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Industry Execs Assess ISO Guidelines, Recommendations for Pleasure Products

Industry Execs Assess ISO Guidelines, Recommendations for Pleasure Products

In October 2021, the International Organization for Standardization released design and safety requirements for the pleasure products industry. These requirements — formally named ISO 3533 — cover products designed to make direct contact with genitalia, the anus or both. Many retailers, manufacturers and educators in the industry celebrated the news. After years of working to educate the public about how to buy and use sex toys safely, concerns were suddenly being taken seriously by a respected international standards organization. Not only would this help ensure that the sex toys people purchase are both pleasurable and safe, but it also lends much-needed legitimacy to the pleasure products industry.

The ISO is a nonprofit organization headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland that develops and publishes standards for several industries, ranging from information technology to fluid dynamics and nuclear energy. Given that sex toys come into contact with the most intimate and sensitive parts of the body, industry experts around the world have been calling for official guidelines to be crafted for their quality assurance.

If we put a symbol of approval on our packaging, the customer knows that we have the proof to back it up.

The head of the German delegation responsible for the creation of ISO 3533 was Stefan Schröder, who serves as head of staff unit quality and conformity at Orion Wholesale. Björn Radcke, the company’s head of sales and marketing (B2B), touted Orion’s direct involvement with developing the standard.

“The aim of developing a safety standard for the quality of sex toys is, of course, to ensure greater safety in the manufacturing and use of sex toys in the long term and on a sustainable basis,” Radcke said.

International pleasure products brand We-Vibe also was involved in funding and establishing the ISO standard.

“Our goal is to bring sexual fulfillment and unparalleled pleasure to everyone, so ensuring that the products that we offer are safe is of the utmost importance,” said Johanna Rief, head of sexual empowerment for We-Vibe. “This helps create a positive user experience and can also further destigmatize the pleasure product industry. We are fighting to be taken as seriously as any other consumer electronics industry, and part of that is having standards and legal regulations.”

Yet even though pleasure products industry experts worked with the ISO to create these guidelines, it is difficult to force standardization upon any market that has already been thriving for decades without rules.

“Prior to this standard being published, manufacturers and retailers of sex toys could only use self-developed standards or use requirements from other standards with similar material and design,” said JFK Løvlien, creative partner at Stuffgoodies, an online retailer of adult products. “The success of setting the standard is riding on the manufacturers and other interested parties to adopt this standard and make it a useful tool for quality and safety all around the world. If not, the progress in general will be slow.”

Deborah Semer, the founder and CEO of Passionate Playground, offered some insight into the potential tribulations of non-regulated manufacturing.

“The term ‘adult novelty’ is the legal escape hatch that has allowed sex toys, accessories and lubes to be made with anything,” Semer shared. “This causes serious health problems such as chemical burns inside the body due to the chemical 'meltdown' of toxic materials mixed with body fluids, and lubes without safe storage or cleaning practices.”

PriveCo president Tom Nardone also expressed concern regarding the “mysterious materials” of some products and the ever-present “sold as a novelty only” disclaimer.

“It is time for everyone to admit what these products do and to realize that sexual health requires safe, high-quality products,” Nardone said.

According to Nardone, labeling pleasure products as “novelty” items trivializes concerns over safety. Additionally, not taking the quality of these products seriously can have the impact of pushing consumers away as well as harming the reputation of the industry in general.

“Not having quality safety standards leaves the industry open to be seen as an illegitimate industry that doesn't care about the end consumer,” said Tiffany Yelverton, founder of Entice Me Soirees. “It also allows anyone to enter the industry with no safety or quality control. Then when consumers purchase poor-quality products, it gives the entire industry a bad name.”

For instance, quality control in the airline and automotive industries not only makes sure consumers are protected as much as possible, but allows these industries to maintain a good reputation in case a disaster does happen.

Yelverton’s sentiment is echoed by Andy Green, CEO of Xgen Products.

“For new users in our industry, [lack of standards] could leave them with a bad experience if they purchase an item that was not tested and had an adverse reaction while using,” he said.

As such, clear standards and quality controls would help the industry maintain customers, who would be less likely to be driven away due to bad experiences.

Another significant reason why standards are needed involves health concerns, says Megan Swartz, the director of purchasing for Janra — parent company of Deja Vu, Suzie’s Boutique, Endless Romance, The Spot Boutique and Talk of the Valley — who was quick to point out the potential hazards of products manufacturing under no standards.

“Foremost, standardless products can be dangerous,” Swartz shared. “Hopefully, common-sense standards will help minimize hospital visits that lead to doctors using forceps to remove items from rectums that should have had a wider base.”

As Swartz pointed out, however, the bigger issue is not an object getting stuck, but how chemicals, liquid or solid, are absorbed into a body.

“When it comes to material safety, you don’t really see how items may be affecting your reproductive organs in the way you see how eating fast food daily affects your pant size,” she said.

One reason that the pleasure products industry has flown under the “adult novelty” banner for so long is because most consumers would not seriously talk about sex toys in public.

“This is finally happening now, but unfortunately, we had a long dark age where pleasure products were seen as something dirty and forbidden, and so no one was concerned about the safety standards, not even talking about that,” said Paolo Davide Griffo of Male Edge.

This is a societal norm that is changing, says Mark Ayckbourn, founding partner and COO of Wingpow International Ltd. and Concept to Consumer.

“Our industry and its brands are on the cusp of global mainstream acceptance,” Ayckbourn said. “We all have the responsibility to ensure that our products are manufactured to exceed all standards put in place.”

We-Vibe’s Johanna Rief says that the shift of mainstream’s acceptance of sexual wellness products for holistic wellbeing has played a role in the improvement in quality and safety.

“Because of this, the industry is being taken more seriously and societally accepted, therefore making product quality a larger focus for consumers,” she said. “Just like any other consumer electronic or wellness product, people are looking for assurances that what they are purchasing is safe, and this is even more important when the products are used on intimate areas.”

With sex toys becoming less taboo, the industry will only benefit from pushing for safety and quality.

DEVIL IN THE DETAILS: SPECIFICITY AND ENFORCEMENT GUIDELINES

An immediate criticism of the ISO’s new standards has been that they aren’t specific enough. JFK Løvlien of Stuffgoodies called for more detailed guidelines, pointing out that “the standard is limited to products intended to be in direct contact with genitalia, the anus, or both and this is very general.”

Nu Sensuelle Chief Strategy Officer Patrick Lyons said that although adhering to new safety guidelines can be vexing for some manufacturers, it is a necessary step and “one that manufacturers should have been considering well before this standard was introduced.”

“Most manufacturers try to produce products and adhere to proper safety processes, but there are concerns where manufacturers miss on labeling the product correctly,” he added. “Too many times we hear ‘medical grade silicone’ or ‘waterproof,’ but when tested, the product fails. It is time to give credit to those manufacturers that take the added step to test their products with independent labs to ensure the product is properly produced and the marketing message is correct.”

While there is no way to enforce guidelines and doing so may be challenging, Løvlien said that he believes that stepping up to adopt the standard and making it a useful tool for quality and safety could benefit the industry all around the world.

Uberlube Brand Manager Cheryl Sloane says she predicts the standard will create a two-tier system, one in which “manufacturers already adhering to most of these guidelines will continue to do so, [and] the ones who aren't will most likely not change.”

There are concerns surrounding companies that outsource their manufacturing and may know firsthand that the factories they use are following the guidelines.

“There are still many manufacturers who use third-party facilities that do not understand the safety [and] manufacturing procedures,” Wingpow International’s Ayckbourn said. “It was only a few years ago that I saw pictures taken from our website on a trade show stand by a business pretending to have their products manufactured in our private facility. There are several very good manufacturers in this industry, but there are also many ‘middle businesses’ who state they are the manufacturer when they are not.”

This creates an opportunity for a company to, intentionally or unintentionally, claim that its products adhere to ISO’s standards, even though the third party to which the company outsourced did not.

The implementation of quality control and safety standards is often seen as neutral. After all, all companies are equally impacted. Yet as Antony Davis, a senior affiliated scholar at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, points out, enforced standards tend to benefit larger companies at the expense of smaller and newer ones.

“It turns out that big business often loves regulation, because the regulations frequently end up applying only to small or disfavored businesses,” Davis said. “Ultimately, more regulations simply mean more ways for big business to manipulate the law to shut out competition.”

Regarding the adult toys and pleasure products industry, implementation of ISO 3533 would create economic barriers for some companies. The concern that rules might cause financial hardships was not lost on Tom Nardone of PriveCo.

“I definitely think guidelines should be implemented, but whether some of the smaller companies can do that is to be seen,” Nardone said. “There is a lot of expense associated with these certifications, so smaller companies may struggle.”

Nardone is not alone in his concern. For many leaders, the economic downside of enforcement is the biggest issue. As Xgen’s Andy Green shared, “The main challenge I feel will be the expense. Not everyone is going to be able to handle this.”

Alex Fima echoed Green’s point, highlighting that tightening standards will always add overhead costs to a company.

“I think it would take a manufacturer with an established quality system about 12 months to include it into an existing system — much longer if starting from scratch,” he said. “It’s a substantial undertaking by a manufacturing organization to comply with internal manufacturing standards. To comply, a manufacturing organization must have a set of guidelines that organize and devise process guides, internal standards and procedures, work instructions and checklists that define your overall operation. Then you have an outside third-party auditor you pay to come and write up any finds or failures of your own systems. It’s all recorded and documented, with a system of correction and prevention that manifests continuous improvement in an organization. It all makes for a superior organization, without a doubt. It requires discipline and adds a lot of company overhead costs, from employee training to record maintenance. It takes time to practice and implement a quality standard like ISO 3533.”

Or as Johanna Rief of We-Vibe stated, implementing standards “isn’t impossible, but it does require monetary and time investments that can’t be achieved overnight.”

She added, “However, given the intimate nature of the products, it should be in everyone’s best interest to establish the minimum amount of safety guidelines. With the ISO standards, consumers will be able to make informed choices and that will consequently also guide manufacturers.”

EDUCATING CONSUMERS

The food industry has been required to make sure end products are safe to consume and of an acceptable quality. Despite decades of regulation and labels customers can read on a package, most people don’t understand what the labels actually mean. As USA Today reported in 2016, “the U.S. has a confused consumer epidemic — more shoppers are seeking foods labeled ‘natural’ despite not fully understanding what the claim means.” A primary reason for this is that consumers have not been educated to understand labels documenting production processes and ingredients. Similarly, the adult toys and pleasure products industry will face the challenges of having to teach consumers what ISO’s standards are and how they impact the product.

COTR Sales Director Kimberly Scott Faubel says that in addition to complying with international safety standards and testing, manufacturers should consider the usability of pleasure products and how they are conveying that information to users.

“Without the proper guidance and education to support the product itself, folks may not understand why a product has a certain shape or even where it’s supposed to go,” she said.

Uberlube Brand Manager Cheryl Sloane says consumers don’t have access to the information they need about safety in this industry, and many others are too afraid to ask. “It’s our job as a community to educate the consumer,” she said. “From the first-time buyer to the collector, everyone has something to learn.”

Although information around sex toy safety is increasingly making its way into mainstream media, it’s likely that most consumers don’t even know the basics. Available data suggest that about 40% of women and 60% of men have used a sex toy; however, there is little information available regarding their knowledge around phthalates, flared bases and which lubricants can be used with which toys. The general state of sex education in the U.S. suggests many people are likely in the dark. In fact, one of the key reasons ISO 3533 got off the ground at all was thanks to a Swedish surgeon who had retrieved an awful lot of sex toys from people’s orifices. This suggests many people use pleasure products in unsafe ways because of a lack of education.

“It is not realistic to expect consumers to know how to properly and safely use every sex toy they purchase, which is why ISO standards are so important,” Johanna Rief said. “By creating products that already have these safety measures in place, we are circumventing these problems before they can even occur.

“The ISO standard, for example, lists materials to be avoided in the design and manufacturing process, such as phthalates, alkyl phenols or cadmium, so that customers can be sure that all products are body-safe,” she added.

One interesting aspect about ISO 3533 is its requirements around user information. ISO 3533 includes specifics about what user information must be included with products to help ensure they are used safely. For sex toy retailers and manufacturers, education will be key in helping to promote ISO 3533 and its value to consumers.

“If consumers know how to identify key consumer markings, they will come to better value that manufacturer and the products they make,” says Alex Fima of The Thruster. “Consumers need to be informed and educated as to what to look for in their sex toys. In the future, I am sure they will be looking for ISO 3533 quality compliance.”

What does this mean for manufacturers and retailers? Not only is ISO 3533 key to promoting sex toy safety, but it also presents an opportunity for companies to promote and position their brands as industry leaders.

“In the future, we will clearly communicate this on our packaging, making it clear to customers that our products are manufactured according to the highest current standards and that we, as manufacturers, are aware of our responsibility toward the consumer,” says Björn Radcke of ORION Wholesale. “We are also currently updating our B2B online shop with corresponding material descriptions, as well as markings and symbols.”

Consumers’ ability to understand products and how they are made is complicated by the fact that they are manufactured and sold all over the world. Different companies can not only have widely different audiences, they may pull resources from different suppliers and manufacturers as well as be based in different countries. These and other reasons would impact how an end product is labeled.

The Thruster’s Alex Fima touched upon this issue when discussing consumer awareness.

“Consumers can’t make a completely informed decision without having the detailed label and descriptions proposed in ISO 3533,” he said. “One vendor has medical-grade silicone, another has body-safe silicone — there are technical details that would be valuable information for consumers.”

Like many others, though, Fima does believe these standards will have a positive impact in the long run.

“It may take some time for awareness to develop but it’s better for the industry growth to address design and safety,” he said.

WHAT THE CUSTOMER WANTS, THE INDUSTRY GIVES

As consumers have become savvier shoppers, they’ve played a significant role in driving manufacturers to improve the quality of pleasure products with their demand for safer materials and ingredients. When the public became aware of the health risks associated with phthalates, which are chemicals that can still be found in consumer products but have been banned for children’s items, sex toy manufacturers followed suit.

“I think as consumers became more informed, manufacturers were held more accountable for the products that they were putting out into the marketplace,” Screaming O Creative Director Gideon Perez said. “And this is thanks in large part to the work of sex educators and other consumer advocates. A lot of manufacturers had no choice but to listen, learn and adjust the way they did business to best serve the customers who put their trust in them.”

Nu Sensuelle’s Patrick Lyons says that he’s seen the industry grow tremendously over the past five years. He credits the growth to the industry’s catering to specific kinks, as well as all the sexual practices in between, with better-quality products.

“This shift has provided consumers with a level of assurance that the products they are using adhere to these guidelines — in some cases even prior to the guidelines’ existence,” he said.

PriveCo’s Tom Nardone credits consumers with improvements in materials, also noting that manufacturers can do more to ensure product safety and offer transparency to boost consumer trust.

“We should know what type of batteries are in our toys, we should know what all the materials we come in contact with are, and I would prefer if we had standards for the grade/quality of silicone,” he said.

Added into this new consumer consciousness, Alex Fima from The Thruster reminds us that it’s also “reviewers and influencers” who put companies on notice to “comply with consumer requests,” as now all products and services are susceptible to the ubiquitous good review as much as the bad.

He adds, “Now, with ISO 3533, we will again move toward standardizing the information on the packages.”

In addition to the public knowing more about product safety and sexual wellness than ever before, consumer buying habits have also evolved. Since the beginning of the global pandemic, the adult retail industry has seen shifts and trends spark with many buyers wanting to spend more on their intimate toys.

“More consumers are questioning materials and asking specific questions about products they consider for purchase,” said Megan Swartz of Janra. “Manufacturers have correspondingly become better at labeling, training and providing other materials to better represent safety and quality information pertaining to their products. It’s no longer a risk for a manufacturer to create a high-end line, which are now coming out nearly every month. It’s the same reason that people are willing to pay $10 for a premium cup of coffee.”

This significant consideration of a more refined taste in toys, coffee and more can’t be overlooked in our “you get what you pay for” world. If the consumer is demanding better — and yes, pricier — options with something like a smartphone, why wouldn’t they want the same with those items that they rub against or insert into their private parts?

“Safety and quality have improved, especially in the past 10 years, with some manufacturers,” Entice Me Soirees' Tiffany Yelverton said. “I believe customers are demanding higher quality, which has led to a new breed of body-safe, non-toxic products hitting the market.”

Another piece of the pie is the increased availability of sex education from experts online as well as trained retail staff in stores. According to Swartz, manufacturers have supported the movement for consumer-friendly education by improving their labeling and product training.

“Manufacturers [are] providing other materials to represent better safety and quality information pertaining to their products,” she said.

Reflecting on her nearly 20 years in the adult retail industry rooted in brick-and-mortar, COTR’s Kim Faubel also believes that having access to educators and educational content has emboldened store employees to share the information with shoppers — especially when it can close a sale.

“We understood the sticker shock and knew that we could help inform our guests about the difference between materials, the benefit of longevity, and the proper care for these body-safe investments they were now considering,” she said.

According to Uberlube’s Cheryl Sloane, the effectiveness of ISO 3533 will likely continue to depend on retailers.

“That's where customer education lives,” she said. “Both online and brick-and-mortar stores will have an impact on delivering these standards to the consumer in easy-to-understand language.”

With better education comes the lessening of the stigmatization surrounding sex toys. In the end, might this be where we have all “evolved” for the betterment of the industry?

“The conversation around sex-related topics has finally become mainstream, and normalizing the talk and use of sex toys has greatly contributed to the adoption of such improved standards,” Paolo Davide Griffo of Male Edge says. “Sex toys are now seen as fancy accessories, with beautiful shapes and high-tech functions; they are sold by pharmacies and supermarkets and advertised on the subway. “Normalizing them and bringing them out of the closet has certainly impacted on the new quality standards.”

ENSURING SAFETY

Today’s most popular pleasure product manufacturers wouldn’t have become as well known and trusted by producing items that were poorly made or hazardous. Companies often tout the comprehensive testing that their products undergo.

“All electronic items are put through rigorous tests at independent, third-party labs. These are the same labs that major mainstream companies use,” Xgen Products CEO Andy Green said. “These tests are not cheap, sometimes upwards of $10,000 per item, but to do it right you have to invest in the item and brand. If we put a symbol of approval on our packaging, the customer knows that we have the proof to back it up.”

Uberlube is an FDA-registered medical device made in conformity to Good Manufacturing Practice regulations of the Food and Drug Administration. According to Cheryl Sloane, the company’s brand manager, “GMP regulations, which have the force of law, require that manufacturers take proactive steps to ensure their products are safe, pure and effective.”

In addition to being made without any toxic preservatives, Uberlube is biostatic and will not harbor yeast, bacteria or mold. Sloane explains how safety is built into the lube’s dispenser.

“Made at our factory in Skokie, Illinois, the crimped bottle does not open so that Uberlube is not exposed to air and other hazards,” she said. “Every pump brings the same premium-quality formula.”

Long before Orion Wholesale was involved in establishing ISO’s safety guidelines for pleasure products, Björn Radcke said, the manufacturer developed its own “Orion Standard” for quality in cooperation with renowned laboratories.

“We looked at chemical and physical aspects of the E.U. Toy Safety Directive and the associated standard EN 71 and adapted these standards for our products,” he said. “The first stress tests for love balls or phthalate-free PVC were defined as benchmarks by Orion. These benchmarks were largely adopted into the new standard.”

Radcke said that Orion also independently tests its products and B2B customers receive all the information and necessary certificates.

Known for its proprietary motors engineered by co-founder and chief innovation officer Thao Luu-Brinberg, Nu Sensuelle takes its safety seriously as it has a vested interest in its manufacturing plant.

“We know exactly every component and process used in the manufacturing of all Nu Sensuelle products,” Patrick Lyons said. “Before the initial launch of a product, it is tested by an independent lab and dissected from the inside out. Although we expect and communicate the proper ways to use a toy, we also know consumers may attempt to use that product outside the recommended guidelines and therefore, we conduct usage tests to identify possible issues or concerns. Our proprietary silicone has been tested for phthalates and other possible issues, but we also conducted a temperature stress test to ensure the material does not degrade due to extreme heat or cold. These tests are costly but are also necessary.”

Deborah Semer of Passionate Playground explained her hands-on approach to ensuring the safety of her company’s flagship product, the Joyboxx + Playtray, a body-safe cleaning and storage solution that safely stores sex toys.

“I use real scientists and lab testing, require a chain-of-custody paper trail for our high-grade materials, and I personally go to the factory and observe the materials and manufacturing, QC and assembly process with each batch,” she said. “Then, I test again and improve the process.”

Johanna Rief explained that most of We-Vibe's products are ISO 3533-compliant in terms of design and material, including Chorus, Melt and Nova 2, as well as We-Vibe Bond, the latest addition to the brand’s product portfolio.

“Given the intimate nature of our products and their use, their safety and quality has always been a priority for us,” Rief said. “We hope that the entire industry is going to take this new standard into consideration from now on when designing their products. We are ready to lead by example and shape the future of our industry. This is a major factor in why we decided to participate in funding these standards from the jump.”

In addition to rigorous third-party testing to ensure the safety of its materials, COTR also tests its products to verify that they and their packaging will not be damaged in transit. Nevertheless, COTR’s Kimberly Scott Faubel says that the company is thinking about safety early in the development process.

“We design our products so that they work properly with the body and adhere to proper standards for use, like ensuring that every butt plug has the proper size base for example,” she said.

In 2015, Screaming O worked with an FDA-accredited independent lab to develop a materials testing panel that closely mimics Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act testing.

“This included FTIR spectroscopic analysis to identify the material type, X-ray fluorescence screen for any toxic metals, and a gas chromatography-mass spectrometry screen to identify any toxic organic compounds,” Screaming O’s Gideon Perez said. “Since there hasn’t been any sort of regulations or quality standards for our industry, this was and still is our way of self-regulating to ensure that safety is the last thing our customers need to worry about when it comes to our products.”

Retailers also are doing their part to ensure that consumers only purchase safe, quality products. Janra’s Megan Swartz said that the stores that she oversees don’t believe in pushing guests to low-end products to save them money.

“We believe in educating guests on the value of the products and brands with emphasis on the materials used, and that’s why our sales usually revolve around high-end products,” she said.

Adult retailers will vet the items carried in their stores to offer a curated selection of quality products. Entice Me Soirees' Tiffany Yelverton explained how she too puts in effort to ensure her customers' safety and satisfaction.

“I vet each of the manufacturers that are carried in my carefully curated product line, not just for materials, but for manufacturing processes and raw material procurement,” she said. “I also put new products through a variety of tests for quality. If any one product has more than five warranty issues, the product is pulled from our product line.

In addition to limiting PriveCo’s selection to items made from body-safe materials, Tom Nardone noted, the company involves customers.

“We get immediate customer feedback through our satisfaction guarantee and if we hear of any safety issues, we immediately contact the manufacturer,” he said.

JFK Løvlien also says that his retail site Stuffgoodies only carries products from established, trusted brands, and keeps his customers armed with product knowledge.

“We also offer in-depth information about the products and how to use them correctly in our blog,” he said. “We also make sure that the customer has a clear product description and we have implemented additional information in our store about the use of sex toys in general and customer awareness about the ISO development. This will make the customer look for the ISO mark on the products and make them more astute.”

The introduction of ISO’s safety and health standard is a testament to how far the pleasure products industry has come. The fact that ISO 3533 is voluntary doesn’t mean that today’s manufacturers won’t feel compelled to offer top-notch quality — many of them already are, and they are the ones that have brought the industry to this point of growth and acceptance. Consumers and manufacturers alike are welcoming the legitimization of the sexual wellness industry, even if it means doing their own due diligence.

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