Phthalates

Updated: AUGUST 25, 2023
Reviewed by Dr. Laura McGuire
on August 10, 2023

Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are organic compounds of phthalic acid added to some plastics to increase their durability, transparency, flexibility and softness. They are sometimes called phthalate esters or plasticizers. Many products contain phthalates, including vinyl floorboards, garden hoses, medical tubing, plastic packaging, soaps, shampoos, nail polish and, in some cases, sex toys.

There are two types of phthalates: low phthalates, which have three to six carbon atoms in their molecules, and the more toxic high phthalates, with a molecular weight of more than six.

The Food and Drug Administration is still researching the effects of these chemicals. However, there's a link between prolonged exposure to phthalates and several health problems. Because of these risks, phthalates are now banned from many products in the United States, Canada, Japan and European nations.

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Phthalates and Sex Toys

Sex toys are not legally regulated and many still contain phthalates. Due to limited research, it’s difficult to say with any certainty whether phthalates in sex toys are an issue. However, several organizations and individuals worry phthalates in sex toys may pose a risk to the health of users. Materials containing phthalates are also porous, so sex toys made from these materials may harbor bacteria if they’re not cleaned thoroughly and potentially expose users to more health issues.

As there are no regulations on the sex toy industry, there’s no way for consumers to know for certain whether a sex toy contains phthalates. Many sex toys don't list all of the chemicals used to make them, and there is a small chance that even those labeled phthalate-free may actually contain these chemicals. However, some sex toys are more likely to contain phthalates than others.

Anyone concerned about sex toys with phthalates should avoid toys crafted from certain materials, including jelly, rubber, PVC and vinyl. Sex toys made with sex toy specific materials such as Cyberskin, UR3 and Mystery Meat may also phthalates. Sex toys made from 100 percent pure medical-grade silicone, hard plastic or acrylic, and natural materials like glass, wood, ceramic, and metal are unlikely to contain phthalates. TPE and TPR are also free of phthalates. However, these materials are porous, which could pose other risks.

In 2021, sex toy safety guidelines were released by the International Organization for Standardization. They do include material safety, including warning manufacturers away from phthalates. While ISO standards are voluntary, making note of which manufacturers adhere to them could be a step in the right direction when it comes to making safer decisions about sex toy safety.

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More About Phthalates

Phthalates were first introduced in the 1920s. They found widespread applications, including in sex toys, in the 1970s. Following the sexual revolution, manufacturers began releasing vibrators at an unprecedented rate. They were made from plastic, latex and jelly rubber. As manufacturers aimed to create more realistic and novel sex toys that were affordable for consumers, phthalates became an important manufacturing component.

Regulations Around Phthalates in Sex Toys

In 2004, the European Union banned products meant for infants that contained phthalates. The United States followed its lead in 2008. In 2011, the German Green Party called for similar laws regulating the use of phthalates in sex toys. Despite the lack of legislation, many businesses responded to the concerns and began making phthalate-free sex toys. Some adult stores also began exclusively stocking phthalate-free sex toys to help consumers concerned about the chemicals.

"Over 20 years ago I hosted a German journalist at our Good Vibrations store in San Francisco," recalled Carol Queen, PhD, staff sexologist and historian at Good Vibes. "He was making an around-the-world tour with a photographer, documenting how sex toys were made and sold. These guys were the ones who first talked to us about phthalates - the E.U. regulatory agencies were miles ahead of the U.S. when it came to evaluating the environmental and bodily impact of these types of chemicals. We began to research and talk about this issue and ultimately became the first sex toy company in the U.S. to stop carrying toys that included these chemicals. Many years later, people's concerns are still strong about phthalates. We know we did the right thing - and hopefully inspired other companies too."

How dangerous are phthalates in sex toys?

As there are limited studies, it’s difficult to determine the risk that sex toys with phthalates pose to users. A 2006 study from the Danish Environmental Protection Agency claimed that using sex toys with phthalates for an hour a day or less posed no health risks to most people. However, it noted that the infants of people who use these toys while pregnant or nursing may have minor developmental delays. This finding supports other studies noting a link between phthalate exposure as an embryo or nursing infant and male reproductive issues.

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A 2001 report by German chemist Hans Ulrich Krieg found 10 dangerous chemicals, including diethylhexyl phthalates, leached out of sex toys. Some had phthalate concentrations as high as 243,000 parts per million, which are levels higher than most studied consumer goods. Researchers found heat, agitation, time and exposure to fats can speed up the leaching of phthalates. An American study published in Springer Nature in 2023 also found hazardous levels of phthalates in all sex toys it studied, including an external vibrator labeled as medical-grade silicon.

While there are only limited studies on the impact of phthalate exposure through sex toys on humans, research shows these chemicals are toxic for animals. Studies have found rats exposed to phthalates developed problems with their liver, testes, uterus, thyroid, ovaries and fetuses. However, representatives from the phthalate industry argue that researchers exposed these rats to much higher levels of the chemicals than people are.

Why Sex Toys Still Contain Phthalates

For years, manufacturers classed sex toys as novelty items. This meant they weren’t held to the standards of other consumer items like foodstuffs and medical aids. As there were no standards, manufacturers opted for chemicals like phthalates to affordably and easily make their products. While the sex toy industry remains unregulated, the introduction of safety standards by the International Organization for Standardization in 2021 has helped consumers make more informed choices and ethical manufacturers promote their products better. Sex toy manufacturers who want to earn ISO 3533 certification must meet certain safety and quality guidelines. However, ISO certification is voluntary so manufacturers can still categorize their toys as novelty items to avoid testing and safety protocols. As such, it's up to consumers to do their homework on sex toy safety.

If you’re concerned about phthalates, choosing ISO 3533-certified sex toys labeled phthalate-free can help you feel confident in your purchase. You can also research sex toy providers and read up on their commitment to using safer materials. Sex toys with a strong chemical smell are more likely to contain phthalates. More expensive, luxury toys are also less likely to contain phthalates than cheaper alternatives.

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If you suspect your sex toy may contain phthalates, condoms may reduce your risk of health issues. Choosing a thick, high-quality condom without additives is likely to offer the best protection. Additives such as nonoxynol-9 and lubricants may cause the leaching of phthalates and increase the risk of exposure. The oils in sex toys with phthalates may cause condoms to break down, so the thicker the condom the better protection it may provide. As they’re porous, it's also important to wash sex toys made with phthalates thoroughly with mild soap and water before and after use to stop bacterial growth.

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