by Matt Button
Looking for a packer and want to know more about what they're made of? This article offers some pros and cons about different packer and prosthetic materials, with a special eye toward the product needs of trans guys and non-binary folks.
When searching for the right soft packer, there are a lot of variables to consider before making a purchase. What size should I get? Can I find something to match my skin tone? How much money do I want to spend? Can I pack this thing comfortably? How realistic does it look? How does it feel to the touch?
Maybe you found a packer that satisfies the appearance, feeling, and size you are going for, as well as your budget. There is one more question you might want to ask before pulling the trigger. Is the packer I choose going to make me sick? This might not be the first thought to jump into your head when shopping for a prosthetic—but it is a topic to consider seriously.
The Truth About "Adult" Toy Labeling
Many (but not all) soft packers are made by adult toy companies. Adult toy companies have been making items that look like penises for years, so in some ways it is a natural progression that they have also come to produce soft packers.
The adult toy industry, however, is largely unregulated, meaning that there are no rules as to what types of chemicals might be used in the production of so-called "adult novelty" items.** Chemicals like phthalates* (softeners used to make plastics flexible), heavy metals used in pigments, and toxic filler ingredients that can leech as an item degrades—these substances abound in the world of adult novelties... especially in the world of cheap items. Because there is little regulation around these items, companies are not required to disclose what chemicals might be lurking in their products. In fact, some disreputable companies will intentionally mislabel products in order to make them seem safer or more appealing to consumers.
It gets even more complicated when there is misunderstanding about packer materials being passed along by those who mean well, but don't yet have a handle on the terminology. For example, sometimes packer materials are mislabeled or incorrectly described on popular blogs or review sites.
So, what can we do to do to keep ourselves safe from potentially toxic or irritating materials? The best thing to do is to educate yourself about the various packers available on the market today, and make your product choices with an eye toward the pros and cons of each material. When starting your research, look to reputable, knowledgeable voices within the adult industry, and within the prosthetics manufacturing community, who have been strong advocates for material safety and transparency in labeling.
At Trans Tool Shed, we seek out products from manufacturers that are committed to quality, and make an effort to clarify information about materials as much as possible. Again, because the industry is largely unregulated, it is impossible to verify the claims of every product on the market, but certain companies have made a serious effort to put material safety at the top of their priority list.
Silicone or Not? The Pros and Cons
There are a lot of different material formulations on the market today, and some are better suited for certain kinds of products than others. Most folks have heard the term "silicone" tossed around a lot, especially when talking about professionally-made prosthetics, or higher-end, quality products by companies such as Vixen Creations (makers of VixSkin silicone), Number One Labs, or New York Toy Collective.
In many ways, silicone is an ideal material for making flexible-yet-firm packers that can be also used for sexual penetration (so called "pack-and-play" type packers), as well as some STP (Stand To Pee) packers (packers that can also be used to urinate while standing). Silicone is very chemically stable (meaning it doesn't degrade and release toxins into your or your partner's body during normal use), it is non-porous (meaning it doesn't have pores big enough to harbor most sexually transmitted bacteria), and it is incredibly easy to clean—you can even boil silicone to sanitize it.
Silicone can also be cast in different formulations to give different levels of softness and flexibility. The "durometer" of silicone is a measure of how hard it is, and silicone can be created with a very skin-like feel. Very soft silicone gels can also be used in higher-end prosthetics as a squishy layer under a slightly firmer silicone skin. A combination of firmer silicones and silicone gels can be great for creating the feel of floating testicles inside a scrotum, for example.
Silicone, being very stable, does not degrade, bloat, or "sweat" like some other materials. If taken care of properly, a silicone packer can last a lifetime. Silicone's two main enemies are silicone-based lubricants (which can degrade the surface), and tearing—a small nick in a silicone packer from a zipper, or from too much friction against a rough seam, can cause a big tear down the road.
So why not make everything in silicone, you might wonder? After all, who doesn't want a non-toxic, easy-to-clean packer with a life-like feel? Well, one drawback of silicone is that it can get a little pricey, especially when producing very realistic feeling, softer creations. The process of making something like squishy, moveable testicles that feel different from a packer's shaft, for example, usually involves a multi-step silicone production process, expensive material blends, and a lot of labor. Color detailing on silicone packers (adding subtle shading on the head and veins, for example) is also a labor-intensive process, which can also raise costs.
Silicone is also a dense material by its nature. Even when formulated into a very skin-like durometer, a packer made from a solid, single-cast silicone doesn't always have quite the same "squeezability" and lightness as some of the other materials used in, say, cheaper soft packers.
Indeed, the "squeezeability" factor is one reason why soft packers are often made out of non-silicone materials, like elastomers, rubbers, or polymer/oil blends. (Note: I'm using the term "non-silicone" here as a catch-all term to refer to a wide variety of different materials other than silicones that are used to create soft, skin-like items.) These kind of products will often have trade names like "soft skin" or "cyberskin," etc. Such materials tend to be very soft and flexible, which is why they can feel quite realistic as a flaccid penis or testes, in the case of soft packers.
As a general rule, non-silicone packers are less expensive than their silicone counterparts, which can be great for someone on a budget. It can also be easier/cheaper to add color detailing to certain non-silicone materials, which means that you can find very realistic looking non-silicone pack-and-play type items (with painted veins and head shading) for much lower prices than hand-painted silicone prosthetics.
Packers made from non-silicone materials do have their drawbacks, however. They are typically porous items, meaning that their surface will harbor bacteria and dirt from the second you take them out of the wrapper. There is absolutely no way of sanitizing porous soft packers or cyberskin-type items!
Soft, non-silicone packers will get dirty and wear out more quickly. Depending on the chemical makeup, they may shrink, become misshapen, leave little footprints of oil behind wherever you set them down, or begin to devolve into a gooey mess over time. When these kind of materials degrade, they may irritate the skin if left in direct contact with the body.
Non-silicone pack-and-play items being used for sexual play should always be covered with a condom to protect your partner from issues caused by bacterial transmission, such as itching, burning, and potential issues like urinary tract infections (or STIs if you happen to use the pack-and-play with more than one partner). Depending on the company who makes the product, there may be chemicals such as phthalates*** that could leech from the packer onto your or your partner's skin, causing potential irritation or other health issues. While wrapping a pack-and-play in a condom might help against transferring bacteria, a condom will likely not be sufficient to protect against chemical leeching.
Make an Informed Choice
As you can see, there are pros and cons to different materials, but only you can decide which is right for your situation. The best you can do is arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible, and then make your choice based on your specific needs and limitations.
For example, you might decide that you want to choose a 100% silicone pack-and-play or erect prosthetic for sexual play, knowing it will be easy to keep clean and won't give the unwanted gift of mystery chemicals to your partner! But you might also decide that an inexpensive, phthalate-free elastomer soft packer will work for your everyday packing or STP needs, knowing that you can keep the packer in a jock or pocket-style harness so that it doesn't irritate your skin. Every individual's needs and concerns are different, so the "right" or "best" solution for one person may differ from another person's choice.
The Future Looks Bright
Fortunately, there has been an increase in affordable, body-safe, realistic packer and prosthetic options over the last 7 or 8 years. A few quality-oriented companies have stepped up to produce an array of sizes and skin color choices. A number of artisans are also producing incredibly realistic, high-end, medical-grade prosthetics. And stand-to-pee packers have seen serious leaps forward, with some truly innovative designs (and improvements on old designs) that have been released in the last few years.
At the same time, there has been a growing movement toward education around "adult novelty" materials in general, and many companies are beginning to take the issue of body safety more seriously.
Obviously, we have a way to go on both fronts—we need innovative product designs with an eye toward consumer safety and environmental sustainability. Hopefully, by continuing to ask the right questions and push for better options, the industry—and our options as trans and non-binary people—will continue to change for the better.
** I use the term "adult novelty" in quotes throughout this article here because it is how many products that look like a penis and testicles are routinely labeled on their packaging. I think it is important to acknowledge here, however, that for trans and non-binary folks, these products are not "novelties" at all-- they often serve as prosthetics to make use feel more at home in our bodies, and are an important part of the daily lives of many of us. The use of "novelty item" to describe anything related to human sexuality has a long and problematic history, and I hope to make that the subject of a future blog post!
*** Phthalates are chemical softeners that have been linked in some studies to endocrine disruption and cancer.
A previous version of this article was published several years ago in FTM Magazine's NSFW issue. The original article has been edited to reflect updates since the time of publication.