Toxic sex toys: when not everything smells of roses in sex toy land

The curse of the toxic sex toys may sound like the title of a bad porn horror movie spoof, but toxicity of materials in sex toys is no laughing matter. The materials that are used in our favourite sex toys and the potential for damage to health has been a hot topic for years in the sex toy blogosphere. Some bloggers have (rightfully so) made it into a personal quest to get to the bottom of things and have been campaigning for better industry regulation and clarification on the subject.

Until the last 5-10 years adult toy manufacturing was a bit of a taboo industry. Everybody knew that sex toys were being made, some of us may even have found one under our parent’s bed, but nobody really talked about them. For decades sex toys were made in factories that were largely unregulated and with materials that quite frankly were not suitable for prolonged skin contact let alone go up and in someone’s orifices.

Some of you may remember how older sex toys used to stink of rubber tires, vinyl seat covers and other nasty plastic chemical smells … because they were made out of the same kind of materials. Luckily for us the industry has changed a lot and thousands and thousands of dollars have gone into research to find safer, more pleasing materials like the ones we know and love today.

So what is the story with the smell of toxic sex toys?

We live in a society that is highly sterilised, cleansed and perfumed so people don’t really know what things smell like anymore. If something smells weird or different from what we are used to then we rightfully put our guard up. And if we smell something with a strong or chemical odour we automatically assume that it must be bad for us. It is a perfectly normal human reaction, but unfortunately it isn’t always a correct one.

The majority of modern sex toys are made of plastic, rubber, silicone, … these are all synthetic materials that have a very distinctive smell. Some may smell strong, some may barely smell, but they all have a slight whiff about them, despite what the packaging or manufacturers may tell you.

If you press your nose against your sex toy you will smell something, however it shouldn’t be a strong, repulsive odour that makes your nostrils flare. If that is the case then it may be time to stay well clear from that particular toy.

Where does the smell come from?

The chemical or musty smell on your new sex toy can be caused by a number of things. Either by the packaging your toy came in, by production residues left over from manufacturing or by the actual material used to make your toy. The former two are relatively simple to rectify, the latter isn’t.


Packaging is an easy one, you can just dispose of it as that is not the main reason you bought the product in the first place (unless you are a cat or have a box fetish).

A funky packaging smell can be caused because a box hasn’t been stored properly or for a long period of time. This kind of musty/damp smell usually goes away quickly when you air or wash your toy.

Production residues

Toy production these days is a highly automated mass production process and like any production operation it uses chemicals to make this process easier. One of these production chemicals are what are know as release agents. This is a chemical solution that is sprayed inside the moulds to stop the material from sticking to the sides and to make removal easier. You could compare it to spraying oil to the inside of a pan to stop food from baking on. Most of these release agents are designed to simply evaporate during the production process or are washed off at a later stage, but minor residues can (and do) remain.

That is one of the reasons why it is always a good idea to give your new toy a good wash in warm soapy water first (check the instructions in case of electrical toys) to make sure it is clean before use.

If however your toy continues to smell strongly after repeated washing then you may have a problem that goes beyond the surface and which is probably due to the actual material used.

Toy material

I’m not going to go into a long post about different kinds of materials used to make sex toys, I’ll leave that for another post, but I’ll stick to the issue of smelly toys for now.

A strong, chemical odour which doesn’t go away despite washing or airing is something that is often found in soft, (older) jelly or crystal style toys.

There is a very simple reason why softer, jelly toys suffer from smells and that is that in order to make a plastic that is soft, squishy and skin like manufacturers need to add something called a plasticiser to the mix. Like its name suggests, it “plasticises” or softens the main material. Plasticisers are materials that, when added to a polymer, cause an increase in flexibility and workability. It is a bit like adding water to dough or batter to make it more runny. In the case of sex toys they of course don’t add water, but different types of mineral oils and “esters”.

Mineral oils are colourless oils that are made from petroleum; they are a by product of the distillation of crude petroleum. Mineral oils are incredibly versatile and useful and have long been used as a common ingredient in anything from motor oil to cosmetics. They are lightweight, inexpensive and unlike natural oils they don’t tend to spoil over time.

Esters are chemical compounds which are derived from acids and alcohols and which help to give plastics softness and improved durability. One of the most common groups of plastifiers you may have heard of are phthalates. Because of their risk to health phthalates have been restricted for use in many countries and even banned for certain products in Europe (e.g. children’s toys).

It is these oils and esters that are responsible for the chemical smell as they leach to the surface and evaporate over time and use. This is also one of the reasons why some of your softer toys may feel sticky or greasy if they haven’t been used for a while. In some extreme cases toys have been known to completely degrade into a toxic soup as was shown in an interesting, but scary experiment by sex toy blogger dangerouslilly on her blog.

Some of the chemicals used in the material could cause an allergic reaction to your skin or the mucus membranes of your mouth, vagina, penis or anus.

These allergic reactions could lead to serious medical issues such as rashes, blisters, dermatitis and in same cases even anaphylactic shock if not treated properly. Unfortunately most people prefer to keep quite about any of this because of the personal nature of sex toys and don’t talk to their doctor. So if you notice something out of the ordinary after the use of a new toy, it may not be your fault, but your new purchase.

What causes toxic sex toys to smell?

The actual chemical smell is caused by the release in the air of something that is called Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs for short. VOCs are a large group of carbon-based chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature. Most people can notice a smell when high levels of some VOCs are present, but other VOCs have no odour. So if something doesn’t smell it doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t indicate a level of risk from inhalation.

There are literally thousands of different VOCs produced and used in our daily lives, but not all of them are automatically bad or harmful. A lot of other factors such as length of exposure, combination with other chemicals, etc also play a role.

VOCs and their rate of entry in the air are highly regulated to control and limit the exposure to the public. If you want to find out more you can do a google search to find out more information by regulatory bodies in your own state or country.

Are sex toys that smell bad for you?

The honest answer to that question is: we don’t really know and nobody has a definitive answer. It depends really on who you ask about toxic sex toys.

Smell is a very subjective and personal thing and some people are simply much more susceptible to smells than others. However, it does sometimes pay to go with your senses. If you feel that something smells off and the odour doesn’t go away then it is probably safe to say that the toy may not be suitable for you.

But smell is only one indicator (albeit a good one), there are a number of other reasons why people can have a bad reaction to a sex toy, which aren’t always noticed by smell.

If you feel that a toy smells off or the smell makes you feel uncomfortable then simply leave it and look for something else. This day and age there are so many different toys available that you’ll easily find another one that will be more suitable for your needs.

Have you ever been affected by odorous, toxic sex toys or have experience with funky smelling vibrators, then please feel free to comment below. And as usual, please help us get the word out about the site by sharing or tweeting if you think it was an interesting read.