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On a Scale of 1 to “Get a Hazmat Suit,” How Gross Is It to Share Sex Toys With Multiple Partners?

Gabrielle Kassel

Gabrielle KasselMay 6, 2019

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Photo: Getty Images/Povozniuk

If you looked under my bed, you wouldn’t find monsters and boogeymen. Rather, you’d find multiple bins (yes, bins) of sex toys. Of the hundred or so vibrators taking up my sacred storage space, I’ve got a few faves: a purple glass dildo and a silicone banana-shaped vibe.

And while I’m being honest, I’ll admit: I’ve used both of these with most of my partners—i.e., a number greater than one person. Of course, I wash the toys before and after each use. But, is that enough? Is using the same sex toy with multiple partners was bad etiquette…or even, like, bad karma?

Well, according to my stable of sexperts, etiquette and karma are probably the least of my concerns—apparently in this case, sharing not only isn’t caring but can also be downright unsanitary—even if you clean the toy between uses with multiple partners. “Different partners need different sex toys,” says sexologist Jill McDevitt, PhD, citing possible health risks as the main reason why.

“Technically the risks of cross-infection is relatively low. But if there are any risks, is it worth it?” —Stuart Nugent, of luxury sex-toy company LELO

One small 2014 study, published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases, examined whether or not human papillomavirus (HPV) can live on vaginally inserted sex toys. To test whether cleaning sex toys is actually effective for ridding them of bacteria and viruses, researchers asked women with HPV to insert the toy vaginally. They then compared results between vibrators made from silicone and thermoplastic elastomer (or TPE)—a jelly-like, porous material found on models like the Rabbit vibrator Miranda uses in Sex and the City. Immediately after cleaning the toy, 56 percent of the TPR toys and 44 percent of the silicone toys had traces of HPV on them. Yes, I repeat, this is after cleaning them. This means that even if the toy was cleaned, if two people share a toy within the same sexual encounter, the risk of transmission is pretty high, Dr. McDevitt says.

The researchers also re-tested the toys 24 hours after they were cleaned and found that 40 percent of the TPR toys still showed traces of HPV. However, 24 hours of cleaning, none of the silicone toys had traces of HPV on them.

And sure, it was a small study—with only 21 participants—but that doesn’t mean it should be discounted. “The fact that the researchers found what they found is worth thinking about,” says CEO and co-founder of sex-toy company Dame, Alexandra Fine. Stuart Nugent, brand manager at luxury sex-toy company LELO, has a similar take. “Technically the risks of cross-infection is relatively low,” he says. “But if there are any risks, is it worth it?”

Okay, okay, noted. But what does that mean for safest sex-toy practices? Enter: the 24 hour rule. If you’re using medical-grade silicone toys, properly washing them toys with fragrance-free soap and warm water, and waiting at least 24 hours between uses, you’re highly unlikely to contract HPV (or any other STI, for that matter), Dr. McDevitt says.

Furthermore, material matters: Opt out of buying/using sex toys made of materials like TPE or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which are porous—meaning that bacteria and viruses can live inside the toy even after you clean it. Instead, stick to toys labeled “medical-grade silicone.” Glass, medical-grade stainless steel, and Pyrex are also non-porous. “You might see terms like ‘body safe’ or ‘food-grade silicone’ on the label, but these aren’t good enough,” says Fine. “The term ‘body safe’ is not regulated at all. And ‘food grade’ is different than ‘medical grade.’” The good news is that having safe fun doesn’t have to be cost-prohibitive since high-quality sex toys aren’t gratuitously expensive, Nugent says.

Still, even if you only buy the best, safest materials and clean your toys like a pro, Fine says if you use the same sex toy with multiple partners, not to keep it a secret. “It’s best to be honest about if a sex toy has been used previously with other folks, and to share info about if and when you cleaned it. That way, the person knows if there are any health risks or not.” Plus, an honest partner who cares your health and well-being? IDK anyone who doesn’t want that.

For the 411 on safe sex, find out 10 common myths about sexually transmitted diseases. And, find out if using the wrong lube could cause your condom to break.

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