Sales of sex toys are booming, yet many contain toxic chemicals that are banned in children's toys. Is it possible to have your fun without damaging the environment? Catherine Townsend investigates

I've always tried to be an enlightened consumer: I recycle, buy organic and feel slightly less guilty about shelling out £3 for a latte when I see the "Fairtrade coffee" sign.

But I must confess that my eco-friendly attitude has always stopped at the bedroom door. Because even though sex toys have become almost as ubiquitous on drugstore shelves as headache tablets and sticking plasters, unlike other plastic items that humans put to biologically intimate use - like medical devices or chew-friendly children's toys - they have gone largely untested and unregulated.

Many popular erotic toys, including the ever-popular jelly rubber and cyberskin models, are made of polyvinyl chlorides (PVC), and softened with phthalates. But these chemicals have been criticised by the green lobby for the toxins released during their manufacture and disposal, and for leaching dangerous toxins into the body.

For example, PVCs produce dioxins when burnt, which are bioaccumulative and are known carcinogens and hormone disruptors. Phthalates are a group of chemicals that have been linked with cancer, kidney damage and hormonal disruption. They are not chemically bound to PVC, so over time they can leach out. Phthalates take a long time to degrade, or break down, in the environment. PVC processing causes significant releases into waste water and air.

This is why the US, Japan, Canada, and the European Union have banned phthalates in children's toys. Yet no research has been done on the long or short-term effect of adult toys.

But there are alternatives out there, so - in the interest of science - I decided to put a few more environmentally friendly options to the test.

According to experts, the most durable and safe materials for toys are silicone, glass, metal and Lucite. Silicone is a popular sex-toy material for many good reasons, including the fact that it's non-porous, hygienic, pliable, and comes in loads of colours and designs. Vibratex, the company that invented the Rabbit Habit vibrator, has also introduced new phthalate-free material to the market called Elastomer. It's soft and springy, and so a good choice for those who like the feel of jelly rubber but don't want the chemicals. Because it's latex-free, it can also be a good alternative for anyone with a latex allergy.

The Pixie Plus vibrator from www.lovehoney.co.uk (£39.99), is covered in nodules that make it resemble a hot pink sea urchin. Its soft, spongy coating is more pliable than similarly shaped silicone models - and it packed quite a punch, especially when used with the attached "vibrating egg". Its curve, and the hundreds of tickly bits, provide some amazing sensations.

While they are easier on your skin, unfortunately silicone and Elastomer don't decompose. Glass toys, on the other hand, are totally recyclable. The Tabooboo Glass Wand (£74) and www.sextoys.co.uk's Gold Aphrodite's Love dildo (£99.95), are both so gorgeous that they could easily double as modernist sculpture.

Both were fantastic. Though glass doesn't warm as quickly as silicone, they can be heated or cooled for different sensations - which can come in handy during freezing February nights. Though I'm not chucking out my Rabbit just yet, both toys are going to become my new bedroom staples - though they may be a bit heavy for taking on my travels to dirty weekends.

The only downside of glass products is that they don't come cheap, and can't be carelessly tossed around. Once they crack, they have to be thrown out of the bedroom, or possibly recycled as sexy paperweights!

It was time to test the metals, so I sampled the chrome Elysia Clit Stim vibrator (£50) from Ann Summers, which is also adorned with Swarovski crystals. Because it resembles a piece of jewellery as much as a vibrator, this is one vibe that would make a gorgeous - and non-intimidating - gift for a girlfriend. It's also perfect for throwing into your handbag "just in case".

Another eco-friendly option is the Elemental Pleasures Le Lynx vibrator from www.lovehoney.co.uk, which is made of medical-grade titanium and designed by ex-aircraft engineers. Starting at £159.99, it's pricey, but the site provides a "refurbishment" programme so that customers can get parts replaced for life.

Next up was the organic lubricant, which made me nervous because I have super-sensitive skin. The last time a partner applied some type of mint-flavoured lubricant to my nether regions, I felt like they exploded into flames. But I'm happy to report that the Bioglide Original Lube (£4.99), a water-based formula that bills itself as "the world's 100 per cent biological lubricant gel" was delightfully slippery yet completely non-irritating. I wasn't sure that something made for medical use could be sexy, but ended up being really impressed by its staying power - and it didn't stain my white sheets. Only complaint? The packaging is a bit bland. Maybe next time I'll try the strawberry flavour.

Spanking enthusiasts are also short of green options, since most paddles are made of leather or rubber. But Coco de Mer offers a Fairtrade wooden spanking paddle that has been ethically made in India. They also have a Bubble Paddle by Paul Seville (£69), the designer known for his collaborations with Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood, that leaves sweet little circular imprints on spanked skin. It's made of cowhide that is a by-product.

Nearing the end of my road test, it was time to try the toy that would give me the ultimate green street cred - the Solar Sensations vibrator (£13.18) from www.sextoys.co.uk. The completely rechargeable, solar-powered vibrator hails from California (of course!) and promised to liberate me from cords and batteries forever.

The box recommends leaving the toy on a window sill for five hours of daylight. But I think they meant five hours in California sunshine, not five hours in the soupy grey London fog, because when I tried to fire it up later that evening all I got was a purr.

So I parked the toy in the sill for a second day, and afterwards it delivered an impressive two-and-a-half hours of charge, with three different speed settings. The Solar Sensations definitely requires a bit more pre-planning than other toys, so it probably wouldn't be my choice for spur-of-the-moment sex. Then again, I didn't have to frantically comb the house for batteries and end up nicking them from the TV remote!

The most important thing I learnt from my road test was to ask questions, and not automatically assume that everything erotic is environmentally sound. From now on, I'll hopefully be thinking "organic" for my vibrators - not just my vegetables.

The hidden dangers of PVC

Campaigners have linked phthalates, used to soften PVC, to liver and kidney damage and testicular problems. Last year's ban on their use in children's toys was based on fears that phthalates could harm babies by leaking out of toys designed to be put in their mouths.

Studies on rats and mice suggest that exposure to phthalates could cause cancer, as well as damaging the reproductive system.

Minute levels of some phthalates have been linked to sperm damage in men, and this year, two published studies linked phthalate exposure in the womb and through breast milk to male reproductive issues.

When PVC is landfilled, phthalates can be leached out. These chemicals may then migrate through the soil and contaminate groundwater, according to Greenpeace.

A study in 2000 by German chemist Hans Ulrich Krieg found that 10 dangerous chemicals were emitted from some sex toys available in Europe, including diethylhexyl phthalates. Some had phthalate concentrations as high as 243,000 parts per million - a number deemed "off the charts" by Davis Baltz of the health advocacy group Commonweal.

Heat, agitation, and extended shelf life can accelerate the leaching of phthalates, especially since they are lipophilic (drawn to fat).

EU Health and Consumer Protection spokesman Torsten Muench said a study of levels of phthalates in sex toys failed to report any leakage of the chemicals. It did, however, show chemical levels in sex toys up to 20 times higher than the legal limit in baby toys.

WHERE TO FIND GREEN SEX TOYS

Bubble paddle by Paul Seville, Coco de Mer ( www.coco-de-mer.co.uk; 020-7836 8882)

Vibratex Pixie Plus, Bioglide Original Lube and Le Luxe Vibrator from www.lovehoney.co.uk

Tabooboo Glass Wand available either at the Tabooboo store, 12 Fouberts Place, Carnaby Street (020-7287 7643) or at

www.tabooboo.com

Solar Sensations solar-powered vibrator and Gold Aphrodite's Love double-ended dildo available at www.sextoys.co.uk

Elysia Clit Stim, Ann Summers ( www.annsummers.com)

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