Walking into an adult store can be overwhelming for anyone. Walls of all sorts of products in different materials and different shapes and sizes, all vying for your attention like dogs at the pound; the old, faithful ones that look their age, the cute ones that turn out to have behavioral issues, and, somewhere in there, a hidden gem that may prove to be just the right fit.
Thanks to my experience working in an adult store, I feel competent enough to guide most anyone through this journey. But go in knowing that everyone is different; I can tell you what to look for, but I can’t guarantee you’ll like what it does or how it does it.
Another consideration, as always, is that companies can say whatever they’d like about their products. They can claim that a sex toy is made of a material it isn’t. They can claim it has strong and powerful vibrations when, in actuality, the vibration is more like a tinny whine. They can claim the product does not contain potentially harmful materials like phthalates even when, in reality, it's loaded with them. In fact, sex toy manufacturers can pretty much claim anything they want except that their products cure or treat an illness or health issue.
Wait - companies can lie about the materials they use in their products? If you weren't worried about what your toys are made up, perhaps you are now. Here we'll take a look at sex toy materials, which ones are safe and how you can ensure that your play is pure, non-toxic fun. (You can also check out the list of manufacturers I trust over at my blog.)
Porous Vs. Non-Porous
Sex toy materials fall into two major categories: porous and non-porous.
Porous products are generally soft. Although this group can contain some hard plastics, it’s good to assume that if a product doesn’t use ABS hard plastic, it’s porous. The problem with these toys is that they can trap dirt and bacteria that can never be removed. What that means is that porous sex toys, if used without a condom, can re-infect you with a previous bacterial or yeast infection, cause an outbreak in a pre-existing STI and - if shared without a condom or other barrier - can even spread STIs, bacterial infections and yeast infections between partners. They can be kept cleaner for a longer period of time with the use of a condom, but the inability to truly sterilize them is a major drawback.
All materials that include phthalates fall under the porous category. Although not all porous materials have phthalates in them there’s a high possibility they do. In case you aren't familiar with the term, phthalates are a plastic softener that destabilizes the plastic, making it off-gas and leak a greasy film of chemicals that are trying to bond with something to become stable and whole again. These chemicals are potentially very harmful to your health, and many people experience allergic reactions and chemical reactions when they come in contact with them. Exposure to phthalates can therefore be unpleasant - and may even pose more serious health consequences. (Learn more about phthalates in How to Avoid a Toxic Relationship ... With Your Dildo.)
Non-porous materials are generally of a higher quality and also generally more expensive. However, because they’re not porous, they don’t harbor dirt and bacteria and are completely sterilizable. Most non-porous materials are harder, and include glass, metal and specially treated wood. You might be surprised to learn that silicone is non-porous too, but unlike the materials listed above, it can also be very soft, which makes it an awesome material for those who want to stay safe and clean but aren’t as big a fan of hard toys. (Learn more about maintaining your toys in Keeping It Clean: Top Tips for Sex Toy Sanitation.)
Sex Toy Materials: A Breakdown
So which material's best? That's actually pretty personal, as they all deliver a different feel, and have different benefits and drawbacks. Let's take a look at the key materials used in sex toys, and some of the best manufacturers using them.
Silicone is the soft, silky side of non-porous materials, although it does range from very soft to very firm depending on how it’s formulated. Silicone holds body temperature well, transfers vibrations without being buzzy, and can be boiled to be sterilized. A good silicone product will last a lifetime with proper use and care. Keep in mind that many companies will claim to use silicone, when their toys are really made out of a mix of elastomer and thermoplastic rubber (TPR ). This means they may still be somewhat porous, although far less so than your typical jelly toy. These silicone-like toys are safer than some materials, but still can't be completely sterilized. If you’re not sure if the toy is 100 percent silicone, assume it isn’t. Or, you could check out Dildology.org, a site that's working on testing and verifying sex toy materials and safety.
Try: LELO MONA 2
ABS Hard Plastic
ABS is a non-porous hard plastic used by a lot of middle-of-the-road and high-end manufacturers. It’s easy to clean and generally smooth (although some lower quality toys will have seams), but it can be a little buzzy when transferring vibrations.
Try: We-Vibe Tango
Glass is hard, smooth, heavy and often very beautiful. It makes for fantastic products that can be easily cleaned and hold temperature well; you can even dip them in warm or cool water for easy temperature play. (Never extreme hot or cold; this can damage glass and also potentially harm your delicate tissues. Eek!)
Glass toys are usually made of borosilicate (Pyrex) or soda lime. Soda lime is what you’ll get from an artist or glass blower most of the time; borosilicate is much more common in sex toys because it can withstand more extreme temperature changes and is stronger. Soda Lime is still very hardy and heavier than borosilicate.
Metal toys are hard, smooth and tend to have a nice weight to them. Like glass, they can also be cleaned easily and used for temperature play. Most of these toys are made of stainless steel or aluminum, but I’ve seen silver and gold as well.
Try: nJoy Pur Wand
Wood and Stone
Less commonly, you can find sex toys in other non-porous materials, including specially treated wood and even stone.
Try: NobEssence Intrigue
Handle the Equipment
On last tip: If you go to an adult store, ask a customer service rep if they can take a product out of the box for you, put batteries in it and let you see how it works. Don’t be shy; the worst that can happen is that they refuse. (Just be sure to ask. Don't open boxes and damage packaging yourself.) Some stores even keep charged/battery filled toys out on the floor. These are the awesome adult stores, and their customer service reps probably have a lot of knowledge. Talk to them. Learn.
Once you have the toy in your hands, look for any greasy residue. Smell the product: Does it smell like plastic? Does it smell at all? If it has a greasy residue or a smell, put it back on the shelf. These are hallmarks of phthalate-laden toys, and they could be harmful. If you’re really set on the product, use a condom to keep it from coming in contact with your skin. This is also a great way to get a sense of the toy's weight, feel and, when applicable, vibration. In other words, it's a way to get to know it and decide whether it might be right for you.
Now that you know about toy materials, it's time to think about what type of toy you're interested in. Head on over to 10 Basic Sex Toys You Should Know (and Try) to learn more.