Illustration by Pink Bits
by Gabrielle Kassel
No doubt, sex toys are a great way to bring a lot of pleasure and fun into your sex life. But because these reliable babes are going near and in your (and maybe your partners’) nether regions, cleaning them is a must. Here, experts explain why keeping your sex toys clean is so important for sexual health and hygiene—plus their top tips for proper sex toy care.
Know The Material Of Your Sex Toy
To properly use, share, and clean your sex toys, you first need to know what material your toy is made out of.
As a general rule, Dr. Sherry Ross, an ob/gyn and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women's Intimate Health. Period, says non-porous materials like silicone, glass, stainless steel, Pyrex, and ABS plastics are best because they can be cleaned completely.
“Porous material like thermoplastic rubber (TPR), thermoplastic elastomer (TPE), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and jelly rubber have microscopic holes that trap dirt and bacteria, even after it’s been washed,” Dr. Ross says. Introducing a sex toy with “trapped” bacteria to your vagina can increase your risk of infections. “If you’re going to be using a sex toy made from a porous material, put a condom on it,” she suggests.
If you don’t know the material of your sex toy, you can find out by checking the box or looking it up online. (Dame’s vibrators are all made of medical-grade silicone.)
What Infections Can You Get From Shared Sex Toys?
Regardless of the material or whether or not you're sharing your toys, washing it between uses is a must. Why? Dr. Kimberly Langdon, an ob/gyn and medical advisor at Medzino, a digital health company based in California, explains that re-using a toy before it’s been washed properly can introduce new bacteria that alter your vaginal pH and cause infections like yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, or UTIs.
Pathogens and viruses can also live on the toy and get spread. “HPV, herpes, trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, mycoplasma, and HIV are the most common STIs that could be transmitted by an uncleaned (or poorly cleaned) sex toys, of any material,” Dr. Langdon says. She explains that if even you’re only using a toy for solo play, if you’ve previously had an infection and used your sex toy, using it again could reintroduce the infection to your body even after treatment.
How likely are you to get an STI from a sex toy, exactly? According to research published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases, it depends on the material and how much time has passed between use.
In the study, a team of researchers set out to investigate how long HPV can live on a sex toy. To do this, they asked folks with vulvas and HPV to insert a vibrator vaginally. Then, they compared the results between vibes made from a porous and non-porous, silicone material.
The results? After use, and without cleaning, 89% of the porous toys and 67% of the non-porous, silicone toys had traces of HPV, which suggests that sharing a sex toy with a partner in a single sexual encounter without washing it is pretty risky.
But 24 hours after cleaning, 44% of the porous toys still showed signs of HPV, while none of the non-porous toys showed signs.
Ultimately, New-York Based ob/gyn Dr. Kameelah Phillips says, “Most STIs and infections don’t exist outside the body for very long.” But “just about every STD can be transmitted via unclean toys.” So, why take the risk?
“In general, you don’t have to tell your doctor about your sex toy use,” says Dr. Phillips. But “if you’re ever experiencing symptoms, want their advice, or have shared a sex toy with a partner with an infection or STD, you should.”
How To Properly Clean Your Sex Toys
“You can clean any non-porous sex toy by washing it with warm water and a fragrance-free, oil-free soap,” says Lisa Finn, a sex educator with Babeland. Just make sure that the product is marked as splash-proof, water-resistant, or water-proof before getting it wet.
If your sex toy is made of silicone, Pyrex, stainless steel or glass, and also doesn’t have a motor or battery, you can also rinse it, then toss it into boiling water for three to five minutes. Or, “you can put the toy in the sink, then use a kettle of boiling water and pour it over the toy to disinfect it,” Finn says.
While some toys are marked as “dishwasher safe,” Finn advises against it: “While your toy may be dishwasher safe, you don’t know if your dishwashing detergent is body-safe.”
What about non-porous sex toys? Again, for both solo and partnered use, using a condom is best practice. After use, wipe it down with a warm, sudsy washcloth—just remember that this won’t clean the toy completely, says Finn.
And for all toys, make sure that you’re drying them thoroughly before putting them away. “Putting them away when they are still damp could lead to must or mold.” Finn recommends cleaning your toys before and after use, “just in case they’ve come into contact with other particles, dust, or pet hair since they were last used.”
Many sex toys come with satin or cloth bags—use them. “This will keep dust and other particles from accumulating on the toy,” Finn says.
If you don’t have these bags, think twice about using plastic baggies instead. “Storing porous toys in plastic bags could cause the toy to break down more quickly.” And when a toy breaks down, there’s more potential for trapped bacteria and infection.
A Word on Consent
Even if using the same sex toy with multiple partners is pretty low-risk as long as it’s made of a non-porous material and is being cleaned properly, Finn says it requires clear communication. “Part of having a consensual sexual relationship with your partner,” she says, is talking about “whether or not other people have used the same sex toys in the past, or are currently using them.”
Her suggestion: Have that conversation outside of the bedroom, so that if it’s not okay with your partner, you have time to purchase a new (non-porous!) sex toy with them before getting it on.
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. When she’s not testing sex toys, Tindering in public, or asking folks about their sex lives (all in the name of journalism, of course) she can be found reading self-help books, bench-pressing, or pole dancing.