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Toying with HPV – New Research on the Effectiveness of Cleaning Sex Toys

Source:

Teresa Anderson, et al., “A Study of Human Papillomavirus on Vaginally Inserted Sex Toys, Before and After Cleaning, among Women Who Have Sex with Women and Men,” Sexually Transmitted Infections (April 2014).

Description:

Researchers conducted a study to better understand the risk for transmission of human papillomavirus (HPV) which can cause genital warts as well as cervical or anal cancers (depending on the specific type of virus). They recruited twelve female university students who each consented to using two different types of vibrators and collecting vaginal and vibrator samples immediately after use, and also two times after cleaning the vibrator (immediately after cleaning and then 24 hours later). The researchers used a genotyping test to detect the presence of DNA from HPV in the vaginal and vibrator samples.

The two types of vibrator used in the study differed by composition: one was made of silicone and one was made of thermoplastic elastomer.

Key Findings:

  • HPV was detected in the vaginal swabs of 9 of the 12 women (75%).
     
  • For the 9 women whose vaginal swabs were HPV-positive, almost half of the swabs of the shafts of both types of vibrators were still HPV-positive immediately after cleaning with a commercially available cleaner.
     
  • Twenty four hours after cleaning, swabs from the vibrator made of thermoplastic elastomer were still positive for HPV in 40% of the samples taken from the women whose vaginal swabs were HPV-positive (that is, 2 samples out of 9).
     
  • HPV was no longer detectable in any swabs from the silicone vibrators after 24 hours had passed following cleaning.

Analysis:

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

“About 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV. About 14 million people become newly infected each year. HPV is so common that most sexually-active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.”[1]

Sexuality educators have long been concerned about the potential for penetrative sex toys, such as vibrators, to contribute to sexual transmission of several viruses and bacteria. Sex toy use is more common than many people believe. According to a large, nationally representative study of sexual behaviors, 52% of U.S. women and 44% of U.S. men have used a vibrator at least once in their lifetimes.[2],[3]

Despite heightened public awareness of HPV, thanks in part to the availability of vaccines such as Gardasil, “evidence-based recommendations for sex toy cleaning” are still lacking.[4] Without scientific guidance, sexuality educators may be missing opportunities to educate sex toy users to take the most effective precautions possible against HPV infection.

In this small-scale study, the researchers found that HPV could be detected on some vibrators even 24 hours after conventional cleaning. This suggests that, if penetrative sex toys are shared between partners, and one partner has HPV (whether or not they know they carry the virus), then condoms could help reduce the chance of transmission and should be used with toys.

There are still many unknowns about the true effectiveness of condoms when used with sex toys to prevent HPV or other STD transmission when toys are shared, but condoms will not harm, and can potentially help to reduce transmission of the extremely common human papillomavirus.

It is crucial that sexuality educators emphasize that sex toys in and of themselves are not a cause of infection: because of longstanding social taboos about discussing sex toys, some learners will rationalize their disapproval of sex toys by associating them with STDs if they do not understand the results of this study. Sexuality educators should be sure dispel the myth when discussing this research – and should also acknowledge the small size and other limitations of this particular study – to raise awareness without inciting panic among sex toy users. Normalizing the discussion of sex toys is likely to help normalize the use of STD protective measures among the many sex toy users of all ages in the U.S.


[1] U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Genital HPV Infection - Fact Sheet. CDC Web site. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm.

[2] Herbenick D, Reece M, Sanders SA, Dodge B, Ghassemi A, Fortenberry JD (2009). Prevalence and characteristics of vibrator use by women in the United States: results from a nationally representative study. Journal of Sexual Medicine (6) 1857-66. Accessed May 14, 2014 at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01318.x/abstract.

[3] Reece M, Herbenick D, Sanders SA, Dodge B, Ghassemi A, Fortenberry JD (2009). Prevalence and characteristics of vibrator use by men in the United States. Journal of Sexual Medicine (6) 1867-74. Accessed May 14, 2014 at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01290.x/abstract.

[4] Anderson TA, Schick V, Herbenick D, Dodge B, Fortenberry JD (2014). A study of human papillomavirus on vaginally inserted sex toys, before and after cleaning, among women who have sex with women and men, Sexually Transmitted Infections (April). Accessed May 14, 2014 at http://sti.bmj.com/content/early/2014/04/16/sextrans-2014-051558.abstract.

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