Matie Fricker, 39, has a strict company policy: When customers return their sex toys, always wear gloves.
At her store, Self Serve Toys in Albuquerque, New Mexico, people don’t return sex toys often. But when they do, she says it’s easy to tell if the toys haven’t been cleaned. They’re usually decorated with pubic hairs, mini dust bunnies, and dried-up body fluids.
“If they haven’t washed it before bringing the toy back, I can’t imagine they’re washing it between the times they’re using it,” says Fricker.
Fricker told Men’s Health that while most of her customers come into the store wanting to know how to take care of their toys, a few seem to lack any concern for sex toy hygiene. One of her customers was a long-haul truck driver who didn’t want to bother with cleaning his sex toy all the time. He wanted to know the “magic number of times he could ejaculate into a sex toy without it becoming dangerous for him to put his penis into the toy again,” she recalls.
Shockingly, this truck driver is not alone. Only 57% of men clean their sex toys after they use them, according to a 2017 survey by adult superstore Adam & Eve. More than a third of men never clean their sex toys at all. That’s a big problem, because experts say that failing to wash sex toys, especially porous toys like the Fleshlight or other strokers, can have some alarming consequences.
For men, using the same sex toys without washing the semen off afterwards can lead to skin and yeast infections. Men with uncircumcised penises may be more likely to get yeast infections because bacteria can get trapped under the foreskin. Over time, that bacteria grows and can travel into a man’s urethra, the part of the penis that carries semen.
“You’re injecting 98.6 degrees of semen into the toy. That’s just the stuff that life grows out of,” Fricker says. “And when semen leaves the the body, it ejects at 28 miles per hour. There’s a lot of biological matter that is ‘hot in the pocket,’ so it’s just a recipe for bacteria to grow.”
So how should you clean your sex toys?
Chris Donaghue, Ph.D., a sex and relationship therapist and SKYN brand ambassador, says “the general rule is that soap and warm water will kill and remove germs and debris.” Then follow up with air drying—you don’t need to buy a special toy cleaner.
However, different materials require slightly different cleaning methods, so he suggests always reading the packaging for instructions. “High-quality products will have a cleaning guide on the package or on an insert inside,” he says.
Some sex toys are easier to clean than others. Non-porous toys such as glass butt plugs and stainless steel dildos don’t absorb any fluids, so they’re easy to rinse off with soap and water. On the other hand, porous sex toys like masturbation sleeves and cock rings are softer and more elastic, so they have microscopic pores that can absorb pretty much anything, including bacteria. Take your time washing these guys with soap and water, especially if it’s something you put in your rear end. You can also do a little smell test after you wash it. If it doesn’t smell clean, spoiler alert: It’s not.
How long a sex toy will last before becoming unusable depends on different factors, such as the humidity of the storage area and frequency of use, but much like clothes or shoes, the more often you use a sex toy, the faster it will become worn. And when dirty sex toys harbor bacteria, they can start to break down.
“Sex toys can actually degrade over time if they are not cleaned properly and become less effective and not so pleasurable,” says Andy Durham, 35, co-founder of Toys 4 Naughty Boys, a supplier of men’s sex toys and equipment based in Devizes, the United Kingdom. To make matters worse, you might not notice it right away — and the idea of using a dirty sex toy and inserting that same bacteria back into your body over and over again is, well, not exactly sexy.
If you share sex toys with a partner and you don’t clean your toys, you might be at risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like HPV or hepatitis infections, which can live for several days outside of the body at room temperature.
“Wash all toys immediately after use, and always between use with different partners,” says Donaghue. “This prevents forgetting and possibly spreading germs or bacteria.”
According to Fricker, “The gold standard is that if you’re using a toy partner-to-partner on people’s genitals, it’s good to have separate toys.” If you do share sex toys with a partner, you should always use a condom. Never use a sex toy orifice-to-orifice (that is, don’t use it on your penis after you’ve used it anally).
So how often should you actually wash your sex toys? Fricker and Durham recommend cleaning your sex toys after every use. Durham adds that sex toys with hard-to-reach crevices or toys you “insert where the sun doesn’t shine” — AKA your butt, which is laden with fecal matter and other bacteria — may require additional cleaning time. Durham suggests washing toys with a mild soap and water or an antibacterial sex toy cleaner (no harsh ingredients, although all-natural toy cleaners are ideal).
Fricker’s teaching philosophy for clients? Never put your penis any place that you wouldn’t want to touch with your mouth, and treat your sex toy as you would any other expensive item.
“If you’re going to buy a really nice computer or video game, you’re going to buy everything you need to take care of it, too,” she says.