marketing term. There’s no official designation of what makes a silicone premium. Very common to see premium silicone used on almost everyone’s packaging at this point.
We also see platinum a lot. Now platinum, again, is not an official term. But it is more officially representative of the silicone because why, Jarret?
JARRET: Because a platinum silicone is produced through a catalyzed system. So a traditional peroxide-based silicone, you have sort of a slurry of the building blocks of a polymer. You add the peroxide, and you sort of wait for the reaction to happen. And as you build silicone, you pull it out from the slurry.
With the catalyzed system, you’re in much greater control of the particulars of the process. And so you can produce a product that is more fully cured and is less likely to include any of the leftover building blocks or other additives or processing aids that were included in the process.
ANNE: And platinum silicone tends to be the most inert of all the silicones. So if that’s a thing that we are looking for, if we know that we get infections or that we’re sensitive, platinum silicone for sure is the way to go.
It also tends to be the most expensive. But we also want to make sure that everyone knows if something is platinum silicone on a box, it does not mean that it actually is platinum. There’s no way to really know,, unless we start communicating more. And we’re going to talk about that a little bit more.
And also it’s important to know that if it’s platinum silicone it also does not necessarily mean it’s non-porous. And so if we’re describing any kind of silicone or really any kind of polymer at all, especially professionally describing it if we do copywriting for sex toy companies or when we professionally review, it’s not accurate to actually call a silicone that we have just received from a manufacturer non-porous. Because we don’t really know, and it’s more likely porous than not. Even if the pores might be super small.
JARRET: It has as much to do with the product and the way the product was produced as it does the material that it’s made out of.
ANNE: We also see medical grade. We see healthcare grade. We see implant grade. Again, these are unofficial terms, often — not always, but often– used as marketing terms by some companies. And again, these are not official terms even used by FDA.
What it means, if something is actually medical grade or healthcare grade, it went through bio-compatibility testing professionally. And so a company is purporting that their product is medical grade silicone, we should be able to call them on the phone and they should be able to prove and provide the results of that testing.
ERIKA: It will never happen.
METIS: The FDA will tell you– if we were an FDA-regulated industry, you cannot use medical– you cannot use the FDA to advertise or market your product.
METIS: So anyone who tells you that it’s medical grade, I can tell you that they’re not– they don’t know, because they don’t know that they can’t do that.
ERIKA: You can get in touch with a manufacturer and ask to see certifications that they did do bio-compatibility testing, and that could give you some peace of mind. But you’re going to have to ask for it.
ANNE: And the likelihood of some companies doing that is actually relatively slim because it is so expensive to do bio-compatibility testing. But the only way to know is to communicate and open more of a communication chain between us as consumers and as educators who are responsible for this information, and then the people who are providing us the products. It is our right to do, and we’ll talk about that more in a little bit.
So plastic is something we also see a lot. ABS plastic is a very common plastic used in vibrators, in mini vibes and such. It’s a synthetic compound, specifically so it can be molded into certain kinds of shapes. Plastic is porous.
I sometimes see in product descriptions that plastics, or ABS plastics, are non-porous. They’re not. It’s possible to think that maybe because they’re a hard surface maybe they’re less likely to be porous than something that’s squishy, but microbes absolutely can hang out in the pores in plastics.
We also see a lot of TPR and TPE. Thermoplastic rubber, thermoplastic elastomer. They’re actually incredibly common. They are blends of plastics and rubbers. They give rubber-like compounds. This is an example of an elastomer.
TPR and TPE are a lot more similar than I originally thought. How are they similar, Jarret?
JARRET: With both types of compounds, you’re talking about taking a rubbery elastomeric kind of compound and blending it with a plastic that is more rigid and has more of a structural function.
In both of these, the material sort of inherently has the elastomeric, rubbery, squishy, pliable kind of characteristics. As opposed to most plastics are inherently more rigid and require an additive to make them more soft and pliable.
ANNE: Which makes them also porous. So TPRs and TPEs, as I’m sure all of us know, are for sure porous, almost sponge-like. And some elastomers are recyclable, so some people like that. A bonus, I suppose, for mother earth.
PU, or polyurethane. Similar to TPR and TPE, made differently. Absolutely porous. We often will see polyurethane used in some apparel, maybe as an alternative to latex or leather. Also we use polyurethanes sometimes to give hard plastic that soft-touch smooth coat.
So a lot of companies use that. Not all of them report that that’s a thing that they utilize. Not everyone actually even knows. But that’s often that soft-touch is the polyurethane coating.
SEBS is a material that we’re seeing a lot more of. This is the long term for it, and I can pronounce it if you would like me to out loud. It’s soft and flexible. It does not require a chemical compound or a chemical plasticizer to make it soft and squishy, which is why a lot of manufacturers like it. It has a lot of mineral oil in it to give it its soft feel. This is some SEBS. This is also some SEBS. It absolutely can be colored in different ways. Absolutely is porous, of course.
We also see PVC. Commonly you see PVC in its hard form in things like pipes. In its non-hard form we see it in some old-school-type sex toys, which we’ll talk about in a minute. PVC tends to have that sort of, caution, watch out, designation because in order to make hard PVC squishy and flexible and nice to put inside an orifice, it needs to be softened with a chemical. And commonly phthalates are what used to make it nice and squishy in order to get that.
So PVC + plasticizer brings us jelly. So jelly toys used to be sort of the norm way back in the day. All of us know that. They smell, they’re awful. Literally made PVC and plasticizer. And it’s not an official term, so a lot of times we use jelly to describe anything that kind of looks like jelly.
And the thing with jelly is it just looks a lot like all of the other polymers that we mentioned previously. So when we are talking about jelly, it’s just not the same as elastomer or rubbers or SEBS. Completely different compound. Something even I got confused back in the day.
So knowing all this, but how we actually find out what’s even in our toys? It’s a little bit hard, but it’s not impossible. There is no legal mandate for a manufacturer to be honest. I think we all know that already. And it’s really up to the manufacturer to be responsible about conveying and purveying as much accurate info as possible.
And especially knowing that we can really put anything on a package and no one really will question that, and the government’s certainly not going to start knocking on people’s doors. The key to this boat that I’ve learned is not all manufacturers really know what’s in their materials. And it’s not necessarily because they don’t care.
It’s a complicated process, and there’s a national sort of supply chain that a lot of manufacturers follow. So manufacturers work with factories. Some of them are domestic, many of them are not domestic. Many of them are in China. That factory works with a material supplier.
And so a reputable factory should always be able to get authenticity certification from their supplier about what materials they’re purchasing before they actually use it to make your product.
Up here we have some certificates from a company called SGS. They’re a leading testing firm that a lot of factories and suppliers use to authenticate a material before it’s purchased and used to make a mass product. So those certifications should always be provided without even having being asked, really, to a manufacturer or anyone really who asks it.
That can prove that that process actually happened. If those certifications do not exist, it is not considered a dependable or reliable factory because there’s no real proof to know exactly what material was used at that point.
Also a lot of the times when you see misinformation conveyed in marketing materials or on social media or on packaging, it’s not necessarily that the manufacturer is intentionally lying. What I’ve just learned from working with a lot of these manufacturers, it’s the fact that they either don’t know or they’re not aware or they got bad information from this supply chain.
It might’ve been a bad telephone game, or there might’ve been a language barrier. Or there might’ve been technical information provided that the manufacturer tried to laymanize for themselves and, in turn, it created wrong information that now the manufacturer and anyone selling that product is now conveying to the world.
And the remedy is just education. But people don’t know that they might need to get educated on something until someone confronts them and talks to them about that. Which is why the sex blogger community and the sex educator community has done such a great job. Because we are the ones then trying to help people be as accountable as possible.
Some manufacturers most recently are taking time to independently test the materials with a firm like one that Jarret works with here. They put products through testing protocols that are similar to the Toy Safety Act of 2008 which mandates children’s toys testing.
Why do we follow protocols like that?
JARRET: A lot of the same hazards are similar. A lot of children’s toys are made from similar materials that are soft and supple. And just the hazards are the same across the board. They really should be applied the same regardless of which industry you’re talking about.
Suppositories are even more effective than oral doses with most chemical compounds. And pacifiers are heavily regulated. They get some of the most attention of any children’s toys. Pacifiers are often only used for the first few years of life. Whereas a sex toy may be something that you incorporate for years and years of life.
So I just feel like butt plugs should have a similar type of regulation that pacifiers do. So the sort of three basic realms of testing that we use for these types of materials are, first, to identify what the material is made up of.
So, as Anne described, the manufacturer may or may not know that the correct material was used by the factory to make their products. So first we always confirm what class of material the sample is actually made out of. Then we screen for any type of hazardous substances.
And the RoHS Guide is something that the European Union uses as a requirement for most consumer goods. So a RoHS screening looks for any type of cadmium, lead, mercury. Any heavy metals that are known hazards.
And then, finally, screen for any chemical compounds or organic compounds that might be there, such as phthalates or other things that are added during the processing that should be sort of cleaned away from the finished product before it actually gets to the consumer.
ANNE: Okay. And how common is it for sex toy companies to be utilizing your services?
JARRET: It is fairly uncommon. There are only a few out there that are sort of ahead of the curve on self-regulating and making sure that their supply chain is sound, that they’re producing good products ahead of any regulatory mandate that they have to.
ERIKA: Just because I like to play devil’s advocate sometimes–
ANNE: Oh, fun.
ERIKA: It’s always fun. The difference that I will point out in how a chemical will affect an infant is very different in how a chemical will affect an adult. Infants are extremely sensitive creatures that are still developing systems that we already have in place and are just trying to maintain.
And so the effect on an infant is going to be very different than us. I’m not saying they’re all great, just–
ANNE: Well, same though is effects on a rodent versus effects on a human. It’s sort of no perfect exact way to–
ERIKA: Well, more the fact that they’re still in development. They haven’t matured yet. Their sexual organs are still developing and things like that. And those tend to be sensitive stages.
ANNE: Cool, well thanks for pointing that out. And this is just– I was able to get access to some of the SGS certifications of some of the reports that polymers made for some other manufacturers to really see what some of these tests are. Of course, some of the polymers that we use most commonly in sex toys.
But professional testing isn’t necessarily accessible to all of us, of course. It’s not super affordable, and how do we necessarily even find a place to work with? And so a lot of us have sort of been left to our own devices to use some at-home testing to try and determine the likelihood of maybe something being toxic or having a toxic compound inside of it.
And while the intentions are good, they’re not necessarily reliable enough to really make an official statement to designate whether or not a material or a toy is in fact safe or unsafe to use. So I like to call it the DDIY testing, the don’t-do-it-yourself testing. Plus it involves flame, and, you know, we don’t want to burn our houses down.
Do what you want, but these are the three protocols that are most commonly used as sort of an official designation that just aren’t as reliable. The first one being the flame test. What’s the flame test, Jarret?
JARRET: Essentially you just take your product and have an open flame and hold the product in the flame, and the myth is that a good material won’t burn and won’t cause any smell or color changes in the flame or things like that.
Certainly there are toxic compounds that can cause those reactions more rapidly than others, but virtually any polymer, if you hold it in a flame long enough, it’s going to start to smell and start to degrade and off-gas things that can be hazardous.
ANNE: And what does it mean if we get like a purple flame or a red flame when we burn something?
JARRET: That is often related to halogens, so things that are added to PVC to make it more flexible and pliable. And those actually can be an indicator that it can be an inferior product.
ANNE: What if we’re burning silicone?
JARRET: Good silicones are very highly heat-resistant. So if a product actually is silicone you could briefly expose it to a flame and the only thing you might see is a little bit of soot from the flame itself, which would wipe away. Versus something that claims to be silicone but actually isn’t would actually start to melt, and you’d have degradation that couldn’t be wiped away.
ANNE: So would it be a pretty quick thing if it was an inferior silicone?
ANNE: Okay. And also it matters if there’s surface contaminates on the product itself.
JARRET: Right, yes. There could be– especially if it’s a toy that’s fresh out of the packaging, there could certainly be some lubricants or other processing aids that were used in the molding process that could cause the same off-gassing and reactions that an inferior polymer would.
ANNE: And is it possible for a harmful polymer to pass the flame test?
JARRET: Yes. That would still be possible also.
ERIKA: Not all silicones are created equal.
JARRET: Correct. And that would especially relate to porosity. The flame test isn’t going to tell you anything about the surface texture of the sample.
ANNE: Okay. We’ve also got the melt test, which you’ve kind of covered. But specifically what kinds of materials are not supposed to melt at all
JARRET: SEBS materials and silicones typically do not melt. If they’re exposed to a little bit of heat, there’s no reaction. If you expose them to extreme heat or for a long period of time, then they start to break down and degrade. But you can’t get it to go into a puddle, which is what people really think of as melt, to actually go into a liquid phase
ANNE: So like a platinum-catalyzed silicone, for example, wouldn’t necessarily melt?
ANNE: Okay. But maybe something made of peroxide-cured silicone would?
JARRET: It’s possible, if it wasn’t fully cured.
JARRET: And certainly anything that was made from a cheaper TPE or a TPR, since they’re recyclable they readily melt. So if it was actually made from one of those cheaper materials and marketed as silicone, then that’s something that the melt test could help you sort out.
ANNE: That’s useful.
ERIKA: That might be difficult to clean too.
ANNE: Which thing?
ERIKA: If they are so readily meltable.
ANNE: Oh, yeah. Those materials are very spongy. We’ll talk more about cleaning some of these more spongy materials in a minute. Another one actually is the smell test, which can be reliable, at least on a subjective sense. What’s the smell test?
JARRET: The smell test– the human nose is really, really sensitive. We have systems at work that actually can’t quantify things as low as you can smell them by your nose. So using your sense of smell is really good, but you have to take that with a grain of salt.
Particularly with a toy that’s fresh out of the packaging, usually they’re going to sort of have that new plastic smell, that new toy smell. Those are often volatile compounds that are naturally released over the first little bit of time after processing. If the toy was produced and then goes straight into the packaging quickly, those are going to be trapped in the package.
If you are going to rely on the smell test at all, first you should probably clean the toy before you do that. But you should certainly, if it does smell, just let it air out for a day or two– sometimes even a few hours– the smell will dissipate away and it was just things that were from the packaging or just trapped within the packaging.
ANNE: So it’s not necessarily a designation of the material as unusable if it smells right away?
ANNE: Okay. So most importantly at this point is like, well, what can we actually do then on a personal level about this? A lot of us already do a lot of things to try and promote change, and there’s some more specific suggestions that we have here.
Of course paying attention to packaging it really important. The companies that are taking steps to be more responsible and provide more accurate information about this stuff are going to advertise and promote it, partly because it’s really good marketing for them. So if they’re not advertising it, there’s a chance that they’re not. Or, of course, we can always ask and find out.
But always look on the packaging. But it’s really important to know– we have an example here, and we can just see these later on. We have an example of a series of silicone butt plugs, and the way that they describe silicone is health-grade, platinum, premium silicone. So they kind of like cram in all those good words into one long description.
And so we just want to also know even if the packaging says what we want it to say there’s an additional step we need to take, of course, to know whether or not these people are just completely pulling our legs.
We also want to avoid packaging that comes in bulk package, meaning something like in a plastic bag without a label. A lot of pleasure parties often will sell products this way. It’s cost-effective to them. But without packaging to associate with the product itself, there’s no manufacturer.
So A. you might not actually know who even makes it, and then B. that means there’s no accountability from that manufacturer. So even if we were to take this toy home and have an issue, we don’t necessarily know who or how to contact this person to hold them accountable. So we really want to avoid anything like a plastic bag without a label itself.
Also, generally speaking, when it comes to talking about BPA in plastics, there are some ways you can see if a plastic is more likely to have BPA than not, and how would we do that, Jarret?
JARRET: The recycling numbers are a good indicator. Almost anything that was molded out of a plastic is going to have somewhere on it that little symbol with the triangle with the arrows going around it and a number inside. And manufacturers use that number to note what ways they can be recycled in. So if you find a 3 or a 7 on it, then those often– that indicates that the material contains BPA.
ANNE: Okay. That’s good to know. Also looking some of this stuff up online– obviously we all kind of live on the interwebs, like we know our way around it. But there are some resource sites that I didn’t even know existed that can let you check, among other things, bio-compatibility testing standards and even what would be required to test if something was bad for you if not.
Can you tell us a little more, like where to look online?
ERIKA: Sure. So the internet is a wonderful resource for many things, but we can also get lost in it. So looking at your sources is really important. If you’re curious about bio-compatibility testing and what they are looking for specifically when they do that testing, you can go to the USP site and peruse. If you want a more specific direction, we can give that to you here. We can just put it up on the slide.
ANNE: It’s a long URL.
ERIKA: Additionally, if you want to know about what’s safe for your body and what levels are acceptable, you can go to the FDA websites, where they’ve published the different levels that humans in general are sensitive to. And the EPA also posts the different levels of toxic compounds, at what point these compounds become toxic.
Both the FDA and the EPA will have that information. They’ll be kind of independent of each other, and they’re for different reasons. The other great place to look is just doing a Google– what is it, Google Publications? Google Literature? Searching the scientific literature and making sure that the paper where the information is published is from a peer-reviewed journal, not just a “I paid to put my research here” journal.
ANNE: Which is more common than not these days.
ERIKA: Right. But they have to say that they’re peer-reviewed or not, so that’s easy information to find out. But just keep in mind a lot of that data– most of that data– comes from experiments done at cellular or mouse level. So it may or may not apply to us.
ANNE: But it’s good information to have. And we can arm ourselves with some of the specific information, especially about the bio-compatibility standards, when we communicate with manufacturers.
This has, of course, been something that’s been happening for a long time. But a lot of us have used indirect channels. We use social media, or we’ll reference them in a public post to hope that they respond.
And that works for some manufacturers, but what I’ve found is that legitimately calling the number on the package or on the site or e-mailing the customer service rep on the website is the fastest, best way to start this conversation and just start to ask questions.
Contact a company if anything weirds you out about a product that you just purchased or someone buys you. So if it smells funky or if the packaging was broken or something looks like it was deteriorating, those are all valid and important things to call out and to ask what’s going on from the manufacturer.
Manufacturers who care will respond accordingly. They might not have an answer for you right away. They might not actually know at all. And if you e-mail, they’ll let you know. “I’m not sure, but I’m going to find out.” That is the first step to really start this conversation and to let them know that this is something they should actually look into.
Because, as we said, previously– a lot of manufacturers have no idea really what’s going on, and until someone kind of pokes their finger in and calls them out, they don’t necessarily have reason to spend time or resources and check it out. Unless they’re one of the few that are doing it on their own. But until then we absolutely need to continue holding them accountable, but in a more direct way.
It’s also– some companies actually have representatives or ambassadors that many of us in the room even know personally. They work with a lot of sex educators these days or public figures that work in sexual wellness. And so we can use that as a channel to start the conversation and sort of– they can go a little faster.
If we’ve got someone on the inside who can start bringing up the fact that this in an important conversation to have and “maybe we should get tested” or “where do you source the materials? Do you have SGS testing?” Those types of questions are really valid to ask, and it does help to have a friend that works on the inside.
Also when we’re communicating with a manufacturer, if someone says that it’s health-grade or medical-grade– and, as Metis pointed out, it really shouldn’t say that on the package. But if we want to know if it’s actually medical-grade, those certifications should be able to be provided.
So if we contact the manufacturer directly via e-mail or on the phone, if it truly has gone under those bio-compatibility testing, they should be like, “yes, we can absolutely provide that certification, what’s your e-mail address?” Something like that.
ERIKA: Jarret will probably also agree with me on this. The technology of everything is changing really, really quickly and constantly, and I don’t think polymers is that different from that. I think there are new polymers being developed all the time. Different tricks are being added.
And we have kind of a system where it’s innocent until proven guilty. Especially when it’s not being regulated. So having that open communication with your manufacturer to know what’s in your goodies is important.
ANNE: Do you have anything you want to add to that, or are you on the same page?
JARRET: No, that sounds good.
ANNE: Next, of course, as we all know, we want to take care of our sex toys. But it’s not as self-explanatory because we get a lot of mixed information about, okay, boil silicone or put it into a dishwasher. But as we know at this point, not all silicones are created equal.
Jarret, what could happen to silicone if we put it into a dishwasher and it wasn’t supposed to go in there?
JARRET: It leads us back to degradation. Just like we mentioned, a material with a hazard doesn’t necessarily make it a hazardous material. But as soon as you begin to cause any type of degradation or any type of damage, you may be increasing the surface area, as Erika mentioned.
You may be causing degradation that can release some of those hazardous chemicals. It may be something that is completely inert in its finished product form, but as it starts to degrade it starts to release compounds that could be hazardous.
ANNE: And the only way to really know if your product that you just bought is okay to be put in a dishwasher or to be in contact with high heat like that is to ask the manufacturer. If the manufacturer doesn’t know or can’t answer, then err on the side of caution and assume that it can’t be. But the manufacturers who know that that’s important, it will probably say even on the package or in marketing that this is how you clean it. But they should be able to give you a very clear answer.
And manufacturers that say no, that does not necessarily mean that now that silicone is bad and shouldn’t be used. It just isn’t the same as a platinum silicone. It’s maybe less inert than a platinum silicone. But it is still an inert silicone to use.
What can we do with a porous material, Erika, to keep it as sterile as possible since we can’t boil it?
ERIKA: Dish detergent is a good friend. You can dilute some dish detergent and soak it in that. Keep it in a cool, dry place. Keeping your toy dry and out of any sunlight is going to be your best bet. But dry. Anything that helps promote bacterial activity, like moisture– giving them a food source, and your food source would most likely be your skin cells.
So if you don’t properly clean those off, not only have you given them their ideal environment, you’ve given them food too. So first step, if you don’t know how to clean it, talk to the manufacturer, look at the packaging, and see how it’s suggested to be cleaned.
If it’s not something that can be sterilized– and probably should be because it’s a high likelihood of being a porous material– maybe consider not using that toy forever. Or use a condom on top of it to keep yourself protected. But these polymers are synthetic, and they do break down over time with use and cleaning.
All the cleaning products can be abrasive. So keeping in mind that if it’s not perfect silicone in the world it probably will break down over time and shouldn’t be used for–
ANNE: Yeah, so kind of treat it like our toothbrushes, right? Like we’re using our toothbrushes in our mouths. Lots and lots of bacteria in there every day. And we’re– I know I’m not sterilizing my toothbrush after every time. I just kind of stick it back in its holster and then use it again later on. Which makes me not want to use my toothbrush ever again when I think about it.
So treat some of those sex toys like your toothbrush.
ERIKA: Or better.
ANNE: Ideally, right? We toss our toothbrushes after awhile, right? So it doesn’t mean that we can’t use some of these lower quality materials or less, you know, inert materials. It just means we need to treat them differently and replace them more often.
ERIKA: Especially if you know you are subject to sensitive skin or contact dermatitis. Know your body. And I guess we’ve already said that kind of a lot.
ANNE: We’ll say it again.
ERIKA: But if you yourself know that you’re sensitive to allergies or contact dermatitis, you might not want to keep your toys for as long.
ANNE: And also trusting our instincts. A lot of us are learning to hone our instincts as we just get older and build our own sense of self-love and confidence, it’s better. But really understanding, if we are opening a product and it smells even if we let it air out for a little while, we’re still not sure– even if we’re just on the edge, trust your gut. You don’t have to use it because you just bought it.
ERIKA: No one’s forcing you.
ANNE: No one’s forcing you. And what’s actually really nice is contacting a manufacturer and letting them know if you did purchase something that is not reacting in a way or doesn’t smell the way that it seems like it should. That’s also a really great conversation starter because you have a piece of evidence to come out and show them, like this thing that I purchased on this date is no good.
Also if a material arrives feeling kind of sticky or tacky– we have an example of that up here. Where depending on how hot it was when the product was being shipped from A to B, point A to point B– who even knows really what happened? But if it feels anything like it shouldn’t, even if it’s just like a guess–
ERIKA: If it weirds you out.
ANNE: Yeah, if it weirds you out just don’t use it. Yeah?
LUCY: I mean, I have a question about letting your sex toys air out because is that really… Can you trust that? Because like, when you air out– or when you buy like, a mattress and you let the— they say air it out to let the off-gassing, to let that scent go away. Well, is that really… Doesn’t mean that it’s safe, right?
ANNE: It doesn’t mean that it’s all good to go. It’s an important step to take, as Jarret had mentioned earlier. Sometimes even the high-end, highest quality materials are immediately packaged right off the line instead of given a chance to kind of off-gas naturally on its own.
So we might actually open that product and it does smell a little funky even though it’s supposed to be a really nice product. And that might just be because the natural amount that needs to off-gas on its own hasn’t had an opportunity to. So it’s been trapped for a really long time in that plastic material.
Which, of course, is not ideal because it’s trapped usually in like a clamshell or something like that. If you want to expand on that question.
JARRET: If it was continuing to present a hazard, you’d continue to smell it is the simplest answer that I can think of. Letting them air out– yes, there may be hazards that are volatile that are leaving. But they are leaving. They’re going away.
So if they were– anything that’s left is going to be really bound into the material, unless you cause degradation or damage or something like that to be able to release it. So if you let it air out for awhile and you continue to smell it, then yes, there’s probably maybe something that would present a concern.
ERIKA: A lot of these materials, when you– it’s like baking a cake. When you put them all in to create this plastic, the most inert materials aren’t going to have a lot of byproducts. However, just because something– sometimes, especially to make silicone, you add the ingredients and they do their chemical dance.
And the results of that is that the original chemical has kicked out a buddy in order to make room for this new buddy to make a new chemical. And that buddy that it kicked out on its own might not be great, but it has to leave the material in order for the polymer to be stable.
That sort of off-gassing is those other portions of the chemical leaving in order to create a more stable, inert product. Would you say that that’s true? So they don’t continue to leave forever, and if they do you have a problematic material.
Which is why they say let it air out. Because it’s part of the process of making the plastic. You can’t have it without these products leaving. It’s just, more often than not, they’re not given enough time to leave before they’re packaged up. So you’re smelling the chemical byproducts.
Some of them are worse than others. You do want to wash your toy before you use it if it’s new. But it doesn’t mean that the product that’s left behind is bad, if that makes sense.
ANNE: Does that answer your question okay?
ANNE: Next, of course, knowing about anything– we’ve said that a million times, but we’ll just hammer it home. Especially for those of us that work with clients or work with customers, it’s really important to remember that an experience that we might have with a material or a product is valid and important. It’s a true experience. But it doesn’t make it a true, valid experience for everyone else that we might work with.
And so we can absolutely disclose that we might’ve had an experience with a certain toy or a certain material if somebody is seeking help to try to buy a sex toy for themselves, but we don’t want to necessarily present it to them that, oh, I got a rash from this, it’s toxic, don’t buy it.
That’s not accurate. It’s not quite fair to the people that we’re actually providing information to. And we might inadvertently be preventing this person from having a positive experience from a product that might’ve been shaped for them or made well for them or at a price point that they can better afford.
Especially if we know that we’re sensitive, if we’re prone to yeast infections or BV or other issues, we can take special care, especially if we have the means financially to do it to just select materials that are known to be more inert. We can research what the more inert materials are, and we’ll offer a couple in a moment.
Also often many materials on the package will be promoted for their hypoallergenic qualities, and so, again, we have to trust the manufacturer. We can communicate with the manufacturer on that.
But it’s important just to make the right selection according to what we know that we might experience. Or if we have a client who’s experiencing regular yeast infections, for example, we can say, alright, inert material is the one for that person.
Aside from silicone, what other inert materials would you recommend?
ERIKA: I’m a fan of glass. Glass can be sterilized. It’s not as porous. The pores are much smaller. It’s easier to clean. It’s pretty.
ANNE: Would you say it’s more inert than all other materials really?
ERIKA: Yeah, it is more inert than many of the synthetic ones. With the exception, of course, I think, of a really well-tested, nice silicone. One that’s gone through bio-compatibility testing.
ANNE: There any materials that you know that are more inert than others?
JARRET: Something that I would add to this discussion is that, if you’re talking about a metal device, a lot of times something that is steel would rust and can cause issues when it’s in contact with your skin. And so can be nickel-plated.
And so for most individuals, that nickel-plating would allow that ring or whatever to be– it would make it more inert. But in Erika’s case with a nickel sensitivity, you’re actually taking a step backwards.
ERIKA: I’m a snowflake.
METIS: Can I ask a question to Erika? Can you talk about pigmentation and how the chemicals in that could change the chemicals in a toy?
ERIKA: Sure. So when you add anything to a synthetic material, you’re introducing another element that could possibly react with something. It it’s done properly– I would hope that it was done in an inert way and should stay within the toy as long as the toy has not been subjected to degradation.
If the toy has been tested for [INAUDIBLE] for the off-gassing, you can test and see what levels of the hazardous chemicals are capable of leaving the material. So there’s lots of different types of pigment. They’re not all created equal. So knowing what types are in there are something you can test for. I mean, you’d have to pay for it. It’s more of the industry testing.
But kind of– same thing goes for the ink used in tattoos. You can’t use just any ink, you know. The different colors– some people can’t handle red because it’s impossible to make a red pigment without using some form of metal.
So, again, it comes down to the individual and the product that’s being used. If it’s something that you’re not comfortable with or that you don’t know or can’t find out what’s in it, then try to stick to a natural, unpigmented toy.
ANNE: Okay. And using a toy wisely. I think a lot of us, of course, know this. But it’s really important to communicate to end-users who don’t have as much information and knowledge as we do about– regardless of whether or not we may be more sensitive or our client may be more sensitive to an infection– all materials are not created equal.
All silicones are not created equal. And we’re not using every toy in the same orifice each time. So there are some toys that are made to be put into orifices with a higher concentration of harmful bacteria, like the butt. It’s a completely different biome and bacteria activity in a vagina. Same with in a mouth or on the surface of the body. So it’s really important to choose wisely, and–
ERIKA: And not all bacteria’s bad.
ANNE: Right. We’re surrounded and covered by them all the time.
ERIKA: Yeah. They’re not– I mean, we don’t live an antiseptic, sterile world.
ANNE: We just don’t want to disrupt, of course, the ecosystem that’s existing there.
ERIKA: Or mix and match them.
ANNE: Right. So even though a material might be less quality or might be known to be more porous than something else, that does not necessarily mean that we have to strike that entire category off the sex toy to-do list. It just means that we might use it differently.
Of course, if we can afford it, utilize as inert materials as possible. So glass or platinum-cured silicones. Especially in concentrations of higher bacteria, like the butt. So we would definitely recommend glass plugs or provable platinum-grade or platinum-cured butt plugs– silicone butt plugs– for any anal use or even around the anus. Especially since it’s so close for people with vulvas, so close to the vagina.
ERIKA: And they’re the most likely to make biofilms and last the longest, and they’re the most likely to make you sick, the ones that come out of the butt.
ANNE: Right. Of course with the E. coli bacteria and all that fun stuff. And, of course, we can just use barrier methods in a variety of ways. Often we see a lot of conversations online about how do we use like, a bullet? Regular external condoms are really huge to stick a bullet into.
There are ways that we can create barriers between us and the material itself to eliminate any risk about allergic or any kind of reaction from it.
And especially when it comes to like, cock rings or strokers, things are not being inserted into the body for long periods of time at higher temperatures. Erika, what are your thoughts on, say, like, a porous material used for a cock ring or for a stroker? Is it different for something that you won’t really be putting into the body?
ERIKA: Yeah, I think Jarret mentioned this a little bit earlier. The root of exposure, where and how you’re being exposed to something, also matters. Whether you’re going to be orally exposed to it, suppositorily exposed to it, or if it’s just going to be on the surface of your skin. The surface of the skin is your least sensitive reaction point.
You’re going to have the smallest reaction on a skin level versus orally ingesting something or suppositorily or being injected with something. So when they do toxicity testing at those different levels, you’re going to be able to tolerate much higher reactions to something that’s just being exposed to the surface, such as a cock ring would. Again, if you’re worried about its ability to keep you safe, they make single-use ones too.
ANNE: That’s true. Most important is when we are communicating to people who want advice about how to choose a sex toy. We don’t want to necessarily outlaw an entire material based on the fact that we do know it’s porous. Yes, it might be porous. But if this person might be able to afford a cock ring in this material, go for it. Don’t discourage them.
Disclose what we know about this material, but it’s not being used in an anus. And so it’s going to have a very different issue about it being porous. And, of course, thinking critically. This, of course, I think a lot of people in the room, especially the bloggers– we love to think critically. Skepticism is our friend. We don’t like to necessarily believe everything that we are served on a platter.
And there is no regulation. There’s no one really checking it, and even if we find someone is doing something wrong, there isn’t like someone to call to say, hey, this manufacturer is doing this and lying to us. So there’s a lot of collaboration that goes along with calling out manufacturers and holding them accountable.
So we want to make sure that we are using skepticism wisely. If something is one a package that just seems like total BS, it might not be BS. But use that skepticism and give them a call. Hold them accountable. Make them answer your questions without time to get a lawyer involved or to make some fluffy answer up.
See if they can actually answer those questions. Skepticism is really important and is what started a lot of the conversations that we’ve been having about sex toy safety. We also want to make sure to keep some of these last little points in mind.
High price does not always mean high-quality. Of course we know that with a lot of consumer goods, but there’s kind of the assumption that if a product has a high price it must be the best kind of material that they use. But consumers don’t choose the retail price. It’s a manufacturers thing. So they can price it however they want to.
It also means low price does not always equal low-quality either. It just might mean that the material is different or of a different quality.
But it doesn’t mean that it’s now unusable because it costs $30 instead of $90 bucks. This is important especially to keep in mind when we are recommending toys. We want to give attention to toys that are not $50 and above, toys that might be more accessible or affordable to the masses. Because, again, everyone deserves access to as safe of a product as possible.
So if we can also provide them with methods and harm reduction strategies to utilize toys to lower the risk of an allergic reaction or negative experience, we should also provide that, as well as a higher-priced alternative to the product.
Of course, it’s also important to remember not all silicones are created equal and the only way to really know is if we hold the manufacturer accountable. Beware of all marketing terms that sound really cool and official. Most of the stuff on packaging is just made up by somebody professionally. And we should always be able to get proof from a manufacturer to support that.
And the last thing, of course, anecdotal evidence isn’t reliable for everyone. Anecdotal evidence exists. It’s important, and it’s valid. But we can’t use that as a blanket way to sort of prove whether or not something is safe or not safe. It’s an important piece of information to include, but we can’t use that as, because this gave me a rash it’s going to give everyone a rash and we should all avoid it and boycott the manufacturer.
I don’t find that to be the most fair, responsible way to go about it. Especially knowing that some manufacturers have no idea. And some of them don’t care, and they won’t. But some manufacturers do, and once they realize that it’s something their consumers care about and something that more people care about, especially publicly, the ones who matter will change their practices.
And that’s really the positive progress.
ERIKA: It would be really hard to find a material that works perfectly for everybody.
ANNE: Because we’re snowflakes?
ERIKA: Yeah, yeah.
ANNE: The whole snowflake thing. So, with that, we’ve got some time to– we assume many people will have questions. So we’re opening up to the audience. Hi.
RUBY: How– now this is more of like, a bias-type question. Do you feel your personal experience with Screaming O and the issues that they went through with their materials have colored this presentation at all?
ANNE: I think that’s a great question and one I expected. I can tell you no, not at all.
ANNE: What I learned from it was a lot more about what porous actually means and what SEBS actually was. Huge misconception from a supplier that it was a blend of silicone and elastomer– something like that. And had no idea that that was false.
And I loved learning that I was wrong and that other people were wrong because then we got a chance to rectify that and make that a major responsibility and a big piece of transparency that I use with a majority of the manufacturers that I work with at this point. And I see a lot of manufacturers still not quite caring in the same way.
So definitely there could be a bias, but what I found is the materials that I even personally would never use because I thought that it was low-quality and might give me a rash might not actually be what I think it is because it is so subjective and unique to each individual.
And also that it exposed me to the whole idea that the products that personally I was promoting or recommending to people who were asking me for trusted information, I was really biased in only showing high-priced products that I was familiar with because I knew that they were of a certain material.
And so I realized that there’s a really valid conversation to have about these other materials that I might not personally use, might not be the highest quality on the planet, but that doesn’t mean that they’re bad and shouldn’t be used by everyone. Because not everyone can fork over $50, $60, $100 for some of these really nice products that we have out there.
RUBY: Thankfully there’s a lot of silicone being manufactured, making $20-$30 things these days.
ANNE: Some of them are, yeah.
RUBY: We do have the ability to say stay away from toxic toys, and if there’s a cost concern, here are equally-priced safe toys.
ANNE: Yeah, absolutely. But we, of course, want to make sure to, if we can, use the term toxic toys as loosely as possible because it is kind of scary–
RUBY: I disagree because this is something that we need to alert our customers and our users to. And toxic toys is a phrase that will scare people, and there’s a reason for that. It’s because it’s going to get people’s attention and realize this is a serious issue. So by downplaying and getting kind of nitpicky about vocabulary, it’s a bit like six of one, half a dozen of another.
ANNE: I can see why you’d feel that, absolutely. And like we talked about earlier, it does grab attention because it’s the only thing that– on the PR side, that’s the thing that gets headlines because it makes us freaked out like, oh god, are we using something that’s toxic?
But when we’re having personal conversations, like if we’re having a one-on-one conversation with a client or a sex toy workshop, that’s where I– I wouldn’t call it nitpicking. I’d just get a little more specific about how to describe some of the harmful components of some sex toys and what to look for to see if it’s something that might be bad for you.
Because often, like we talked about earlier, it’s not always– or even often– the material that’s causing all of the problems. Often it’s a reaction between the unique biome of the body and where the product is being used or even the surface components of even the product itself.
RUBY: I think we can agree that there’s certain materials that the majority of people will have a reaction to. If we’re talking about, you know, SEBS and TPE and all these other toys, there are chemicals and compounds that are definitely more “stay away from.”
You know, yes, maybe only 10% of the people are okay with it, but 90% won’t. We’re not going to recommend those because 90% of the people are going to have issues.
ANNE: Are there products like that? 90%?
ERIKA: It’s very unlikely–
METIS: There used to be a lot of those. They were over 50%. You know, the last time I saw chemicals actually being written about online it was CATT, the Coalition Against Toxic Toys. And they actually have the amounts of the– it’s very hard to find where the numbers were, but the actual amounts of the phthalates in the jelly–
RUBY: I was more talking about 90% of the people have a reaction to it. Somebody might be using a jelly dildo and have absolutely no reaction and be happy and go-lucky. I’m still not going to recommend it just because these 10% of people have no issues with it.
ANNE: No, absolutely not. Or is anything, if that’s something that’s in someone’s price-range or accessibility, because some stores only stock stuff like that, we would just let them know it’s not recommended unless there’s a barrier on it or something and use harm reduction techniques for–
RUBY: Well, that’s the other concern. You talked about using condoms on sex toys to prevent chemical transfer. That’s a myth. That’s a myth.
ANNE: Tell me more about that.
RUBY: You can still have chemical transfers through condoms.
ANNE: Yeah, I didn’t say that nothing would happen. It’s just me saying that that’s an additional barrier.
RUBY: Yes, unless it’s– you don’t want to say that. If you’re using a condom on a sex toy to alleviate– like, you don’t want to use a condom on a jelly sex toy.
ANNE: No, yeah, we should be specific. So depending on the material of the condom that you’re using and if it’s not an inert polymer, it’s chemically reactive and can react with things like silicone. Absolutely– or, excuse me, with latex.
So it matters, absolutely, what kind of barrier might be used. But it is a technique that been deemed– do you agree with what’s being said?
ERIKA: I agree with it in the sense that I know more about bacterial– if you have a porous surface, it will prevent a lot of bacteria from transferring to those pores, which will keep you safe for later–
RUBY: But we’re talking about the chemicals–
ERIKA: Right, right, right.
ANNE: And our conversation was specifically about preventing bacteria and bodily fluids from leaching in and creating like, a sponge in the sex toy itself. In terms of chemical burns, that I don’t have information about. I was not referencing that in the conversation at all. What’s up?
LOLA: Okay, so. I get everything you’re saying, and I get everybody in this room is going to pay attention to it. I work in a sex shop. This is not going to fly. And we have to use blanket terms because everything you’re saying, Ruby– totally, no, it’s true.
I can’t sit and have a 30-minute conversation about what you might be allergic to, hey let’s do this. I have to be able to give [SNAPPING] boom, boom, boom. Because a lot of times people don’t even want to hear how to clean it. They don’t care.
They’re like- and they want to go. And I’m like [SHOUTING] whoa, whoa, wash it, don’t do this! So we need those blanket things. Like, we need to be able to say this is probably– like, I tell– we sell silicone. The silione we sell we’re pretty confident in. We carry Tantus and, what, New York Toy Collective, and that’s pretty much it. And some Blush things.
And we’re confident enough to say, these are going to be good for you. These are– like, you can wash them in this way. You can sterilize them in this way. And the things that are TPE I’m like, no, don’t share it. No. Soap and water, good for you, don’t share it with anybody else.
But I don’t actually break it down. I get it, but it’s like, we need the blanket. For people who are selling things, we need the blanket. We don’t– people don’t want to hear it. People don’t care. People don’t know. And we’re trying really hard to get it out there. But even having a conversation about toxic toys, I’ve had somebody tell me, I don’t care. If it’s $10, I’m going to use it. I don’t care because I don’t want to pay $100. So you’re like, absolutely, girl, here.
ANNE: Yeah, I completely agree with you–
ERIKA: We had the same conversation when we were preparing this discussion, like how deep into the science do we want to go? I could spend an hour and half just talking about, you know, chemistry, and that’s not going to help anybody. So we had to even kind of summarize the talk in general. So we basically had that conversation.
ANNE: Yeah. In case there’s a misunderstanding, it’s less about semantics here. We’re not trying to tell anybody what to do or what not to do. Except that I didn’t know, as an educator and as a sex toy user and recommender– that ended up changing the way I described and answered questions to people.
We know we can’t force horses to drink at the river, right? So we can’t force consumers to really care at all about any of it. And as Lola said, yeah, we could even chase them out the door with cleaning instructions. And they’re like, I don’t care, I need my dildo.
LOLA: And then a lot of times the price thing, I use that as a– it’s quality. That price thing– we don’t sell anything that’s shitty that costs $100. Like I’m pretty confident in like, the shit that costs $150 costs $150 because it’s fucking artisanal, small-batch dildos.
I mean, that’s what it is. New York Toy Collective pours as you order. That’s why it costs that much. So it’s like, yes, you can get quality in a lower price value, but it’s going to be a small dildo. It’s not going to be involved. It’s not going to be veiny. It’s not going to have a shape. It’s like all these things.
So I don’t like that we put price and go, oh, like you can get– you can’t. If you’re finding a veiny with a nice head or uncircumcised dildo that’s $10–
METIS: How many dildos do you sell compared to your vibrators?
LOLA: We sell way more vibrators than we do dildos.
METIS: Then why are we talking dildos and not the vibrators? Vibrators have so much more involved in cleaning [INAUDIBLE].
LOLA: You can’t clean them–
ANNE: Well I just want to bring up– I think Lola also brought up something important.
That’s one of the reasons this whole conversation and companies like New York Toy Company exist and small retailers exist. Because that was change that they could make. They knew, we could do it differently. Yeah, it’s going to be a higher price. But we know that those small-batch manufacturers do the whole process in a very specific way. And there’s a reason why it costs that.
There are a lot of mass manufacturers, larger scale, who maybe don’t care in the same way– they didn’t start their company out of a desire to make change– who are utilizing similar price points and similar marketing terminology and packaging that compares it or makes it seem like comparable to something like a Tantus toy, and it’s simply not.
It doesn’t mean that it’s terrible. It’s just absolutely not the same. And so providing all this information is just to sort of amplify the conversation with some stuff that might just be additionally useful. If people care to hear about it.
LOLA: Also things with motors automatically you can’t throw in a pot and boil it. So we already tell people, if you want to share this you need to put a condom on it because you can’t boil this to sterilize it.
ANNE: In the back.
SARAH: Sorry to interrupt y’all. Yeah. So I’ve got a comment. Hey, I’m Sarah. I run Formidable Femme. And I just wanted to make a comment around the question talking about manufacturers. A lot of the solutions that you all said– you know, you said if you have a problem try to talk to the manufacturer. Try to ask them what the materials are. Maybe they can change their minds.
I want to emphasize that the companies who are willing to change their materials and their practices are not the companies that we’re worried about. We’re worried about companies that only care about capitalism, that only care about making money–
ERIKA: Don’t buy from them. Take away their money.
SARAH: That don’t give a flying fuck about consumer health or safety. And I just kind of want to bring that up as– a lot of the toxic toys that we write about as bloggers or educators, a lot of them come from those companies.
And it’s not just so simple as we can contact them, they can change their ways. Because they’re so large, they are cheap, folks do kind of look to them for their cheaper toys. But I just wanted to bring that up. It’s just not that simple.
ANNE: No, I appreciate it. Well, I actually specified that it’s not a simple process at all. Even changing things with some of the manufacturers that are caring more now. It was a process. Because also they have to change their manufacturing process and maybe you change the supplier.
So it absolutely is not simple. And the companies and the brands that don’t care will make it pretty clear, and we kind of know who they are now. And what we can do is we spend less time on trying to change their minds– because who cares, we don’t want to promote them– and more time on the companies who are working harder to change their practices and don’t necessarily know where to start.
At Screaming O, for example, they didn’t know that the materials about SEBS that were being put out there were inaccurate. Because they were going be the information that they had, and it was incorrect information. And I didn’t know, and as part of that supply chain at the time went with what I was told by my client.
And it was until we decided– actually, thanks to DangerousLilly there was a conversation on social media where we were like, actually, can we actually get this tested? Like, is this even possible? And we started doing the research and changed all of it.
And so now I had access to professionals who could really answer some of the questions I had, even on a consumer level, about what even is this, and what does this mean? And it’s been a constant process of actually really understanding how this works and then changing some of the processes that Screaming O uses.
And it absolutely was a success by bringing that up and educating them. And there are other manufacturers who are caring more as a result. I don’t know if they’re making changes, obviously. But holding them accountable in a way that starts that conversation has been helpful with a couple of pieces that I’ve experienced personally.
So it’s not the solution, but it’s something that worked for a couple. Yeah.
VOLUNTEER: Unfortunately, we are out of time. I’m sure there’s ways for people to contact you and ask you questions.
ANNE: Yeah, of course.
VOLUNTEER: But I’m just asking that everyone take a little moment and fill out the survey about this workshop. We would appreciate that [INAUDIBLE].
ANNE: Thank you.