You think about what you put in your coffee, whether you should choose paper or plastic at the grocery store (or just bring your own bags), and even if the chew toys you buy for your dog are health conscious. But, did you know there is a recent rise in concern over what kind of plastics your sex toys are made of?

The concern raised is over phthalates, a commonly used softener added to rubbers and PVC’s (polyvinyl chlorides) to make them flexible and easy to work with. These phthalate mixtures have been used in nearly all plastic and rubber consumer products since the early 1920’s, ranging from baby bottles, to cell phone earpieces, to your shoes. Below is a thumbnail summary of the information available, so you can decide if you need to be concerned the next time you reach for your favorite little rabbit.

What is a phthalate?

A phthalate is a compound used primarily in vinyl and jelly rubber to make otherwise hard plastic products soft, pliable, easy to shape and work with. They are part of a family of compounds made from alcohols and phthalic anhydride, and are colorless, odorless liquids with an oily texture that do not evaporate readily.

Phthalates are found in many common products, from sex toys, to car parts, to medical products because of the cost effective and easy to work with nature of the product.

Why should I care?

Phthalates are found in so many common products, some scientists are now taking a closer look to see what is really in this product, and what the effects of long-term exposure might be.

Where do phthalates show up?

Phthalates have been used in most soft rubber products in your home and office since the 1920’s. They are not new by any stretch, and they are what help to keep your food fresh when you store leftovers in plastic containers, protect you from sharp edges and corners in the interior of your car, and even help keep your kids amused with soft, squishy toys. But, the newest media hype about phthalates surrounds their use in sex toys.

Until fairly recently most soft sex toys have been manufactured out of various combinations of rubber, plastic, latex, and vinyl, with various additives for texture, color, and flexibility. The most common commonly produced sex toys containing phthalates are those listed as “jelly plastic” or “jelly rubber”, so they are generating the most concern.

Also until fairly recently, there have been few soft plastic toys (sex toys or otherwise) that are made without phthalates. To be phthalate free, a soft toy has typically been manufactured from 100% silicone (preferably medical grade silicone, which means it’s of the same quality as medical tubing or a medical implant), or CyberSkin. Although the exact ingredients of CyberSkin are closely guarded as a trade secret, recent testing has shown that there are no phthalates or pvc in the products. Hard plastic generally is not made with phthalates, because it is not soft or flexible. As the industry responds to new information, and to consumer demand, there are now many new phthalate-free soft plastic toys.

With or without phthalates?

To sum up the difference between a 100% silicone toy and one manufactured from jelly plastic rather simply, it comes down to the difference between a compound and a mixture.

A compound is a substance formed by chemical union of two or more elements or ingredients in definite proportion by weight. Think water here. H2O is two hydrogen molecules mixed with one oxygen molecule. They can be separated, but not easily, and they tend to want to stay together because they are chemically bonded. Silicone toys are made from a compound, and considered superior because they are generally non-porous and do not separate.

A mixture is a substance consisting of two or more other substances mixed together, not in fixed proportions and not with chemical bonding (like silicone). Think salad dressing here. You can mix several different products together, but left on it’s own the mixture eventually wants to separate it’s various components over time, the way oil and water do. Jelly plastic toys are made from a mixture, and do not last as long as their silicone counterparts. As a loose rule of thumb, many plastic products with a recycling code of 3 do contain phthalates.

A high grade, 100% silicone product is a compound, and structurally will not separate. This makes it non-porous, hypoallergenic, and inert, which is a very good thing in a sex toy. This also means that it is sanitary and can be completely cleaned by washing or boiling, it contains little or no other substances that could be irritating to skin or mucous membranes, and that there is no taste or odor present. Also a very good thing! Silicone toys tend to last for many, many years, but because they tend to burn rather than melt when reheated, cannot be recycled as easily as plastics. The only real drawback to the consumer is that silicone products come with a higher price tag.

On the other hand, because a mixture is not chemically bonded the components in a product will tend to separate over time, as the each component wants to revert to it’s original, un-mixed form. When you see a plastic product that has begun to change color, become sticky for no reason, or emit a plastic smell, it may be that one or more of the components of the mixture used to form the product has begun to revert back to it’s original state. However, because phthalates make less expensive vinyl and rubber easy to work with, the toys made from these mixtures have a much lower price tag. And, for many consumers price point is the final decider. When trying a new toy many will easily spring for the $20 thrill, than the $60 option next to it.

Another increasingly popular and always beautiful alternative to plastic or silicone sex toys is the glass dildo. Glass is a hypoallergenic, sanitary material that has a long history of use in creating erotic and beautiful sex toys. The lightest touch of lubricant creates a smooth gliding sensation – and you can even toss your glass sex toy into the dishwasher to clean it!

Are there any health concerns?

Studies by American or European scientific panels have found potential links to some health risks associated with use of children’s toys containing phthalates. Though there is still some debate as to the validity of these finds, in 2009 the US manufacturing or import of children’s toys containing phthalates was heavily restricted. There have been some studies on mice and rats that suggest prolonged exposure to phthalates could cause cancer or damage the reproductive system.

How do I know if my toys contain phthalates?

When you open a package, if there is a plasticy odor, or “out-gassing”, this is a sign that phthalates are present. A great example of this is the “new car smell” that we all love. That smell, and the residue that keep reappearing on the inside of your windows on a hot day, is a classic sign of phthalates in soft plastics trying to separate and revert to their previous state. As enough of the phthalates escape over the years your car’s dash can even become brittle again.

Another sign that phthalates were used in a plastic product is that there may be an oily or greasy appearance on the surface, even if nothing has been applied to it.

What does the FDA say?

Because most sex toys are sold with the disclaimer that they are novelties, they are not governed by FDA rules the way foods and cosmetics are.

What should I do?

Ultimately, the decision belongs to the consumer. If you find that your body reacts to jelly plastic, or you simply don’t feel comfortable with sex toys that may contain phthalates, choose silicone or glass toys instead.

It is important to keep your exposure to phthalates in perspective. Phthalates are present in nearly all plastic consumer goods, however if you would like to limit your exposure to phthalates in your use of adult sex toys take care to wash all jelly toys carefully before use (which you should ALWAYS do anyhow!), and use a condom on the toy. This is the simplest way to prevent exposure of intimate areas to phthalates, and is in fact recommended in general for hygiene purposes! Using a condom over a sex toy makes it that much easier to wash and keep sanitary.

If you find that a toy you have not played with in a while has changed color, begun to melt, leak, or otherwise change drastically while tucked away, consider abandoning it for a newer model (you can recycle sex toys you no longer want though Scarlet Girl’s Sexstainability program). Whether you choose to replace your toy with a 100% silicone or glass model that will last for a long time, or another less expensive jelly toy (that you can happily replace again later) is up to you.

You make choices and compromises every day in finding those things that make your life better, or easier. The smart consumer educates herself, and since there are currently very few FDA or government regulations in this area, it is up to you to decide what you are comfortable with. So, if you use your sex toys frequently and decide to limit your daily exposure to phthalates in this particular area, you do not have to give up on pleasure. You still have the option of choosing a silicone or glass sex toy, or covering jelly plastic toys with a condom. Because the smart consumer not only educates herself, she knows what she wants and how to get it!