You see the acronyms on packaging when you’re shopping for sex toys: TPE. TPR. It’s clear (sort of!) that these letters refer to sex toy materials, but what do they mean, exactly? And why do some manufacturers of sex toys use them?
Most importantly, are they safe?
TPE and TPR are among the most common toy materials because they’re less expensive than premium options like silicone. In this guide, we investigate what these materials are made from, what happens when you use them, and why women and vagina-owners in particular should think twice before buying them.
What Are TPE And TPR?
Let’s start from square one. What are TPE and TPR, anyway?
TPE and TPR stand for thermoplastic elastomer and thermoplastic rubber. These terms are often used interchangeably, and refer to a mix of plastic and rubber that can stretch and return to its original shape.
Simply put, TPE combines the characteristics of both plastic and rubber, and is soft, durable, and flexible. This makes it appealing to sex toy manufacturers, who value materials that can be manipulated and stretched without losing shape or breaking.
In addition to being strong and stretchy, TPE is also:
- Less expensive to produce than silicone, glass, and stainless steel
- Stable at high temperatures
- Easy to color with dyes
- Energy efficient during the manufacturing process, which makes it more environmentally friendly
Though it may be a staple in strokers and masturbators, TPE isn’t used only in sex toys. In fact, 40% is used in car manufacturing. You’ll also find it in roofing, medical equipment such as catheters, heating and insulation, and shoe soles. From rugs to headphone cables, TPE is in many of the products we’re exposed to every day.
It’s no wonder such a pliable, versatile material is used to make sex toys. But are TPE sex toys safe to use on or inside your body? Let’s find out.
Is TPE Toxic?
When browsing TPE sex toys, you might see it described as “body-safe” or non-toxic. It’s true that TPE does have certain safety advantages over other materials. For example, TPE is less likely than latex to cause allergies, and less likely than rubber to crack or discolor. It won’t break like glass or scratch like stainless steel.
In addition, TPE is typically made without the use of toxic plasticizers like phthlates, endocrine disrupting chemicals that have been banned from use in children’s toys. But does that make TPE non-toxic? And how can you be sure what’s really in it?
That’s one of the issues with TPE. You can’t.
We know that TPE sex toys are made from some combination of plastic and rubber that is liquid when heated and solid when cooled. But what those materials are is a mystery.
Manufacturers can claim that TPE is non-toxic, but without a detailed breakdown of which plastics and rubbers they use to make their TPE, it’s impossible to know if it’s truly safe to put in your body.
Why TPE Isn’t Body-Safe
The definition of body-safe can be vague, but as a general rule, body-safe sex toys don’t contain toxic chemicals or leach chemicals into the bloodstream through the skin and mucous membranes. They’re made of stable materials, and don’t degrade easily or break down when exposed to body heat.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that a TPE sex toy fresh from the factory is non-toxic. It doesn’t contain any chemicals banned by the FDA, and is free from phthalates and other plasticizers. Would that particular TPE toy be body-safe?
No, it wouldn’t. Why? Because TPE is porous.
Porous materials have microscopic holes in them that can allow other microscopic things to penetrate. Things like:
- Bacteria and viruses
- Particles of bodily fluids
- Traces of lubricant
- Skin cells
- Dust and dander
Even if a TPE toy were body-safe when new, it wouldn’t be as soon as you used it. It would absorb the bacteria in your body fluids. That bacteria would stay inside the toy, out of reach of toy cleaner, soap and water, even alcohol and other disinfectants. You can’t completely clean a TPE toy for the simple reason that you can’t clean inside it.
Learn more: Which sex toy materials are body-safe? Toys made from non-porous materials are typically considered safe to use on and inside the body. These materials include silicone, stainless steel, and borosilicate glass.
Are TPE Penis Toys Safer?
If you’ve ever browsed penis toys, you’ve seen sleeves and masturbators made from TPE. A wide variety of manufacturers, including Tenga, one of the largest makers of penis toys, use TPE in the squishy, suction-y linings of their toys. TPE can be manufactured to feel a lot like the inside of the human body, making it a natural choice for makers of penis strokers.
If TPE isn’t body-safe, why is it used so often in strokers? Well, the nature of TPE as a porous material with an unknown chemical profile doesn’t change just because it’s used in strokers. What does change is the risk of infection.
TPE is safer to use in penis toys because penises are less likely to be impacted by the bacteria inside the material. The urethra in the penis is longer than the urethra in the female body, which makes it less vulnerable to bacterial infections. This anatomical difference makes TPE toys for the penis safer than TPE toys for the vulva, clitoris, and vagina.
Unlike the penis, the vagina and vulva are also very sensitive to microscopic changes. Bacteria from a TPE toy can upset the pH balance in the vagina, leading to:
- Bacterial vaginosis
- Yeast infections
Bacteria from a TPE penis toy, on the other hand, is more likely to stay on the surface of the skin and have little effect.
Note that TPE anal toys are never body-safe because of the types of bacteria they absorb during use. No matter what your gender or how you clean it, anal TPE sex toys can and do cause infections. TPE should never be used for anal play.
Can TPE Give Me An STI?
It stands to reason that if TPE can absorb bacteria, it can absorb the bacteria and viruses associated with sexually transmitted infections. If those pathogens stay alive inside the toy – and they can – you may be able to catch a STI from a partner via a sex toy, or reinfect yourself with a STI if you’ve since been treated. Not an arousing thought by a long shot.
How to avoid getting a sexually transmitted infection from a TPE toy? Don’t share toys made from TPE. Don’t use a TPE toy if you have or suspect you might have a STI, and don’t use it during a herpes outbreak. To be safe, try to avoid contact with TPE during any kind of illness or skin infection.
How Do I Care For A TPE Sex Toy?
If you choose to buy a TPE sex toy, keep in mind that it has an expiration date – or should. That date varies depending on how you use it and how long the material lasts. TPE strokers can last weeks to months, but may break down before then.
Keep TPE sex toys away from heat sources and high temperatures, as they may melt. Any change to a TPE toy means it's time to throw it out. Never use TPE vaginally or anally, and always inspect your toy before you use it.
Before each use, check your toy for:
- Tears. TPE is typically soft and squishy. Over time it can crack, sag, or rip
- Odors. Smell is a sure sign the toy has absorbed bacteria
- Stains. TPE can pick up stains from body fluids, as well as dyes from other toys
- Black spots. Black spots on TPE may indicate mold or mildew
- Changes in shape. TPE might contain mineral oil to make it soft and pliable. This means it can flatten or warp when stored on or against a hard surface. Store TPE toys in a cool place away from direct light and other toys.
How Do I Clean A TPE Sex Toy?
TPE sex toys can’t be cleaned internally, but should be washed after each use and dried thoroughly. Follow the manufacturer's directions before you clean your toy.
For certain TPE toys, you can use mild soap and water or toy cleaner. Manufacturers of some TPE strokers recommend forgoing cleaners and washing their toys with water only, or their own branded toy cleaner. Other stroker users rinse their toys with a 70% isopropyl alcohol solution and then let them dry.
When washing a TPE toy, stay away from dishwashing detergent, oily soaps or body washes, or any heavily perfumed cleanser that could damage the material or cause a permanent odor.
Just as important as cleaning a TPE toy is drying it. A wet stroker is a breeding ground for mold and odors. Strokers and masturbators can be a challenge to dry because of their tube-like shape. Many strokers are also closed at one end.
To make them easier to dry, some strokers flip open, others turn inside out, and still others come with a drying stick to help keep them expanded while they dry. After cleaning your stroker or masturbator, make sure it’s completely dry before you store it. Storing a damp stroker will shorten its life and encourage mold and mildew growth.
Learn more: How To Clean Your Sex Toys
Best TPE Sex Toys
While there are no TPE toys that can be used safely for vaginal or anal play, TPE penis toys are less likely to cause infection or irritation. Keep in mind that TPE is not a durable material, and strokers and masturbators should be replaced at the first sign of odor or wear.
Here are some of the best TPE toys, including budget and travel options and must-haves for stroker fans.
Best TPE Stroker Overall
Tenga Flip Zero While "best" is always subjective when it comes to sex toys, it's hard to beat the Tenga Flip Zero for stimulating texture and deliciously squishy suction. This top-of-the-line stroker is made from TPE with antimicrobials that help decrease bacteria and mold growth, and flips open for easier cleaning and drying.
Best Budget TPE Stroker
Tenga Spinner 04 Pixel Stroker Tenga delivers a soft-firm, studded lining and an interior coil system that feels like a spinning spiral of sensation. And they do it all for under $25.
Best Open-Ended TPE Stroker
B Swish Bhandy Classic Open-Ended Sleeve This stroker from B Swish features an open-ended design to fit just about any anatomy, and the textured interior sleeve is removeable for hassle-free cleaning.
Best Vibrating TPE Stroker
The VeDO Hummer 2.0 The VeDO Hummer 2.0 is a luxury blowjob machine that sucks and strokes at mind-blowing speeds up to 180 RPM. The Hummer features 8 fully automatic suction modes for the ultimate in hands-free pleasure.
Best Travel TPE Stroker
Tenga Easy Beat Hard Boiled 6 Pack These individual egg-shaped strokers are pocket-sized, fun to use, and perfect for trips and overnights. Each one has its own texture, making every egg a whole new experience. Tenga eggs are reusable, but priced well enough to toss after a stroke or two.
How do I know if a toy is made from TPE?
Check the toy's packaging. If you're not sure, chat with the seller online or ask someone at your local sex toy shop. Unless the packaging states otherwise, assume that strokers and penis masturbators are lined with TPE.
Will wearing a condom with a TPE toy make it safer?
Probably not. TPE is typically softened with oils that can break down latex and polyisoprene condoms and allow pathogens and chemicals to get through the barrier. There are no scientific studies that prove condoms work to protect the skin against TPE or other materials.
Which lube should I use with TPE?
Water-based lubes are safest, but hybrid (a blend of water-based and silicone) lubes can be used with some TPE toys. Check the instructions that come with your toy to be sure.
Are there body-safe alternatives to TPE toys?
Yes! Silicone dildos, vibrators, and anal toys are 100% body-safe and can be used for vaginal and anal play. Though body-safe strokers are less common, more are being developed in response to consumer demand.
Some of our favorite body-safe strokers include:
Arcwave Voy This fully adjustable toy is made from 100% body-safe silicone, doesn't absorb bacteria, and delivers a great, customized stroke.
VeDO Hotrod Warming Masturbator This vibrating masturbator features a warming function, 10 vibration modes, and 6 intensity levels. It's also rechargeable and fully waterproof.
Man Wand Original Vibrator The Man Wand brings the power of a vibrating wand, but in stroker form. This open-ended toy features a textured silicone sleeve, 8 vibe speeds, and 20 patterns.
Arcwave Ion Stroker The Ion uses air pressure on the frenulum of the penis to create intense pleasure manual strokers can't touch. Made from medical grade silicone, this thrust-free masturbator is lightweight, rechargeable, and waterproof for shower fun.
You said that TPE doesn't generally contain phthalates. What are phthalates, exactly?
Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastics softer and more durable. Also known as plasticizers, phthalates can be found in everything from plastic packaging to garden hoses. Phthalate particles can be ingested or breathed into the body, where they act like estrogen, disrupting the natural balance of hormones.
These chemicals can harm your reproductive health, contribute to obesity, and cause behavioral issues in children. They have been banned from use in children’s toys, but are still common in thousands of products, from makeup to food packaging.
Phthalates have been found in the lungs and bloodstream of the general US population, and are often used to make lower-quality, non body-safe sex toys.