<i>ANB</i> Examines Sex Toy Materials

The mystery chemicals that make up many of our sex toys have created a scare, though with a twist; it's the torrents of misinformation, false advertising, and secret agendas that have caused the most trouble.

The latest attack is in the form of phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates)—chemicals used to soften hard plastics—that can be found in a variety of common items ranging from medical equipment to food packaging to cosmetics to toys. In time, these softeners leach out, causing toys to get sticky, change color, and have a less-than-pleasant taste and smell.

In September of 2004, after a seven-year battle by health advocates to outlaw the use of phthalates in children's toys, EU ministers voted to ban three phthalates (DEHP, DBP and BBP) from all products intended for children, and prohibit the use of three others (DINP, DIDP and DNOP) in toys and other items that could be sucked on or chewed by children under the age of three. The EU decision raised a new issue: if phthalates in children's toys are dangerous, what does that imply about their presence in sex toys?

In September 2006, two independent European studies were published that attempted to answer that question. The Danish Technological Institute (DTI) undertook the more detailed of the two, Analysis and Health Risk Assessment of Chemical Substances in Sex Toys, at the behest of the Danish Environmental Protection Agency. The 81-page study examined the presence of phthalates and a host of other chemicals in adult novelties, as well as attempted to interpret the impact of the substances on humans.

Many of the conclusions of the Danish study regarding health risks from sex toys were based on prior phthalate research conducted on lab animals—not humans. While the quoted studies found that some phthalates were toxic and/or carcinogenic to mice and rats when administered in massive amounts, the Danish report concluded that the implied health hazards posed to humans from phthalates in sex toys were minimal to non-existent.

A less ambitious study was sponsored by Greenpeace Netherlands, which hired Dutch research organization TNO to determine merely the presence of phthalates in some of the most common sex toys on the market. The resulting four-page report indicated that seven out of the eight toys tested contained at least one of the EU-banned plasticizers in concentrations ranging from 24- to 49-percent (by weight).

Though the Greenpeace study reported no health implications about the presence of these plasticizers, the Greenpeace UK website linking to the study did. Greenpeace UK decorated their introduction to the report with adjectives like "hazardous" and "toxic"––words that never appeared in the report itself.

The Greenpeace UK site also stated that "the latest research indicates that exposure to phthalates can upset the body's ability to regulate hormone production, damage reproduction, and cause liver and kidney defects." This statement is not entirely false; it just fails to mention that the "latest research" in question isn't the one linked in its opening sentence, and that the "body" in question belongs to a rodent.

Bloggers and media outlets soon picked up on this slanted interpretation of the test results and ran with it. Unfortunately, it wasn't the first time that phthalates, researchers, and the press were caught up in a comedy of errors.

Writing about the botched media reporting on a 2005 phthalate study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, Rebecca Goldin opens her May 2005 article with the following salvo: "The media has pulled out the scare tactics again." Goldin, who holds a PhD in mathematics from MIT, is director of research at Statistical Assessment Service, or STATS, a non-profit, non-partisan organization whose purpose is "to promote the responsible and mathematically sound use of data and statistics in journalism and communication."

Goldin found a number of inconsistencies between the EHP report and USA Today's interpretation of its findings. This misreporting included erroneous quotes about the number of cases and chemicals studied, as well as changes to some of the conclusions made by the study.

"In addition to claiming that the study was about penile size, USA Today's report is riddled with errors," writes Goldin. "This kind of skewed reporting only serves to undermine the honest rendering of scientific results to the public."

The confusion is further amplified by the flawed findings of the research data itself. "The authors of the study draw parallels with studies on rats that are not necessarily reflective of the human response to phthalates," Goldin continues in her article, "and this gets reflected in the media."

Michael S. Levine, PhD, a certified industrial hygienist, believes not all research on phthalates should be written off. "Review of the published research on animals shows a sufficient relationship between exposure and the reported effects that the potential for human effects should be a concern," comments Levine, who believes that if correlations are accurately found, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers alike are better safe than sorry.

"Human studies are not currently as comprehensive as the animal studies, and therefore the effects not as firmly established," Levine admits, though he still advises caution: "The history of chemical use has shown it prudent to be proactive and avoid unnecessary chemical exposures, especially as negative information is accumulating. Consider the litigious situation now faced by companies that produced asbestos and PCBs, materials thought to be extremely safe in the past."


On the defensive

How are novelty manufacturers reacting to the test results and ensuing confusion about phthalates?

Nick Orlandino, chief operating officer of Pipedream Products, comes right to the point: "Consumers don't need to be concerned," Orlandino says. "Use your vibrator and enjoy it. You're not going to get cancer from a vibrator. This study is blown out of proportion. How can they do a study without [looking at] long-term effects: 10- to 20-year effects?"

"There are a couple of people banging [the phthalates] drum; I'm amazed at how big it's gotten," says Desiree Duffie, director of marketing for Topco Sales. "There is no scientific proof that the products [the Danish studies] were testing are harmful to humans. There has never been any proof that anyone's even having issues with phthalates."

"I suspect that the media hype has been a bit overblown," says Kathryn Hartman, sales manager for Nasstoys. "[This] really is not a brand-spanking-new issue that any of us were completely unaware of in the adult industry."

Whether or not the industry believes the studies are accurate, it has begun paying more attention to manufacturing materials.

California Exotic Novelties has been moving away from the yet-understood chemical softeners for quite some time, reports Al Bloom, director of marketing for Cal Exotics. "The bulk of our new releases for 2007 will be phthalate-free," says Bloom. "We have made this a priority."

Bloom's comment is now a familiar refrain among the larger companies that dominate the market. "A small percentage of our products are phthalate-free and growing. We're moving to become completely phthalate free," says Ron Braverman, owner of novelty giant Doc Johnson. 

Braverman also points out that Doc Johnson recently introduced a new proprietary material called Sil-A-Gel. "It contains no silicone, but it is latex free, cadmium free, and contains no toxic phthalates, though it does use food-grade phthalates," says Braverman.

At Nasstoys, Hartman reports that the company has "already made a substantial investment of resources in identifying new substances and retooling production lines."

While industry powerhouses are making the move towards reformulation, companies like Tantus, Fun Factory, Spartacus, and Vibratex have sought to keep their product lines phthalate-free from the start. "We are continuing to manufacture products that are non-toxic to the body and environment, including our packaging," says Shay Martin, co-owner of Vibratex Products, which uses phthalate-free elastomers for the majority of its items.

Sean Christensen, sales/marketing manager of Spartacus Leathers, says the company has always made phthalate-free products. "We wanted to have healthier products from the beginning that are skin safe, odor free, and have no latex."

As the buzz about phthalates and other chemicals in sex toys continues to grow, retailers are also stepping into the fray. "We as retailers can make a difference," says Debra Peterson, director of marketing for Fairvilla Megastores. "We are the ones on the front lines. We educate the consumers then allow them to make their own decisions."

"A Woman's Touch has tested all the toys we offer for the presence of phthalates, and currently offers only phthalate-free products," says Ellen Barnard of A Woman's Touch Sexuality Resource Center. The company started testing its own toys in 2002, "because we were concerned about what we were selling. The fact that many companies are now choosing to manufacture healthier alternatives should be praised and supported. The best way to get rid of a behavior you don't like is to ignore it and support the behaviors you do like."


Secret ingredients

Phthalates aren't the only point of confusion in the adult novelty world; the sex toy industry is fraught with a lack of information regarding the materials used in its products.

The issue is twofold: Some companies don't know what materials their contracted manufacturers are using; some companies are well aware of what goes into their toys, but are keeping their proprietary blends under wraps.

"Very few companies manufacture their own products, so they don't know what materials are going into them in the first place," says Christensen. "If you take the same product and test it from samples that were made six months apart, you might not get the same results. It's not unheard of to go to an overseas manufacturer and ask to know the ingredients [of the materials it is using] and be told that they can't tell us; it's a proprietary secret."

Tony Levine, president of Big Teaze Toys, has an advantage over many other novelty manufacturers. Not only does he have an industrial hygienist in the family (his brother is Michael Levine), but he entered the adult arena from the electronics and toy market, which gave him experience dealing with overseas manufacturing. "Our products are made of various plastics. All of our suppliers are required to supply documents showing the materials used meet the latest European ROHS standards, says Levine." His mixes, too, are private.

The exact formula of Topco's proprietary blend CyberSkin also remains unknown, although (thanks to the recent Greenpeace study) it is now documented as a phthalate-free compound. "We don't list the ingredients of CyberSkin," says Duffie. "[We] do say that it is phthalate free, has no PVC, and all of the ingredients are on the 'FDA-approved' list."


Better sex through chemistry

The reality is, we may never know all the ingredients that go into adult novelties, but a quick chemistry lesson can help demystify the process of differentiating between them, and help retailers and consumers alike make informed choices.

Most of the soft materials that are used in sex toys fit into two categories: compounds and mixtures.

Compounds chemically combine, becoming a single inert product that can't be readily separated (water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen). Mixtures may merge and shape into one product, but because they aren't chemically bonded, the blended chemicals slowly revert to their original form (think oil and vinegar). In terms of sex toys, pure compounds are nonporous, and mixtures are porous.

When this information is transferred to studying sex toy materials, some of the mysterious properties of adult novelties start to make sense.

Pure 100-percent "platinum" silicone is considered by many to be the Cadillac of materials—with a price tag to match. Expensive to manufacture, this medical-grade silicone is an example of a compound: its finished form is a nonporous solid, and therefore hypoallergenic (contains few or no potentially irritating substances), hygienic (sanitary), and inert (won't react to other chemicals); therefore, it has no smell and no taste.

Because of its nature, platinum silicone carries vibration very well, can be heated or cooled before use, and toys without electronics are boilable, bleachable (in a 10-percent solution), and dishwasher safe. Reheating will cause the material to burn rather than melt, which means that while silicone toys can last virtually a lifetime, they are not recyclable. ("Tin," or food-grade, silicone isn't as pure, so should be treated as a mixture.)

"Jelly" is the common name for one of the most popular and least expensive sex-toy materials, and is a perfect example of a mixture. It starts as a solid, but when melted and mixed with phthalates it becomes soft, easy to work with, and eventually, recyclable.

Mixtures, by their nature, want to separate back to their original chemical states. This explains why, over time, they change color, get sticky, and acquire a rubbery/plastic taste and odor. Smells and tastes, chemically speaking, are caused by open pores emitting chemicals: either the base materials of the products or the phthalates that were used to soften them. Consequently, many retailers either give or sell condoms for use with porous toys.


Getting off cheap

"Most of our customers don't give a shit what their toy is made out of," says Orlandino. Blunt, perhaps, but he speaks the truth. When developing their products, novelty manufacturers have to consider price points—and the fact that many consumers are concerned solely with saving money.

"Let's face it: A lot of consumers go for what's cheapest—not what's healthiest," says Christensen. That realization, in turn, inspired Spartacus' business strategy towards higher-end products. "We came into this market and found millions of [low-priced] toys available. We didn't want to go for the bargain-basement market."

San Francisco-based retailer/distributor Good Vibrations is well known for the outstanding quality of its selection, but is still aware that not all consumers' wallets are created equal. "We have chosen to offer products at all price points," explains Coyote Days, senior toy buyer for Good Vibrations. "We are transparent with our customers about what toys are made of. We tell them, 'Here's why this is a great product, but it's made of porous material, so here's a condom to put on it.'"

Some manufacturers think more expensive materials can limit a product's reach. "If a product ends up too expensive, no one will buy it," says Bloom. "If you use a lot of expensive electronics with expensive features, then add 100-percent platinum silicone, you'll end up with a product that retails for $150 or more. That diminishes the sales possibilities."

Metis Black, president of Tantus Silicone, might disagree. She's built a successful brand based on platinum silicone products, and the belief that education is the key to selling high-end items.

"We have done a lot of education for retail establishments so that sales [clerks] can understand the difference between the dong that's $20 and our 100-percent platinum silicone product, which will be safe for the consumer, lasts a lifetime, and costs closer to $60," says Black. "Satisfied customers—ones who don't get rashes from their toys every time they play—make for repeat customers."

Ian Denchasy, co-founder of online retailer Freddy and Eddy, agrees. "Our customers expect to buy quality products from us," Denchasy says. "We have no trouble offering higher-priced items when the quality is obvious to our customers and when we know the manufacturers stand behind their products."


Buyer, be aware

As silicone gains popularity as a phthalate-free, allergen-free material, manufacturers have been clamoring to add it to their packaging—even if their product isn't 100-percent medical-grade silicone. When that's the case, it's easy to tell: pure silicone has no smell, no taste, and won't melt.

A quick smell-test of the aisles of several Los Angeles toy stores proved that the "silicone" label didn't necessarily indicate the use of pure silicone. One product boasted "silicone" on the front of the packaging, yet was labeled "Silicone TPR" (thermoplastic rubber) on the back—a scientific impossibility, considering silicone is a thermoset, not a thermoplastic. In addition, it had a distinctly industrial odor.

Similarly, a "melt-test" on a purchased vibrator sleeve clearly labeled "hygienically superior silicone" yielded a sticky pool of melted proof that it was anything but pure silicone.

"Silicone is the new 'skinny black pant,'" says Days, who feels that companies that print the word silicone on products that aren't 100-percent silicone "dilute what people think silicone is. [Those companies] should switch over to 100-percent pure silicone or say what their products are really made out of."

Peterson employs the smell test at all Fairvilla stores. "We know that high-grade silicone should not smell, so we open up packages labeled as 'silicone' and test for ourselves," she says. "Packaging may not give the customers all of the information they need to make a decision. We support the products that are well identified and labeled. It helps our staff and consumers make accurate decisions."

Products that tout "delicately scented silicone" also raise questions. "Adding a scent defeats the fact that silicone is hypoallergenic," explains Black. "There is no way to have a scent and be hypoallergenic. The jargon of putting [the word 'silicone'] on packages is a pull. Using lesser grades of silicone with more fillers in them [can cause] itching, burning, rashes, and discharge in their users," according to Black.

Some industry professionals are in favor of listing ingredients, others want labels that advise buyers of what to expect with each product.

"We think it's a good idea to list the materials on the packaging," states Christensen. "It would help customers decide if they have an allergy to any of the materials."

"I'm a fan of correct packaging," says Days. Until manufacturers choose to do it themselves, Good Vibrations has created an icon that it adds to packages that contain phthalate-free products.

"This industry doesn't have guidelines or standards," explains Vibratex's Martin. "There is no one to hold companies to the claims on their packaging. It's up to the manufacturers to police themselves—and up to the customers to get to know which companies are reputable and whose products you can trust. I would love to see across-the-board, materials regulation."

"It would be so responsible of us to self-regulate," adds Black. "Europe will be first to self-regulate, then Canada, and we will have to do it by attrition, because we won't be able to sell any of our products in their markets."

Indeed, it may take the heavy hand of market forces to affect regulation in the U.S. novelty industry—if our government doesn't get around to it first––but neither is apt to happen in the foreseeable future. Whether adult novelty manufacturers choose not to list the ingredients in their products because they don't know what's in them, don't want us to know, or simply dread the logistics of analyzing and repackaging hundreds or even thousands of items, the prospect of labeling is, with few exceptions, an unwelcome one. Regarding the potential nightmare that such an enterprise would entail, one anonymous manufacturer puts it this way: "We'd be fucked."

As improbable as voluntary labeling may be, discovering the truth about the effects of phthalates on humans is even less likely. A conclusive study on this subject would need to gather observable, empirical, and measurable evidence from testing on human subjects—and the likelihood of that ever occurring is slim to none.

A lack of scientific proof has done little to deter many—including some in the media and novelty industry itself—from playing fast and loose with the truth about phthalates. The same doesn't have to hold true for consumers and retailers who, armed with facts rather than hype, can base their buying decisions on common sense. Like hysteria, a little of that will go a long way.

The staff of ANB also contributed to this article.

Reprinted from the January 2007 issue of AVN Novelty Business.