Phthalates. Easy to understand, hard to spell. And read. And say without spitting everywhere. If it helps, you can just drop the initial ph- when you’re saying it and everyone will still know what you mean. We’re not fussy about the word, we’re fussy about all that it entails. That’s because phthalates have been linked with everything from infertility to diabetes. And they could be in products as intimate as your sex toys. (If you noticed that I spelled phthalates wrong in this article, it’s definitely because I did it on purpose to make an ironic point, so please don’t tell my boss. Also, phthalates are usually spelled with a capital P, but to hell with that, I don’t think they’ve earned a capital letter.)
Phthalates, you see, is not an ancient Greek philosopher as the name implies, but a family of chemicals used to soften rubber and make it more… fleshy. As a plastic and rubber softener, phthalates can be found in all sorts of day-to-day goods, like shower curtains, and car dashboards. In these sorts of environments, the use of phthalates is generally not going to cause much of an issue.
But then, you’re very unlikely to ingest your dashboard, or insert a shower curtain into your body. That’s where phthalates come in. Because many low-end sex toys use phthalates to give their rubber or plastic construction a more ‘realistic’ feeling. Considering how up close and personal we get with our pleasure products, phthalates are a much more important consideration, and it’s useful to know if we’re using products containing these softeners.
Governments are aware of this, and yet the materials are notoriously hard to regulate. The German Green Party tried a few years ago when they demanded a government investigation of phthalates in sex toys, and the US government and FDA have them registered as probable human carcinogens. In humans, phthalate research has indicated that they interfere with both sperm production and genital development. When he was Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger passed legislation banning phthalates in children’s toys. And yet, there is no legislation to keep them out of sex toys. Why not? It should be easy. The friggin’ Terminator did it with nothing more than a signature. There’s plenty of medical and scientific research to prove this, not to mention the environmental effect.
The truth is, phthalates are cheap. They’re significantly cheaper than, say, silicone, which is what we use at LELO. Silicone doesn’t require softening as part of the same process that plastics and rubbers do, and silicone is non-porous too, making it a far, FAR superior product than rubber for use in sex toys. That’s why silicone is more widely used in surgical procedures – it’s far safer for our bodies.
It’s hard, though, to break the grip of possibly toxic plastic softeners like phthalates. A lot of smaller brands in the sex toy industry, keen to make a quick buck in a market they see as easy-pickings (which it isn’t), will turn to the cheapest manufacturing techniques possible to drive the highest margin and earn the highest profit. That inevitably means cutting corners in production and, particularly, in materials.
Since most of these low-end brands simply buy unlabeled products in bulk direct from nameless manufacturers, they have no control over what’s going into the sex toys themselves, and as a result, what ends up on the shelves of your local sex shop is not as safe as it could possibly be. In the end, it’s the consumer who suffers most, followed by the reputation of the sex toy industry.
All this is what makes LELO relatively unique in the industry. We own and operate all our own manufacturing facilities, and source our own silicone, so we know exactly what the secret blend of materials is that ends up in your bedside drawer. We can keep you safe, because we make our products ourselves. But that’s not true of everyone in the industry. Far from it – the truth is usually the opposite, and any sex toy with the words ‘for novelty use only’ on the packaging should be avoided, because that’s often a loophole that’s exploited to circumvent the few existing FDA regulations.
The problem is partly to do with the moralizing and shame surrounding sex toys. Few legislators are willing to campaign on behalf of sex toys, because they don’t necessarily want to be seen to be endorsing them, as it might contradict the views of their most conservative voters. Sure, sex toy manufacturing processes are probably not very high on the list of any given senator’s priority list anyway, but still, it should be an easy win. It’s about keeping us all safe, after all.
For now, all we can do is educate ourselves and our customers about the potential dangers of buying cheap sex toys. Avoid jelly rubber. Condition yourself to believe that if any price looks too good to be true, it’s too good to be safe, and that any bargain or LELO knock-off for a quarter of the price must be making serious compromises somewhere. The easiest place for that compromise is in the materials. Read the labels and look for the words ‘phthalate free’, and only trust brands that you recognise, unless an authoritative reviewer or blogger has recommended it, and shop at stores you trust where the staff are as passionate about the composition of their products as we are.