Ever been at a sex shop and seen some small, colorful bottles at the register that look like 5-Hour Energy shots? I always used to think these were some kind of sketchy over-the-counter boner pills, having never looked too closely. But eventually I learned that they’re actually a different drug associated with boning: poppers.
To clear up some confusion about what these drugs are, what they do to the body and mind and where to get the best ones, I spoke to Adam Zmith, a writer and podcaster who released a book last year called Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures. Let’s get to the bottom of these controversial little bottles.
What Are Poppers and What Do They Do?
“Poppers” is a slang term for a class of drugs called alkyl nitrites. Though they were first synthesized in the 1840s, they gained widespread popularity in the 1970s, especially among gay men in the nightlife scene.
A bottle of poppers contains a liquid, and — crucially — you don’t drink or otherwise ingest the liquid, but instead the vapors instead. One of poppers’ best-known uses is for relaxing your muscles, especially in and around the anus, thereby making anal sex and other tricky sexual maneuvers (like deepthroating) temporarily easier to achieve. They also help you shed your inhibitions and boost arousal for some people. “It’s a combination of relaxation, a head rush and horniness all at the same time,” Zmith says. The effects only last about 90 seconds, but for many people, it’s a pleasurable enough experience to keep them coming back to sniff again and again.
The legal status of poppers is messy, to say the least. Some types are banned in the U.S. and not in the U.K., and vice versa; meanwhile, some countries, like Canada, have banned them entirely. The FDA advises against them, citing potential health effects like severe headaches, difficulty breathing and blood oxygen issues, but some researchers have found that the risks associated with poppers are minimal compared to those of other recreational drugs, especially when users inhale the vapors rather than swallowing the liquid itself, and avoid overusing them.
“The relative harms of poppers are really, really low,” Zmith says. “Authorities like the FDA, I don’t know if they overstate the potential harms, but they just state the problem, and some people give undue weight to statements like that.” As with any other intoxicant, you should do your own research, make your own decisions and pay attention to your own body’s responses.
For the time being, because of poppers’ semi-illegality, they’re sold under many euphemistic names: “videotape head cleaner,” “nail polish remover,” “room deodorizer” and so on. Zmith recommends looking for them at your local sex shop; for the purposes of this article, I’ve linked to 4Solvents, an online poppers store that comes well-recommended by the intrepid hedonists of the PopperPigs subreddit.
Poppers Safety 101
1) Don’t Drink the Liquid. In case you missed this vital point in the preceding paragraphs: The liquid in your bottle of poppers is not for drinking! “The vapor is the stuff that you want,” Zmith says. “Hold the bottle open under your nose and inhale deeply, and try not to let the liquid touch your skin or go up into your nose.” Swallowing poppers poses all sorts of harrowing risks, like cyanosis (a bluish tint to the skin), unconsciousness and death. Orgasms on poppers might feel like a “little death,” but they’re not worth actually dying for!
Likewise, the liquid itself can cause chemical burns on the skin, so repeat after me: It’s just the vapors I want. It’s just the vapors I want.
2) Skip the Boner Drugs. I get why you’d want to take them — having a relaxed butthole and a hard dick sounds like the makings of a fun night. But vasodilators like Viagra, Cialis and Levitra can lead to fainting and strokes if you take them with poppers, so it’s wisest to pick one or the other. Sorry to harsh your buzz.
3) Choose a Comfortable Environment. As with just about any drug, Zmith says it’s important to make sure you feel safe and comfy about both the location where you take the drug and the person or people you’re taking it with. You can’t know quite how you’ll react to a new drug — or even a new brand of a drug you’ve taken before — so it’s safest to take it in a place where you know you could get help in a hurry if you needed it.
In particular, if you’re a beginner, I’d recommend sitting down. Poppers can give you a head rush, and if you’re not used to them, you’ll probably want to sit or lie down after you inhale, anyway.
4) Listen to Your Body. “Allow yourself the time to experience it,” Zmith says. “Observe what’s happening when you sniff it — meaning, wait and feel it and allow the rush to suffuse your body, and feel how that feels.” This is good advice not only because it allows you to appreciate the effects of the drug more deeply, but also because ill effects like severe headache or trouble breathing might be indicators that you’ve sniffed too much too fast, or that you’re using a brand that just doesn’t agree with you for whatever reason.
Ready to pop your poppers cherry? Here’s some brands Zmith suggests…
Rush is one of the longest-running poppers brands in the biz, and one that Zmith recommends if you want something well-established and reliable. “It has such a pedigree, not [necessarily] of quality, but just of longevity,” he says.
That said, because of Rush’s fame in the world of poppers, many fakers have popped up (so to speak) to produce and sell counterfeits of this seasoned brand. The makers of Rush, PWD, introduced an embossed red cap onto new bottles, meant to help consumers discern real Rush from its copycats — but there’s still always a risk, with unregulated substances, that you’re not getting what you thought you were getting. “That’s the reason we have to legalize substances, so we can properly market them and regulate them,” Zmith says. “If there’s a grey market or black market, you don’t really get full transparency.”
Zmith also points to Locker Room as an example of a long-running, much-loved poppers brand. The hyper-masc aesthetic of the bottle is a big selling point for some users. “For me, there’s not very much difference between [brands], so I go all-in looking at the names and the design of the packaging and how ridiculous or stupid it is,” Zmith says. “Some are quite transparently trying to appeal to some sense of virile masculinity, which I find hilarious.”
Well-worn gender norms aside, the branding of a product can make a significant difference in how you perceive your experience with it, as anyone who’s ever sipped Dom Perignon or coveted a Birkin bag can tell you. If the look of a poppers bottle makes sniffing it feel more satisfying for you, more power to you.
Another well-established brand Zmith likes is Jungle Juice, a company that makes multiple different versions of their product: Jungle Juice Black, Jungle Juice Platinum, Jungle Juice Max, Jungle Juice Blue, etc. What’s the difference between the varieties? Who knows. Some claim to be “extra-strength,” but again, since they’re unregulated, you have to take the info on the label with a grain of salt.
Zmith doesn’t notice much difference between brands in terms of effects. “If you did a blind sniff test of A, B and C, I don’t know whether you could say what brand name A was and what brand name B was,” he says. “But you could say how A was different to B — like [with] A, the odor was more fruity, for example, or you could say B had a stronger hit to it.”
A relatively new name in the poppers business is Double Scorpio, a luxury brand based in Austin, Texas. They make beautifully packaged poppers that come in various sensual scents, like leather and tobacco, frankincense and sage and peppermint and eucalyptus. “I think it’s interesting because it’s kind of a hipster, trendy thing,” Zmith says.
Taking many drugs, especially poppers, can be a pursuit of joy, pleasure and playfulness — so why not get a noseful of a whimsical scent when you sniff them?