Poppers 101: What are the risks? 

24.9.2021
7 min read
Mike Givens

It’s Friday night, and an insanely handsome man messages you on Grindr to extend a coveted invite to his place for some...adult activities. You head to his apartment, start making out—his lips are so soft—and proceed to rip each other’s clothes off like two high schoolers on prom night. 

“Mind if I use poppers?” he asks as he rips his underwear off, exposing how really excited he is to be hooking up with you. 

You respond with an “Oh, sure” as he goes for a little brown bottle. He inserts it up one nostril, places his finger over the other, does a quick sniff, tosses the bottle aside, and proceeds to give you some oral pleasure to get you ready for some intense butt banging. 

The sex is great, the climax is legendary, and you both lie next to each other afterwards, randomly talking about superficial things like what you do for work and when you think Beyoncé’s next album will drop. 

There’s just one thing that’s rattling around in the back of your head: What the hell did he sniff from that bottle earlier? 

A primer on poppers

Poppers are basically a quick way to enhance your sexual pleasure. The drug itself, when inhaled, can lead to:

  • decreased blood pressure
  • increased blood flow
  • and a euphoric, lightheaded feeling that provides a “high” that can make sex more pleasurable

By no means is it a “gay” drug; it’s a drug that’s used significantly amongst gay men. 

Poppers became a staple in the gay community in those wild times known as the 1970s. Bathhouses, dance floors, pubs, and other safe spaces for gay men became common sites for the recreational drug to be brought and sold. 

As with any recreational drug, poppers became a sort of social currency that men used to relax inhibitions in a way that encouraged increased drinking, socializing, and sexual activity. 

Its use as a vasodilator—more on this later—gave it legitimacy in the medical field, making it a common prescription for heart problems. Depending on what country you live in, it can have a storied history regarding how often and to whom it was—and is—prescribed. 

Even in 2021, poppers occupy a bit of a gray area in terms of the law: They’re not as vilified as cocaine but not as socially accepted as cannabis. 

Recreationally, it’s a liquid that comes in a little brown bottle. When it comes into contact with the air, it dissolves into a gas, hence why Grindr Guy put the end of the bottle up his nose and took a big sniff. The effects are short-term but intense. 

Of course, this leads to another important question: What are poppers made out of? 

A chemistry lesson on...room deodorizer? 

So, in 1844, some French guy named Antoine Jérôme Balard synthesized a compound called amyl nitrite. What the heck is that? Well, at the time, Balard didn’t know either. 

What he did know is that when he synthesized this chemical, it was a little round pearl, and when it cracked, the fumes made him lightheaded. Now, most of us hate chemistry, so let’s just say that eventually this chemical would be classified as part of a group of compounds called alkyl nitrites. 

These compounds have a range of uses:

  • amyl nitrite is often used to treat a heart condition called angina, a lack of blood flow to the heart causing chest pains
  • isobutyl nitrite is one of the components in the treatment for cyanide poisoning

But in general, they are classified as that V-word I used earlier: vasodilators.

A vasodilator helps your blood vessels open up significantly, causing increased blood flow. So, when your hot hookup was sniffing the contents of that bottle, within a few minutes, several things were going on in your partner’s body: 

  • Blood vessels were opening up more, causing the blood to flow more freely. 
  • Because he was excited, the blood was pumping faster and heading quickly to his brain.
  • His blood pressure was dropping, and this, combined with the increased blood flow to the brain, can lead to euphoria.
  • While experiencing euphoria, his bum is preparing itself to be introduced to your meaty member. But fear not, Dearest Reader! Those who top enjoy using poppers as well (bottoms can’t have all the fun!).

Wait, what? Yes, you read that right. While the high is short-lasting, it can help with the loosening of the sphincter, that magical muscle circling your anus. And even if you’re not being penetrated, the “high” that comes with poppers can help you relax quite a bit. 

Fun fact: there are multiple sphincters in your body in addition to the one surrounding your love hole. We each have a sphincter in our upper esophagus, lower esophagus, between our stomach and lower intestine, between our lower intestine and upper intestine, one on the inside of our anus, and that stubborn—yet glorious—sphincter on the outside of your anus. Please tell your friends; they’ll love this random bit of trivia.

The loosening of the sphincter can help make those bottoming more receptive to someone topping with a massive schlong or just someone nervous about being penetrated.

What makes poppers so popular as a sex drug is the headrush and muscle relaxation that causes a “high,” usually within 15 to 20 seconds after inhaling. The high can last up to three minutes. 

Like any drug, poppers have their fair share of slang terms in the LGBTQ+ community. Here are just a few fun alternatives: 

  • Rush
  • The brown bottle
  • Room deodorizer
  • Tape head cleaner 
  • Amyl nitrite
  • Leather cleaner
  • Isobutyl nitrite
  • Isopropyl nitrite

Do a couple of those slang terms seem odd to you? I mean, other than those nerdy chemistry terms, do some of them read as a bit random? Like, who calls a recreational drug room deodorizer? 

The answer will lead us into a global conundrum. 

The risks of poppers

So, here’s the thing: While poppers can give you a nice high, they can also have some pretty serious side effects

According to Canada’s Community-Based Research Centre (CBRC), inhaling poppers carries a small risk of causing a few health problems, including: 

  • Poppers maculopathy (vision loss)
  • Overdose (but don’t worry, overdoses are rare and can be reversed at a hospital)

Also, using poppers can lower your inhibitions, which could lead to engaging in sexual behaviour with more risk than usual (increasing risk for HIV or other STIs). There’s no evidence to show that poppers are addictive

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The legality of poppers

Poppers occupy a nebulous space when it comes to where they can be bought and sold. 

For example, in the United States, poppers can often be bought in novelty and adult stores and are marketed as energy drinks, cosmetics, and even liquid incense. You’ll often see them sold in stores as leather cleaner, nail polish remover, and, you guessed it, room deodorizer. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved poppers for recreational use, but they don’t have any specific laws banning them. 

Across the pond in the United Kingdom, the Medicines Act of 1968 allows poppers to be sold, but only as products for non-human consumption. 

In Canada, poppers have been banned since 2013. But thanks to the interwebs, you can still order poppers on several websites. Health Canada, the federal agency responsible for informing and implementing health policy, has strongly come out against the recreational use of poppers

As with any issue involving decision-making over one’s own body, the use of poppers has become political. The major Canadian political parties are weighing in. In a letter dated August 9, 2021, Calgary Nose Hill Member of Parliament Michelle Rempel Garner wrote a letter to Health Canada asking that the agency conduct a comprehensive study into the drug with the goal of crafting legislation that will regulate its use. 

Rempel Garner’s letter is blunt in its contention that “discussion of pharmaceutical-based sexual aides for use in non-heteronormative situations, such as alkyl nitrites, are sometimes still subject to moralization in public discourse.” 

That’s a fancy way of saying that the sex lives of LGBTQ2S+ people are often the subject of disdain, judgement, and harsh policies that cisgender and heterosexual people don’t really have to worry about. 

For the foreseeable future, poppers will probably continue to polarize different groups of people in the same way that cannabis does. 

At the end of the day, the use—or not—of poppers comes down to a personal choice, one that should be informed by your own research and understanding of your body and boundaries. 

Additionally, in this series, we'll discuss alternatives to poppers and the history of poppers within the LGBTQ+ community.

Written by:
Mike Givens

Mike Givens received his bachelor’s degrees in Marketing and English Literature from Virginia Tech. He has a master’s degree in investigative journalism from Boston University. He is a social justice advocate and is the full-time communications director for an international human rights organization in New England. He spends his spare time writing on a range of issues, from LGBTQ+ rights and income inequality to sexual health and politics. He is also a freelance copyeditor.

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