Paul H. Byerly
So called “personal lubricants” have become very popular in the last decade, with a variety of products available at any pharmacy, and increasingly in grocery stores. Our Shopping Links page has links to several companies that sell these products on-line without nudity or pornographic images. Links in this article are affiliate links to Amazon.
Lubricants come in four basic categories, water based, petroleum based, silicone based, and “natural oil” based. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Which will work best for you will depend on what you want to do, and will depend on your personal tastes.
Some women do not produce sufficient natural lubricant to have sex comfortably. This is common after menopause and can also happen after pregnancy (especially if nursing exclusively), or if she is using hormonal birth control. The amount of lubrication also varies over a woman’s cycle and some will need a lubricant during part of each month.
That said, while many couples can “get by” without lubricants, the vast majority will enjoy sex by adding a lubricant. Stimulation of the penis and the vulva both feel better with good lubrication and the chance of irritation or harm is greatly reduced. One study1 of 2,453 women found that women had significantly more pleasure when using lubricants. Incidence of “genital symptoms” from lubricant use were very low in general, with water-based lubricants being superior to silicone products in terms of pain reduction.
A few notes on health and safety concerns. Testing of sexual lubricants is limited (the FDA only requires companies test for vaginal irritation) and most good studies have focused on how lubricants might affect transmission of HIV and other diseases 2,3,4. Some in the medical community warn against using non-water soluble lubricants in the vagina, while others report that the glycerin in water-soluble products can contribute to yeast infections. Adding to the confusion, discussions on message boards show a good deal of individual variance. There are also concerns about possible harm from paraben preservatives (butylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben) and again there is a lack of good research. A few small and highly debated studies have suggested some problems, but so far, there is no proof. Most water-based lubricants contain parabens, while silicone-based lubes do not.
Because of the lack of research on this, the best advice is that if a product seems to cause a problem, try a different product. If you want to “play it safe”, you can avoid the questionable ingredients.
Most lubricants have been shown to harm sperm to some degree. If a couple is trying to get pregnant, they will want to look for a “fertility” or “sperm-friendly” lubricant such as Pre~Seed or Conceive Plus.
The original sexual lubricant was KY jelly, a thick, sticky, water-based product first intended for doctors to use in certain procedures. There are now a number of KY products better suited for sex, such as a liquid product, and a new lubricant that has a mild warming affect on skin. Many other companies have produced water-based lubricants, and these type of lubricants take up the majority of shelf space in most stores.
Water-based lubes are safe for use with all condoms and all types of sex toys. Problems with water based products are that they dry out fairly quickly when used for external stimulation, and can get sticky during prolonged intercourse. Low cost and easy availability are the strong points of the water-based lubes.
If you want to use a water-based lubricant, but are concerned about glycerin and parabens, you can find glycerin and paraben free water based lubes at a slightly higher price. Two such products are Sliquid® and Yes®.
Astroglide® is a water-based lubricant which is different from the others. Astroglide® is thinner and longer lasting, but also costs more. This glycerin and paraben free prduct has many die-hard fans.
These products are the thickest products available, and are very long-lasting. Petroleum products destroy latex and rubber, so they should not be used with latex condoms, diaphragms, cervical caps, and some sex toys. Because of how long they last, these products excel as lubricants for prolonged manual stimulation of the penis or vulva.
Mineral oil can be used as purchased from the drug store, or a commercial mineral oil lubricating product (such as Wet Oil Based Personal Lubricant) can be purchased. There is an ongoing debate about mineral oil’s effect on the vagina; if you have a problem after using it vaginally, limit it to external use. Clean up requires soap and water, and even then a film of lubricant may remain. If you want to have sex in the shower or underwater, mineral oil is a good choice of lubricant.
Silicone products are very thin, and because they are not absorbed and do not evaporate, they last a long time. With silicone, a little goes a long way; one couple who did not believe it only takes a small amount reported they had to stop, clean up, and start over. Silicone products are free of glycerin and parabens and won’t change the pH of the vagina.
Silicones cost more, but the higher price is offset by how little is needed, and the fact that it’s rare to need to reapply. While silicone will drain from the vagina after sex, the small amount used makes this less of an issue than with other non-water based products. Silicone will damage sex toys made of silicone, but is safe for latex and rubber – including latex condoms. If you want to have sex in water, silicone is good because it won’t wash off with water alone.
Silicon can be removed with soap and water. Do be aware that silicon can stain cloth and is very difficult to remove from some fabrics. It’s a good idea to wash items exposed to silicon lubricants (sheets and towels) separately.
Most US drug stores and European chemist shops will carry at least one brand of silicone lubricant, or you can buy on-line. Eros®, ID Millennium, and Wet Platinum® are brands of silicone lubricants commonly available.
“natural oil”-based lubricants
These products are made of edible oils like olive oil, nut oils, or ordinary “salad oil.” These oils can damage latex and rubber, but are thought by some to be safer for vaginal use than petroleum based products. You can buy a vegetable oil at the grocery, or look for special blendedsex oils (which are very pricey). If you want to combine massage and sex in one flowing encounter, edible oils are a great choice. It should be noted that most edible oils are long chain oils that are not absorbed by mucus membranes. This means they will drain out of the vagina after sex. There are those who are concerned about using these oils in the vagina – claiming they might go rancid). We’ve seen no credible reports of problems, and olive oil is one of the oldest sexual lubricants.
One natural lubricant that has become very popular is coconut oil (many on the TMB message boards rave about it). Coconut oil is a solid at room temperature, but liquefies with a bit of body heat. Those who like coconut oil say it’s easy to apply, smells good, tastes far better than most lubes, and if fairly long lasting. A less obvious advantage of coconut oil is that it’s a short chain oil that can be absorbed into the body. This reduces post-sex mess, and eliminates concerns about what will happen to oil left in the body.
In recent years, a number of specialty lubricants have been marketed.
Flavoured lubes are water-based lubricants with flavour and an artificial sweetener added. These are used primarily for oral sex, or when intercourse will follow oral stimulation. Some who struggle to perform oral sex because of taste or aroma find that a flavoured lube eliminates the difficulty. You can find a wide range of flavoured lubes, including mint, chocolate and strawberry.
Because of the additional ingredients, those with sensitive skin may be more prone to irritation with flavoured lubes. Additionally, these products tend to be higher in glycerine.
Warming and cooling lubricants cause a warming or cooling effect, which is intensified by blowing on the lubricated area. Some individuals experience burning or other discomfort from these products, so it’s best to test a small amount before using for sex. One such product avalaibe in many stores is KY Yours + Mine. The one for the man warms, the one for the woman cools, and something special is supposed to happen when they come together (reviews have been mixed).
Enhanced Lubricants contain additional ingredients intended to change and improve sex. These include lubricants that are supposed to intensify sensation for women, and lubricants for men with a numbing agent intended to delay climax. Other products claim to give a man a firmer erection, or to make oral sex better for him or for her. Be aware that the additional ingredients may cause irritation or other undesired effects. Be careful not to get a numbing lubricant on the clitoris! (Note: A future article on such products will be linked from here when it’s done.)
Anal Sex Lubricants
Some lubricants are made specifically for anal sex. These are often thicker than regular lubricants to help them stay in place, and to give maximum lubrication. Some anal lubricants include a numbing agent; this seems risky as pain is a warning to stop, and reducing the pain sensation makes it more likely to do damage. (See our thoughts on anal sex.)
1 Association of Lubricant Use with Women’s Sexual Pleasure, Sexual Satisfaction, and Genital Symptoms: A Prospective Daily Diary Study
2 Determining the Safety of Sexual Lubricants
3 Some Sexual Lubricants Linked to Increased Risk for Chlamydia, Gonorrhea
4 Safety of lubricants for rectal use: Questions & Answers for HIV educators and advocates http://www.rectalmicrobicides.org/docs/Lube%20safety%20Q&A%20FINAL%20Oct%2013.pdf
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