Trusted for 23+ Years
Elastomers & Porous Sex Toys Guide
Dr. Lisa Lawless, CEO of Holistic Wisdom
Clinical Psychotherapist: Relationship & Sexual Health Expert
When you walk into your average sex shop, you will see dazzling sex toys that make you feel like you are in a candy shop with bright, sparkly colored dildos and vibrators that look like delicious confectionary treats. Despite their playful appearance, some of these products can be bad for your health. So let's explore what sex toys are body-safe and what you may want to avoid when it comes to porous sex toys.
What Are Elastomer Sex Toys?
You may hear the term elastomer when learning about sex toys and wonder what it is and why it is talked about so often. A thermoplastic elastomer is a natural or synthetic polymer with elastic properties found in materials such as silicone (synthetic rubber: see our Silicone Sex Toy Guide), latex (natural rubber), TPE, TPR, TPO, and vinyl (PVC). An elastomer is not material; rather, it describes a material's stretchy and flexible consistency.
When you start with a polymer material, it is firm and hard. To make it more pliable, you have to add softeners. What softeners you add will determine what type of material it will become. Like candy, you can make the candy hard or soft depending on your ingredients.
The softer you make a polymer, the more porous it typically becomes, making it feel more skin-like and soft. Some of the softest materials for sex toys are TPR and TPE materials. These have been commonly softened with chemicals called plasticizers which are not healthy such as phthalates. However, many reputable manufacturers have stopped using plasticizers, and now their products contain nontoxic, body-safe softeners that are phthalate-free. Not only that, but some use medical-grade TPE and SEBS-based polymers that are nontoxic, body-safe, have extremely low to no porosity, and are ideal for sex toys.
Properly Caring For An Elastomer Sex Toy
Elastomer sex toys made of materials such as TPE, TPR, and SEBS are all delicate materials. Because they are designed to be super soft and stretchy, they make great penis rings and masturbation sleeves because of the skin-like feeling they provide and their ability to accommodate various penis sizes. However, they can easily tear and break down over time, so ensuring you understand how to care for them properly is essential for elastomer sex toys to have a longer lifespan.
- Make sure you only use water-based lubricants with elastomer sex toys, as other types of lubricants may break them down.
- Do not store them with other elastomer sex toys, as they can chemically interact and cause melting.
- Clean them properly and use non-foaming sex toy cleaners to reduce bacteria as much as possible. Remember that elastomers are porous, so they cannot be sterilized, which is why we only recommend them for external use. See our How To Clean Sex Toys Guide for additional information.
- After you get an elastomer sex toy wet from cleaning it, it will typically feel sticky. This is normal; however, if you powder them or reapply lubricants, they will not feel sticky anymore. To store them, you can use sex toy powder or cornstarch to dust them once they are dry to keep them from getting sticky. When you use them again and apply a water-based lubricant, they will feel slick and smooth and be ready to use.
- Store them in a cool, dry place where they can breathe. You want to avoid bacteria, fungus, mold, etc. from forming on them.
- Elastomer sex toys will not last long, unlike silicone, which will last many years. The softer and stretchier the elastomer, the more delicate it will be, and the less time it will last. Because they are more prone to breaking down over time, possibly tearing when stretched, and not being able to be sanitized due to their porous nature, we recommend using them for short-term periods or as single-use sex toys.
Hard Vs. Soft
Sex toy material firmness is measured using the Shore scale, which Albert Shore created back in the 1920s to measure the firmness of a variety of materials. To determine where the material was rated on the Shore scale, a durometer is used. A durometer is a gauge that measures how soft or hard something is. There are three types of durometer gauges: 00, A, and D. Each gauge has a different spring-loaded steel rod that compresses the surface of the material being measured. How far down it can squish the material determines the rating.
What The Different Durometer Scales Measure:
Shore 00 Scale:
Measures the softest materials such as rubbers, gels, and other materials. Materials with this kind of softness are similar to marshmallows and gummy bears. Some soft masturbation sleeves made of TPR or TPE can be measured on this scale.
Shore A Scale:
This measures the flexibility and hardness of a wide range of materials, from very soft rubbers to semi-rigid plastics. This scale is what measures most sex toys made of TPR, TPE, PVC, and silicone.
Shore D Scale:
This measures the hardest of rubbers that have little to no flexibility. Very firm rubbers, semi-rigid plastics, and hard plastics like ABS plastics are calculated on this scale. Hard plastic vibrators are often measured using this scale.
The softness of a TPE is measured by durometer on the Shore hardness scale. The lower the durometer number, the softer the material. A rubber band is only a 20A durometer, whereas plastic is about 95A or higher. A very firm silicone might come in at a 40A, whereas 10A has a comparable squeeze to erectile tissue but is much more flexible. To see where an FDA Approved Grade TPE ranks, let's look at its ratings. Below you can see that it can take temperature swings and has a reasonably firm rating and strength.
- Temperature Range: -50°F to +275°F
- Durometer Range (Shore 00): 40 to 87
- Tensile Range (psi.): 640 to 4000
Porous, Nonporous, Extractables & Leachables
You should know some basic chemistry terminology before we delve into what is porous when it comes to sex toy materials, so let's cover four of these terms:
This is when something cannot be permeated by air, water, and other kinds of fluids such as body fluids and personal lubricants. A nonporous material will repel such things when they contact the surface of a sex toy and easily wash away.
A porous surface has tiny microscopic holes or crevices. It can be permeated by air, water, and other fluids such as body fluids and lubricants. Depending on how many pores and how large the pores are, these can be problematic because they can harbor bacteria, mold, fungi, and viruses.
Extractables are chemicals that may leach out of a sex toy. For example, some elastomer sex toys may excrete trace amounts of mineral oil, and other additives.
Leachables are things that a sex toy may absorb into the sex toy, meaning it leaches in compounds that around it. For example, bodily fluids may enter a sex toy's pores and stay inside it.
The Porosity Of Sex Toys
Rubber elastomers like silicone can be formulated to be porous or nonporous depending on the additives used. For example, medical-grade silicone and often food-grade silicones are nonporous, but other silicones may not be. It depends on the additives used, how much is used, the curing process and other factors.
The base of what makes silicone sex toys is silica, which is composed of oxygen and silicon. This combination is also the main ingredient of glass and makes it inert and impermeable (nonporous), but when you add softeners, you can make them porous.
Not all softened sex toys are very porous. For example, silicone and PVC can have microscopic pores but are typically considered to be nonporous. They are also categorized as elastomers because they are flexible and softened.
TPR vs. TPE
When discussing porous sex toys, we usually refer to TPR (modified from an SBS base material), TPE (modified from a SEBS base material), which are both thermoplastic elastomers. These two types of elastomers are often used in sex toys because they feel similar to skin and are squishy, stretchy, and soft. You will often see them in masturbation sleeves, dildos, penis rings, and other sex toys.
SEBS materials (SEBS-based polymers) are a type of TPE and have better thermal stability and weathering resistance than TPR (SBS). Medical grade TPE can also be sterilized, which is what makes them great for medical and dental use.
Medical Grade TPE
Medical-grade TPEs and some other SEBS-based polymers are FDA compliant and are free of plasticizers like phthalates and latex. Medical-grade TPE can have extremely low porosity or even be considered nonporous.
While medical-grade TPE is ideal, many sex toys are not made with medical-grade TPE, impacting the quality and porosity levels. Typically nontoxic SEBS-based polymers are ideal for use as a sex toy material.
Medical-grade TPE is nontoxic and does not contain carcinogenic substances, can be recycled, and ages well. SEBS-based polymers can also have these attributes even if they are not certified as medical grade.
Benefits Of Medical-Grade TPEs
To minimize bacteria growth, medical-grade TPEs and other SEBS-based polymers have a maximum pore density standard to ensure minimal porosity to no porosity. However, having minimal porosity is not necessarily harmful; rather, controlling the porosity and allowing some pores can even be beneficial in some dental and medical uses.
TPE Uses Outside of Sex Toys
Medical-grade TPE and other SEBS-based polymers are used in various products such as the soft grips on toothbrushes and hairbrushes, teething rings, baby spoons, rattles, and medical supplies such as catheters.
Medical Grade TPE Attributes
- Biocompatible and irritation-free.
- Are compliant with regulations on cellular health in the medical industry.
- Recyclable with low energy consumption and minimal waste.
- Impermeable to air and moisture, making them very low in porosity.
- Sterilizable by autoclave, ethylene oxide, and gamma radiation.
- Cost-effective and great for molding into sex toys.
- Have high purity and low levels of extractable compounds.
- They can be translucent and offer attractive sex toy options.
Proprietary Blends Of TPE & TPR Sex Toys
Many sex toy manufacturers make proprietary blends of these materials and, in some cases, patent or trademark them. Here are some examples of brand-name TPR or TPE sex toy materials: CyberSkin, Futurotic, LoveClone RX, PassionSkin, PleasureSkin, Private Touch, SoftSkins, SoftTouch, SuperSkin, Techno-Skin, and TrueSkin.
Controversy Around Porous Sex Toys
Some Are Petroleum-Based
Some TPR and TPE sex toys contain mineral oil which is derived from petroleum. Before addressing petroleum-based, food-grade mineral oil found in some TPE and TPR elastomer sex toys, keep in mind that chemistry is complex. When you add or remove specific chemical components, you can completely change the nature of something.
Food-grade mineral oil is tasteless, odorless, and colorless. It is FDA approved for cosmetic use and is safe for human consumption. That being said, not all mineral oils are safe for humans to consume, and we are only referring to food-grade mineral oil in sex toys.
When people say that elastomers like TPR or TPE are petroleum-based, it tends to scare people, but it would not sound as scary if they were told the oil in them was food-grade mineral oil that you can ingest. While mineral oil does originate from petroleum, it is very different in this form.
Thus, when sex bloggers tell consumers that TPE and TPR are all made of petroleum and toxic for vaginal or rectal use, this is simply untrue. Food-grade mineral oil is colorless and odorless and is not carcinogenic. Just because something is synthetic does not make it toxic or unhealthy. There is a lot of uninformed fear around synthetic products.
When you look on the internet about the dangers of mineral oil, the only negative examples given are absurd extremes. For instance, one site said that inhaling it causes health problems. Sure, inhaling it would be bad, but it is not intended to be inhaled. You don't want to inhale something natural like cinnamon either. Why not inhale cinnamon? Because it would be an irritant to your lungs in that form, so it is not intended to be inhaled, just as mineral oil is not.
Using anything that is not intended for a particular use can be harmful. Another ridiculous example of the demonizing of mineral oil on the internet is that it could be toxic if you ingested mass amounts of it. Yet, that is true of water too. Are we seriously supposed to be concerned about things that, when misused, are toxic or harmful but, when properly used, are not?
The truth is that food-grade mineral oil is nontoxic when appropriately used, and making sex toys with them is perfectly body safe. In fact, mineral oil is endorsed by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) and is recommended as a vaginal lubricant to increase the chances of conceiving.
All this being said, because sex toy manufacturers do not typically disclose what specific oil is being used in elastomer sex toys, there is no way to be confident that it will always be highly refined, nontoxic mineral oil. It has to be determined with each brand of sex toy by checking with the manufacturer. This is why we confirm with all the brands we carry that the products we carry use only nontoxic ingredients that are phthalate-free.
TPR & TPE May Contain Phthalates
Cheaply made sex toys may contain harmful plasticizers like phthalates that soften them and make them more pliable. However, because there were sex toy companies that were sued for having phthalates in them, reputable manufacturers no longer use them in TPE or TPR materials. They have begun using body safe alternatives. However, there are sex toy manufacturers that sell cheap sex toys that do contain phthalates, so it is essential to know if the sex toys you are buying are coming from a reputable seller.
TPR & TPE Is Not As Durable As Silicone
Platinum-cured silicone is the most stable process of curing silicone. It has a high tear strength and can withstand intense stretching (tensile strength). It also has very low shrinkage and is nonporous and firm.
TPR & TPE elastomer sex toys break down over time and depending on the brand and level of durometer, you can start to see them degrade as soon as several months. It is essential to examine them closely for tears, holes, mold, and strong odors. A TPR & TPE sex toy, depending on the frequency of use and decompensation, should typically not be used for more than six months to a year.
The Cleaning Issue
While a TPR or TPE is not usually a toxic sex toy when it is brand new, it can become unsafe because of its porosity and ability to harbor bacteria, fungi, mold, viruses, etc. Even if you clean a TPR/TPE sex toy properly, most consumers still have no way to disinfect it completely.
Porous sex toys are ideal for use on the exterior parts of the body, such as penis rings and masturbation sleeves. In addition, when using these absorbent products, we strongly recommend following proper cleaning and storage methods and only using them for short-term periods or as single-use sex toys.
We do not recommend using porous TPR or TPE toys internally for people who have compromised immune systems, autoimmune disease, are prone to yeast infections or bacterial infections, or have other health conditions that would make them sensitive to such exposure. Furthermore, we caution that if you choose to use TPR or TPE sex toys, you must be diligent about cleaning them and consider using them short-term since bacteria, etc., can build up over time. We also recommend that you explore single-use TPR or TPE sex toys should you decide to use them.
If you use them, never use them anally, they must only be used vaginally if you decide to use them internally. If you do use them for vaginal use, make sure you carefully clean them and we do not recommend that you use them long-term.
TPR & TPE Sex Toys Can Melt
TPR and TPE sex toys can melt, which may seem alarming but is not an indication of toxicity. The first thing to understand is that you cannot store these types of sex toys together as they can chemically interact with one another and cause them to break down. Thus, storing them in breathable sex toy storage bags may be ideal.
The second thing to understand about TPR and TPE sex toys is that most are very sensitive to heat. This means that keeping them in a very warm environment or washing them under hot water can cause them to melt.
TPR and TPE that is made with body-safe, nontoxic materials may still melt when exposed to heat. However, if your sex toy is made with medical-grade TPE, it will, of course, not only be more resistant to heat but will be non-porous or have minimal porosity. Soft TPR and TPE materials can break down and leach additives, so that is why it is so vital that they are nontoxic.
Sex toy activists are concerned that porous TPR or TPE sex toys will always leach out chemicals or melt once inside of a person's vagina or rectum. This is not necessarily true and entirely depends on what material ingredients were used to make the TPR or TPE. However, that being said, because most TPR and TPE sex toys are porous, we recommend them more for external use rather than vaginally when possible and never for anal use.
Proper Use Of Porous Sex Toys
You will want to follow specific guidelines when using porous sex toys like TPE and TPR elastomers such as:
- Never use TPE and TPR elastomers anally. Fecal matter and harmful bacteria get into the microscopic pores and may not be able to be removed.
- Never use the same porous toy both vaginally and anally. Even if you clean off a sex toy after using it anally, you will not be able to disinfect it completely. This makes it unable to be used vaginally.
- If you have concerns about thermoplastic elastomer sex toys you can opt to use a condom over them. However, do not use latex or polyisoprene condoms over TPE or TPR as they may melt and break down. Only use polyurethane condoms that are non lubricated or have a compatible water based lubricant. See our Polyurethane Condom Guide for more information.
- Always make sure to clean and store your porous sex toys properly. See our How To Clean Sex Toys Guide for further instructions.
- Only buy TPR or TPE sex toys from a reputable retailer (like us) that fully understands sex toy safety, or you may risk buying one that contains harmful plasticizers such as phthalates.
The Importance Of Proper Material Labeling
Some sex toy retailers do not call product materials by their proper name, and instead of TPR and TPE elastomers, they may call them things like soft plastic. This is typically done because consumers may not know what TPR and TPE materials are. Still, it may confuse consumers and keep them from fully understanding how to care for these materials correctly. This is why we refer to sex toy materials properly and simply provide education about what they are and how to use, clean, and store them.
PVC Health Concerns
PVC is also considered an elastomer and has long been a sex toy material that has been of concern for many sex toy purists, and rightfully so, as old versions of it contained harmful plasticizers like phthalates. PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) is a synthetic plastic polymer. When most people think of PVC, they think of plumbing pipes. Additives must be combined to make it more pliable and soft to soften it.
How Prop 65 Made PVC Safer
Most companies were using harmful plasticizers to soften PVC, but now some alternatives can make PVC a perfectly safe sex toy material that is nonporous. Lawsuits against phthalates and Proposition 65 firmly pushed reputable sex toy manufacturers to change their materials, making PVC in quality sex toys safe for use.
However, because many sex toy activists don't know that many PVC sex toys have changed, they may automatically assume all of them are toxic. While there are some sex toys made of PVC that contain phthalates, those made by reputable sex toy manufacturers do not. Newer PVC sex toys made by reputable sex toy manufacturers are typically body safe.
What Are The Alternatives To PVC Plasticizers Like Phthalates?
The biggest concern about finding suitable replacements for reputable manufacturers who wanted to replace plasticizers was ensuring that they were not substituting one hazardous chemical for another one. For example, some manufacturers just changed their PVC softener to other harmful plasticizers such as Bisphenol A or with its equally dangerous cousins Bisphenol S or F.
The most popular non-phthalate plasticizers are DEHT and DINCH. Also used are Epoxidized soybean oil (ESBO), Trimellitates (TOTM), and Acetyl tributyl citrate (ATBC). There are also brand names with proprietary softeners such as Hytrel® by Dupont, a plasticizer-free thermoplastic polyester designed to be used with medical devices and other products. With changes to using healthier softeners to make PVC into elastomers comes new opportunities to make healthy and safe sex toys from an alternative material to silicone. Body safe PVC sex toys are an excellent option as, like silicone, it is nonporous.
Elastomer sex toys made with porous materials can be body-safe and nontoxic if purchased from a knowledgeable and reputable manufacturer or retailer. Unfortunately, quite a few are uneducated and not selling safe sex toys, so the only way to be sure that what you are getting is body safe is to simply buy from a company that you trust. For more information, make sure to check out our guide How To Avoid Toxic Sex Toys.