Have you ever thought about what you’re putting on or inside the most sensitive parts of your body? At MADE SAFE, we sure have – so we think it’s time that the sex talk is transformed into the healthy sex talk.
Sex is often thought of as a taboo topic, driving conversations about health and pleasure behind closed doors. And while what happens in the bedroom is your business and your business alone, we think what’s inside the products you’re using in the bedroom is MADE SAFE’s business too. That’s because conventional sexual health products are known to contain substances associated with various types of harm, from irritation to cancer. And the vagina can rapidly absorb chemicals without metabolizing them, which means substances enter the bloodstream without first being broken down. This makes the vagina a meaningful route of exposure to potentially harmful substances used in sexual health products.
So let’s talk about sex – sexual health products that is – because we want to help you make the safest decisions possible.
Take a look at some of the ingredients and substances below. You’ll learn what they are, where they’re found, associated health concerns, and how to shop for safer alternatives.
- Propylene Glycol & Synthetic Glycerin: Ingredients derived from petroleum. Not all petrochemicals are linked to human health harm, but these two can contribute to damaging rectal, cervical, and vaginal tissue. While propylene glycol may be suitable for some uses (i.e. external personal care), it is not recommended for use internally.
- Parabens: Members of this group of preservatives are linked to breast cancer, and reproductive and developmental harm.
Other concerns in lube: Fragrance, flavor, siloxanes & silanes, PEGs
- Nitrosamines: Common substances in latex condoms that are linked to cancer.*
- Flavor: Umbrella terms like “artificial flavor” can contain mixtures of undisclosed ingredients. Without disclosure, it’s impossible to know what you may be exposed to.
Other concerns in condoms: Siloxanes & silanes, petroleum-derived glycerin
- Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): PVC is a common material used to make sex toys, including those labeled simply as “jelly rubber.” PVC is known to leach endocrine-disrupting compounds, including phthalates.
- Trimethyltin Chloride: This substance is used in manufacture of plastics, particularly PVC. Trimethyltin chloride is considered a reproductive hazard, and is linked to irreversible neurotoxicity outcomes in development, learning impairments, and more. In a study assessing health risks from various chemicals in sex toys, researchers determined that exposure to trimethyltin chloride through sex toys was a health risk for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. They also determined there was a minor risk of neurological effects on adults.
- Phthalates: Phthalates are a class of plasticizing chemicals that make plastics more flexible. Phthalates are linked to numerous endocrine disruption outcomes.
- Toluene: Toluene is a petrochemical solvent linked to reproductive and developmental toxicity.
Sex Toy Cleaner
- Isothiazolinone Preservatives: A group of preservatives that are known irritants, sensitizers, and associated with contact allergies. Methylisothiazolinone is a potential endocrine disruptor. They are most commonly found on labels as methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone.
- Triclosan: Triclosan is an antibacterial sometimes used in conventional sex toy cleaners to kill germs. Triclosan is associated with numerous effects resulting from endocrine disruption.
Other concerns in sex toy cleaners: Parabens, fragrance
- Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE): PET, the same material used to make single-use beverage bottles, is one of the most common materials used to make wipe fibers. PET does not readily break down in the environment, contributing to plastic pollution of our oceans and waterways.
- PEGs: PEG stands for polyethylene glycol, which is manufactured using ethylene oxide in a process called ethoxylation. Ethoxylation can result in contamination by carcinogens 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide. These ingredients are listed on labels as “PEG” followed by a number (ex: PEG-40).
- Siloxanes & Silanes: Siloxanes are a chemical group that form the backbone and building blocks of silicones. Silanes are modified silicone compounds. Most siloxanes are persistent in the environment and some ingredients from this group are known endocrine disruptors. There are numerous data gaps in the research on siloxanes and silanes. They’re usually listed on labels with the terms “siloxanes” or “dimethicone” as suffixes (ex: amodimethicone).
Other concerns in wipes: Fragrance, parabens, isothiazolinone preservatives
- Fragrance: “Fragrance” is an umbrella term for what can be anywhere from a few ingredients to more than 100, combined to make up a scent. Their identity is secret because fragrances are often not disclosed on labels as their formula can be considered a “trade secret.” Without information about the ingredients that make up a fragrance, it’s impossible to know the true extent to which our health may be compromised by them.
- FDA-Restricted Dyes: Although there are some dyes that are not authorized for use on mucous membranes, they are still found in some feminine washes. These include D&C Red No. 33 and Ext. Violet #2.
Other concerns in feminine washes: Parabens, isothiazolinone preservatives, PEGs
Tips for Safer Sexual Health Products
- Read labels to avoid the ingredients of concern listed above.
- To avoid undisclosed ingredients, skip products with “fragrance” or “artificial flavor” listed on labels.
- Skip flavored condoms, as the flavor ingredients they contain are typically artificial and undisclosed.
- When it comes to lubricant, go natural. While this tip certainly doesn’t apply to all product groups, it is helpful when thinking about lubricants, as natural plant ingredients are typically better for internal use.
- If a MADE SAFE® certified lubricant is unavailable, look for organic certified lubricants.
- Shop for nontoxic lubricants that are pH matched to the vagina to protect the vagina’s natural microbiome.
- When possible, shop at reputable sources for sexual health products, especially when shopping for sex toys. Retailers that pride themselves on offering options that are body-safe are more likely to have already done some product vetting themselves before items hit the shelves.
- Look for sex toys made of 100 percent medical-grade silicone, borosilicate glass, medical-grade stainless steel, or polished natural stone (ex: quartz). Ensure all of these are clearly labeled as such to avoid a mixture of mystery materials. Purchase sex toys with 100 percent of the materials disclosed (i.e. no vague terms like “jelly” or “rubber”). Look for labels that read 100 percent of a single substance.
- If a healthier sex toy made of the materials mentioned above is out of reach, use a safer condom (like those from Sustain Natural) over the toy.
- The sex toy industry is notorious for misleading product labeling, so sometimes toys are labeled as “silicone” or “body-safe” when they are not. Here are a few tips for spotting fraud:
- Note that real silicone is never see-through and is always opaque/cloudy.
- If a toy leaves residue behind when touched, it is not silicone.
- If a toy has a strong chemical smell, it is likely not silicone, as silicone typically has no odor.
- Labels listing a product as “phthalate-free” might not mean the product is any safer because the toy could contain other toxic substances. Don’t trust these claims and follow our tips above to look for safer materials instead (remember: medical-grade silicone or stainless steel, borosilicate glass, or polished natural stone).
- Manufacturers often label products as “for novelty use only” as a means to avoid taking responsibility for health impacts associated with the use of harmful sex toys – even though their design, packaging language, and place of sale highly suggest they are to be used internally for sexual health or pleasure. Instead, look for products labeled as specifically intended to be used internally.
- Clean sex toys using nontoxic methods. Follow all of the manufacturer’s guidelines to choose the right cleaning method. Keep in mind that many toys can safely be boiled for 5-10 minutes, run through the top rack of the dishwasher with nontoxic detergent, or cleaned using safer soap and water. Harsh cleansers or disinfectants like triclosan are typically not necessary.
- Remember that healthy vaginas are “self-cleaning,” capable of keeping bacteria balanced without any assistance. In healthy vaginas, “discharge” is typically natural cervical fluid. Because cervical fluid ebbs and flows throughout the menstrual cycle, this can be mistaken for a health issue, but in healthy people, it’s normally just the body responding to changes in hormones. This means that feminine washes, sprays, soaps, and douching are generally unnecessary.
- Not only are feminine washes and douching typically unnecessary, they can actually be harmful to vaginal health. Douching is not recommended by many health groups, unless advised in certain health conditions. Instead, a little gentle soap is usually ok to use externally; no internal cleaning necessary. (Remember: Always discontinue the use of any product that causes irritation. If you are concerned about a health issue, seek the advice of your health care provider.)
- Look for MADE SAFE® certified lubricants, condoms, and wipes.