"Sex toys are out there, they're being used, and for that reason it would be nice to have some kind of oversight," Shindel says. "But for the time being, people have to take charge and say, 'I'm not going to rely on a government agency to make sure the thing is safe for me. I'm going to learn about it myself.'"
Perhaps the most obvious safe-sex-toy discussion starts with the question, "Exactly what chemicals am I exposing my nether regions to?" Sex toys come in a variety of materials—plastic, rubber, glass, wood and various combinations thereof. Glass just seems silly (although, in fact, what's used is supposedly shatterproof). But "safe" isn't always easy to define.
One possible villain: phthalates, a group of controversial plastic-softeners on California's Proposition 65 list of toxic chemicals, which has been linked with cancer, neurological and reproductive issues. In 2006 Greenpeace organizations in the Netherlands and U.K. called for the European Union to ban phthalates in sex toys.
Some shops, including Good Vibrations in San Francisco and Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis, have stopped carrying products with phthalates. Others, such as Babeland in Seattle, have started providing customers with information about products' materials and alternatives.
Yet research conducted by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency suggests a less-alarming story. Its experiments—involving simulated saliva, sweat and vaginal lubrication—found that using sex toys with phthalates was deemed to pose no excessive health risk, as long as use was limited to no more than one hour a day. (Pregnant and breast-feeding women were safe up to 15 minutes a week.) The study found other potentially toxic chemicals (such as cadmium and trimethyltin chloride) in a random selection of sex toys, but here also the exposure was too low to be dangerous.
Still, the easiest way to protect users from leaching chemicals (or just general dirt and germs) is to put a condom over the dildo or vibrator, experts say. Beyond that, choose lubricants wisely: In the Danish study, the leaching of chemicals was 100 times slower (and therefore less harmful) when used with water-based lubricants compared with oil-based ones.
As any parent knows, a toy is only as safe as the crazy things its owner tries to do with it. Since many sexual devices do not come with instructions, here is some information to keep in mind:
Insertables: Losing one's grip is the biggest concern with internal devices. Vaginal toys cannot go too far astray, thanks to women's bumper-top cervix. But they can be difficult to retrieve, and can poke and tear tissue while lost. Best to use blunt, penis-shaped objects with a flared base, says gynecologist Leah Millheiser, director of the Female Sexual Medicine Program at Stanford University.
Anal objects, however, can easily get lost. During orgasm, powerful rectal muscles contract and can suck an object up and up, potentially obstructing the colon. A toy might be harmlessly flushed out, but it might also perforate tissue, leading to bleeding or infection. Use toys with a flared base or a string, Shindel says. Apply lots of lubricant, and choose toys designed for anal use because sharp ridges on vaginal dildos can tear more sensitive anal tissue. Hemorrhoid sufferers should be extra careful.
Size does matter: Gargantuan dildos might seem a fun idea but can tear delicate skin at the entrance to the vagina or anus, especially when enthusiastically inserted. In those moist environments wounds heal slowly, inviting re-injury or infection, Millheiser says.
External vibrators: These are not usually an emergency room affair, but unsafe clitoral stimulation is common. A 2009 Indiana University study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that 53 percent of all women have used a vibrator, and 18 percent of those have had numbness, pain and other side effects. Known in the occupational-safety world as "vibratory strain injury," these problems may at first merely frustrate but can develop into chronic conditions.