Everything You Need to Know About Sex Toy Care and Cleanliness

Everything You Need to Know About Sex Toy Care and Cleanliness

From maintenance to materials, here are the basics on keeping things safe and sexy.

colorful photo illustration of dildos on blue background

When choosing and caring for a sex toy, there are a few things to consider regarding safety.

The sex toy business is hot, hot, hot. Current estimates say it is a nearly $30 billion industry — and that could jump to more than $50 billion by 2026. These days, everyone is in on the action, from solo users to couples, millennials to baby boomers. Physicians even recommend sex toys for health purposes.

Sex toy safety, however, isn’t always top of mind, although experts say it should be. For one, the sex toy industry isn’t regulated by watchdogs groups like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Consumer Product Safety Commission, which means there is no one ensuring that toys are safe. And sex toys are, of course, used in very intimate ways.

So how can you protect yourself while enjoying all of the fun that sex toys have to offer? Here are five crucial safety tips every savvy sex toy consumer should be aware of.

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1 Know What Materials Your Toys Are Made Of

illustration of DEHP phthalate plasticizer molecule

DEHP phthalates plasticizer molecules are commonly used to make plastic flexible.

Although there is not scientific literature analyzing the body safety of various sex toy materials, there are some materials that consumers may choose to avoid. Some toys are made with phthalates. These chemicals, which are present in some plastics, have been banned for use in such products as children’s toys and pacifiers because they may disrupt human hormones. The FDA says it is unclear what (if any) impact phthalates have on human health. But if you have made a personal decision to avoid them elsewhere in your life — for example, your cosmetics —  it is important to know they could be lurking in your sex toys.

Many products state they are phthalate-free, but because the industry is largely unregulated, no outside organization checks the veracity of those claims. So one thing to keep in mind is whether the toys you are using are soft and jellylike. Phthalates are used as softeners. They are more likely to be present in squishier toys, made from more porous materials.

Porous sex toys are also “more likely to transmit infection,” says Alyssa Dweck, MD, a gynecologist based in Westchester County, New York, and author of The Complete A to Z for Your V. That is because their surfaces are more permeable.

That does not mean there is any research literature out there that says jellylike sex toys are inherently unsafe, but it is something to be aware of.

2 Wash — and Dry — Your Sex Toys Regularly

sex toys washed and drying on drying rack, soap, plates bubbles

Like, really regularly. “Sex toys should be cleaned between every sex act and in between every partner,” Dr. Dweck says.

You probably know that sexual activity increases a woman’s risk for urinary tract infections (UTI); you may not realize that the bacteria that cause a UTI live in the area around the anus. Sex increases the chances that the nearby bacteria migrate into a woman’s urethra, where they can multiply and trigger a UTI.

UTI prevention calls for strict genital hygiene, which includes keeping anything that comes into contact with sensitive areas as germ-free as possible. That’s why Planned Parenthood’s website warns, “Anything that touches or goes into your anus — like a finger, penis, or sex toy — should be thoroughly washed before touching other genitals.”

Toys can also spread infections, including sexually transmitted infections (STIs), because they can retain bacteria and viruses. Dweck recalls a patient who was baffled by why she kept getting trichomoniasis, a common, curable STI. “She was wondering, Why do I keep getting this? As it turns out, she wasn’t cleaning her toy properly,” Dweck says. Her patient was essentially reinfecting herself every time she used her vibrator.

Rachel Hoffman, a New York–based social worker with Union Square Practice who specializes in sexuality and intimacy, says she has seen similar things happen to clients who have ended up with recurrent yeast infections.

In addition, sex toys can get covered in dust and other particles while they’re stored.

Your toy’s manufacturer should be your first stop for washing instructions. Some toys can go in the dishwasher, for example. Others cannot.

“Most products will tell you specifically how to wash them,” says Hoffman. Though both she and Dweck say that if you are unsure of your toy’s exact instructions, soapy warm water is a good place to start.

And be careful to dry them, too. Damp toys can grow mold.

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3 Consider a Condom to Reduce the Risk of Infection

yellow blue and magenta condoms on white

“Condoms most certainly should be used to cover phallic-shaped toys for people who are sharing toys with a partner,” Dweck says. That is because even if you diligently clean your toys, there is still a chance of transmitting infection. A study published in November 2014 in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections found traces of the human papillomavirus on vibrators a full day after they’d been used and cleaned.

Dweck adds that the condom should be switched out if you change the body parts coming into contact with the toy, so from oral use to vaginal use, for example.

RELATED: 8 Things You May Not Know About HPV

4 Use Sex Toys as Intended and Skip Household Items

illustration of bananas and cucumbers

When you get a new sex toy, take time to read the directions. If you are new to sex toys, ease in slowly, Dweck says, and stop if anything feels uncomfortable. Dweck also urges people to avoid using household items as sex toys. She has seen patients who have used cucumbers and bananas, for example.

“We’ll often see people use cell phones on vibrate or electric toothbrushes,” Dweck adds. “What comes up with this? Well, the batteries may not be encased properly, so you can have some sort of caustic reaction as a result of that.”

Food products, on the other hand, can be fairly porous, which means they can carry bacteria and potentially cause infection.

RELATED: A Guide to Solo Sex or Women

5 Buy From a Credible Company

woman ordering online, magenta background, laptop, credit card, phone

The sex toy industry is growing by the day, which means it can be a challenge to vet the safety of what you’re buying. Experts say to start by researching reputable manufacturers and to look for companies that are transparent about their products. If a manufacturer provides detailed information about the materials it’s using and specifics on how to use and clean its toys, that is a good start.

“A lot of people are now buying from places like Amazon, but it can be hard to know what you are getting unless you are very well versed in products,” says Hoffman. If you are looking to shop at an online retailer instead of buying in person, do some research into what customers are saying online about the products through verified reviews.

An overall good rule of thumb for sex toys and safety? Listen to your body.

“If you’re feeling any sort of discomfort,” Hoffman says, “like itchiness, burning, anything, it’s not the right one.”

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