Hello, and welcome to Crip Sex Tips. Ages ago I spent a long time looking for information about sexuality relevant to my disabilities — and didn’t find it. (Seriously. Hours and hours scouring the internet. And — crickets.) After much trial and error, and collecting tiny snippets of info from various sources, and many conversations with other crips — I eventually I decided to write this stuff up myself, hoping it’ll help others gazing in dismay at their search engine results.
Today let’s talk about multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). (Peggy Munson has a good succinct summary of what MCS is; scroll down to the bottom of this web page.) Most folks with MCS enjoy having sex — though you wouldn’t know it by internet search results! — but we have a bunch of access issues that do need addressing. If you are an MCS person, or someone involved with one, here are some things to consider re: sexy times, and suggested solutions:
1. Scents and airborne chemicals in the environment
In order to ensure that the MCS person can breathe well and not break out into itchy rashes, make sure the space in which you’re having sex is well ventilated, that there are no scents added (so definitely no air fresheners or scented candles, please; but essential oils can also be a problem for a bunch of MCS folks), and that the sheets and every fabric thing on the bed (if you are having sex in a bed) have been washed multiple times in unscented, natural laundry detergent. Most newly bought clothes and other fabric items (sheets, pillow covers, duvets, etc.) are not safe for MCS folks straight out of the package; often chemicals from production (like, formaldehyde) cling to them. Also, avoid having sex in a space that includes new furniture, new items made from plastic, PVC, or neoprene — most of that stuff off-gasses intensely. If the air in the only space you have access to is imperfect, a good air purifier with a carbon filter can be be a lovely sex accessory. (Though there are limits to how much an air purifier can help, and how fast. I wouldn’t recommend trying to use one to a make a freshly painted space safe for an MCS person.)
2. Body care
If you are having sex with someone with MCS, I strongly suggest not using any scented body products before getting together with your lover, and washing your hands thoroughly with unscented soap before putting them anywhere inside our bodies. (Obviously, also obtain consent.) Because if it’s been a while since hand-washing, chances are your hands have picked up something that could cause a bad reaction. And ask your partner which body care products or ingredients are access-compromising for them, and what kind of body care they need you to do before seeing them.
Holy fuck, I did a lot of online research about MCS-safe lube. Tens of hours’ worth. At the end of which, I gave up in despair (you really wouldn’t know how much many MCS folks like having sex by the kinds of websites that cater to us) and trudged to my local sex shop, where a nice, sex-knowledgeable, but sadly non-MCS-having person tried giving me suggestions. I came home with 2 different natural lubes, both of which caused me (mild-ish, but still) reactions. Mild enough that I didn’t need medical aftercare, but painful enough that I gave up on lube altogether for a while.
Eventually, after much research and money spent, I struck gold, so I want to share my hard-won wisdom with you:
— Buy lube that has very few ingredients. That way you can control the possible reactivity better.
— Ideally, none of those ingredients should be glycerin or preservatives or, G-d forbid, scents or flavours. (Note: glycerin is usually quite bad for vaginas. But theoretically you could use lube with glycerin for ass sex.)
— If there are herbal additives, even if they are ‘natural’, ‘medicinal’, and/or ‘organic’, consider staying away from that lube. There is a decent chance that you could react to one of the herbs — plus sometimes irritating herbs are deliberately added to lube to create extra sensation. For MCS folks (and folks with scarring) that sensation might sadly be ‘stings like fuck’, so I advise against horny goat weed and other such ingredients.
— So far my favourites are Oceanics and H2O, both made by Sliquid. Oceanics is made with aloe vera, a few gentle herbal extracts, and some seaweed. I laughed about the seaweed (it’s supposed to be ‘nourishing’ for vaginas??), but it is pH-balancing, and non-irritating. H2O has a shorter ingredient list; it’s basically water, guar gum, cellulose, and citric acid. Try this one if you are super sensitive/allergic to many many things; it’s pretty pure. Sadly, both of these are not sold at Toronto’s Good for Her — where you can check lubes out in person. So far the cheapest place I’ve found to buy them is Pink Cherry — where it costs 18.99 CAD, plus tax & shipping, for a 255 ml bottle of H2O, and 22.99+ CAD for Oceanics of the same size. Yes, that’s the cheap price. (If you’re poor, I recommend waiting for their Boxing Day sale when everything gets a deeep discount.) If you live in Toronto, I recently learned The Nookie (at College & Ossington) carries both of these. $24 + HST for H2O, and $28+ for Oceanics — but no shipping fees.
— Sliquid also makes an ass-sex-specific lube (basically, thicker, less likely to drip) called Sassy Booty, which other MCS folks have advised online has a more noticeable scent. So if you are scent-sensitive, I suggest staying away from that one.
— Of the supposedly ‘really gentle’ lubes I’ve tried Hawthor Aphrodisia and Sliquid Organics Botanically Infused Natural Lubricant, and I don’t recommend either one for delicate MCS flesh.
— If you are poor and your skin isn’t super-sensitive, professional medical lube might work for you. It’s unscented, and hella cheaper than the natural brands I was just discussing. One of my partners, who also has MCS, recommends Jedmon Lubricating Jelly. Currently $2.93 for a 140g tube at Starkmans. (Mind you, it includes parabens as preservatives, and doesn’t list all its ingredients, so only use this one if you know you’re not that sensitive. It is purer and gentler than most fancy (non-MCS-safe) sex shop lubes — and cheaper, and unscented — but not as gentle as some of us need.)
— If you are a DIY kind of person, you could try making your own lube or sourcing it from kitchen ingredients. Coconut and olive oils can both be used as lube — though please keep in mind that they are not silicone- or latex-safe, so cannot be used with latex barrier methods, or silicone sex toys. Alternately, you could try this recipe: Mix 1/4 tsp of guar gum, xantham gum or slippery elm bark powder with 1/4 cup water and let stand 15 minutes. This lube will be latex-safe, though it keeps only a few days, so you may need to pre-plan your sex.
4. Safer sex barrier methods
Most MCS folks can handle using condoms, dams, and gloves. If you are allergic to latex, there are some non-latex barriers available out there. The Skyn brand, for example, is latex-free. Also, if you need your condoms to be vegan, this is a comprehensive review of your options. Be aware that some non-latex options off-gas significantly, so latex can be the best choice if it is safe for you.
Also, if you have lube allergy issues, keep in mind that most condoms these days come pre-lubricated. (Often, the only time they’re not lubricated, they’re flavoured.) This is because when used with lube, condoms break less often, and sometimes folks can’t be bothered to add lube, so the manufacturers do. (To improve their non-breakage statistics, I’m guessing.) If you look hard enough, you can find unlubricated and unflavoured condoms in the regular size — e.g. Toronto’s Hassle-Free Clinic gives away Trustex brand dry condoms — but if you need non-standard (large or small) condoms, you’re shit out of luck. According to my many hours of research, there are no large-size condoms without lube* available from any brand, including via mail order. (If you know differently, please get in touch, with a link!) And the lubed ones never list their ingredients.
(*Except for one unlubed-but-flavoured kind. EXS Mixed Flavoured is the one brand of flavoured large condoms that I know of. Though, realistically, many of us are allergic to artificial flavours, and won’t benefit from this information.)
If you are having penetrative sex with someone with a non-standard penis size, and you are allergic to some/all of the standard lubes, your best option is likely becoming fluid-bonded with that partner. Alternately, you two could decide to not have sex where the penis goes into any of your openings, or try this long shot: Richard Branson’s brand of condoms has a large-size version with ‘specially formulated’ vegan lube. It might potentially be gentler on your body than the standard commercial lube. Locally, Good For Her stocks these condoms.
And about dental dams: there are not that many dams that are formulated specifically for sex (the most widely available of these is, I think, the Sheer Glyde Dam) — and many of those have flavour and/or corn starch added. You can buy the ones that dentists use — which are unflavoured, but thicker than the sex-formulated ones — which can lessen sensitivity and responsiveness. Likely easier, cheaper options are cutting open a (regular size) dry condom, or using plastic wrap. (There is a debate on whether microwaveable plastic wrap is safe for oral sex. So far, no conclusions have been reached, because all the studies done so far that might be relevant have not addressed all the issues specific to oral sex. If you can find non-porous, non-microwaveable wrap, that might be the best bet. Otherwise — slit dry condoms.)
5. Sex toys
The main problem here will be items that off-gas. Stay away from toys made with PVC or ‘jelly’, as they off-gas terribly. Silicone is generally safe for MCS folks — but read the fine print on websites and item packaging; sometimes that fine print tells you that an item listed just as ‘silicone dildo’ is really made with ‘silicone and PVC’. Glass toys from high-end manufacturers are great — not at all bendy, which can be a limitation, but otherwise very safe to use. My favourite are toys from Spartacus — their glass is of really good quality, the toys are hand-made, and I spoke with a sex shop worker who told me that they’ve personally tested those toys by throwing them against brick columns, and they survived, unchipped. Metal gets very mixed reviews from MCS folks — so pay attention to how your body reacts to metal toys, especially insertables. Do you feel nauseous, fatigued, does the pH of your body change?
For blindfolds, whips, restraints, and the like, always look at the list of what the item is made with — and where possible, be prepared to wash them a bunch of times before using, or leave outside on a balcony to off-gas for a few weeks. Again, PVC, neoprene, and ‘jelly’ are not your friends here. Often, neither is leather. Because of how it is processed, newly made leather items often off-gas a ton of VOCs (volatile organic compounds — toxic chemicals not recommended for MCS folks). If you want a leather item, I suggest buying it used, or just substituting an item made with different material. Wood is often treated (in a toxic way) prior to commercial use, so items made of wood (e.g. paddles) also may not be safe. Definitely sniff them prior to purchase. Some more expensive, especially hand-made, wooden items are sealed with safe varnishes, so if you have the money, those may work for you.
It is often useful to shop for — or at least to browse — sex toys in a bricks-and-mortar store. You’ll be able to get more information that way, examine the packaging, consider the possible flaws an item may have, consult the sales associates’ stores of knowledge. But remember that you can’t judge how badly an items off-gasses from the display models. Some of them have been out of the box for months, and so have had plenty of opportunity to lose the chemical smell that a newly acquired item can still douse you in. I pretty much recommend examining the display model + asking questions + reading every word on the packaging + doing additional internet research on the company’s site, as a way to be sure that the item will work out. Or, you could order toys from the internet that are on deep discount — or are free! — that you’re willing to throw/give away if they don’t work out. Tip: if you can smell a sex toy off-gassing when it arrives at your home, get it out right away: give it away, ask a friend to hold on to it for a while, etc. If you keep it around while you decide what to do, it will keep making you sick.
Dear MCS sex fans — I hope at least some of this is useful to you! And if any of you have additional suggestions and tips about sex lives with MCS, feel free to leave them in the comments, or send them to me privately if that’s more comfortable? I will add them to this post (with accreditation).
[Post updated 26 V 2017, to provide more information on dams, dam alternatives, and DIY lube. Updated again 19 VIII 2017, to update where-to-buy information on lube, and add a few small points to the sex toy section.]