SKIP AHEAD. . .
I want a lube that's not pink and sticky and doesn't make my vag feel like it's on fire. Help!
What is lubricant?
By definition, lubricant is “a substance that serves to lubricate a surface or part” (1). The word “lubricate” comes from the Latin adjective lubricus, which means “oily, slippery, or slick” (2,3).
We often think of lubricant (lube) in sexual or even vehicular sense, but healthcare professionals use surgical lubricants (also called “medical lubricants”) within clinical settings as well. If you have ever undergone a pelvic or rectal exam, then you have most likely encountered medical-grade lubricant.
Fun fact! K-Y Jelly was initially patented as surgical lubricant when it was introduced in 1919 (4).
When it comes to the body, we actually produce natural lubricant. When vagina-bearing people “get wet,” that’s called arousal fluid (not to be confused with vaginal discharge or cervical fluid). During the excitement phase of sexual activity, increased blood flow to the genitals makes blood vessels swell (also known as “vascular engorgement”). Heightened pressure and blood flow causes fluid to be propelled onto (and coat!) the walls of the vagina (5,6).
Penis owners produce pre-ejaculate (or “pre-cum), one of whose functions is to serve as a lubricant during sexual activity. Two glands work together to create pre-cum: the bulbourethral glands (also known as Cowper’s glands) and the glands of Littre (7).
If the human body is its own mini lube factory, why might we need some assistance from a bottle? For vagina-bearing people, certain factors can inhibit the production of arousal fluid, such as medication (e.g. hormonal birth control), estrogen-level changes accompanying the menstrual cycle, mental/psychological state, the amount and type of foreplay, and high blood pressure (8,9). Post-menopausal people might also experience decreased vaginal lubrication due to a decrease in estrogen level (10,19). The amount of pre-cum produced by the penis depends on age and level and length of sexual arousal as well (11).
Why else you might choose to go the Slip ‘N Slide route? If you have vagina that’s on the smaller end, have sensitivity to pain, or if you just need more wetness to get off, then lube can do wonders. If you’re having anal sex, then lube is the way to go (unfortunately, evolution has yet to gift us with self-lubing butts, but maybe one day!). If you are playing with a penis-bearing partner, or using penetrative toys, lube can decrease pain associated with being on the receiving end of penetrative activities. This is especially helpful if your partner’s parts are, shall we say, on the larger size or, if you like larger toys.
There are SO MANY different types of intimacy lubes to choose from. Read on for help to know where to begin.
Types of lubricants
Silicone-based lubricants are made out of well, silicone, which is kinda a hybrid of synthethic plastic and rubber (though it’s actually neither of the two), and can be made into liquids or solids. (12) Silicone is found in everything from makeup to utensils, but silicone lubes are known for being extremely slippery (hello friction-free pleasure), usually doesn’t cause allergic reactions (let’s hear it for the people with sensitive skin), and don’t need to be reapplied often (unlike water-based lubes, which evaporate quite easily).
Bonus: silicone-based lubes are great for shower sex and/or other types of underwater play. Silicone is naturally hydrophobic (aka “water hating”) and can’t be absorbed by your body’s mucous membranes, which means it won’t wash off while you’re submerged (13).
The downside? Silicone’s water-fearing tendencies mean it can stick to your skin even after you’ve showered. Also, if you (and/or your partner[s]) are using silicone-based toys, beware: silicone-based lubes can degrade silicone toys (usually by hardening on the toy).
Pro tip: put a condom on your sex toys to protect them against the silcone on silcone friction. Silicone or not, wrapping your toys can allow for easy clean up, act as protection if you’re sharing toys, and be a great use for expired condoms. Winning!
There are two types of oil-based lubes: natural and synthetic. Natural oil-based lubes include products that you might be familiar with from your kitchen (e.g. coconut, avocado, olive, and other plant-based oils). Synthetic oil-based lubes include mineral oil, baby oil, certain lotions and creams, and petroleum-based products like Vaseline.
Why do some people prefer oil-based lubes? Oil-based products may not contain additives and preservatives found in silicone or water-based lubes, which can be helpful for people with sensitive skin, or just prefer to avoid that stuff (14). Like silicone-based lube, oil-based options generally last longer (i.e. won’t dry up as easily) than water-based lubes. Also, some natural oil-based lubes are edible!
That said, there are a number of reasons not to slick up with an oil-based option. If you’re using latex condoms, oil-based lube is a no go: the oil can cause latex-based condoms to break down within as little as sixty seconds (15). If polyurethane condoms are more your style, then full speed ahead, as oil-based lubes will not degrade polyurethane (14).
Another downside? Certain oil-based lubes can disrupt the vagina’s ecosystem. A 2013 study published in The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology’s Green Journal found that people with vaginas who used petroleum and baby oil (both of which are considered oil-based lubes) were more likely to experience bacterial vaginosis and Candida overgrowth, the usual culprit for yeast infections (16). Even if the lube is “natural” (i.e., coconut or olive oil from your kitchen), it doesn’t mean it’s safe to use. “Natural” oils can weaken the skin’s protective barrier, may trap bacteria in the genital or anal areas, and can alter the vagina’s pH, which can in turn lead to yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis (16,17,18). Oil-based lubes, especially “natural” ones like coconut, olive, and avocado oils, are great for massage purposes, but don’t mix so well with genital play.
A note on messes: oil-based lubes can be a pain to clean up (not to mention the fact that many of them stain). If you’re concerned about your sheets, it’s better to opt for another type of lube.
Water-based lubes are those whose primary ingredient is, you guessed it, good old H2O. Water-based lubes will not break down latex condoms and work well for people who experience genital irritation or sensitivity (14). Those who want to use a water-based lube should aim for options that closely mirror the pH of the vagina (whose acidity ranges from 3.8 to 4.5), so as to avoid disturbing vaginal pH, which can lead to conditions like bacterial vaginosis (17,20). Likewise, those who will be using water-based lube for anal sex should opt for lubes whose acidity is closer to that of the anus (which has a more neutral pH of 5.5 to 7) (20).
Some water-based lubes contain glycerin—a plant, animal, or synthetically-derived humectant (something that retains moisture) with a slightly sweet taste (21,22). Glycerin isn’t for everyone. Unlike silicone, it’s not hypoallergenic, so some people can experience an allergic reaction when using glycerin-containing lubes. Some studies suggest that glycerin can lead to vaginal infections, though other studies indicate that glycerin does not negatively impact vaginal microflora (23,24). Although glycerin is a humectant, water-based lubes with high concentrations of glycerin (e.g. lubes that are advertised as “warming” or “extra-slippery”) can actually dehydrate and/or damage genital tissue (25,26).
Water-based lubes do evaporate more easily than their silicone or oil-based counterparts, so reapplication is necessary. That said, you can easily “refresh” water-based lubes with a little saliva. They also aren’t ideal for shower or bath play since they’ll wash right off.
This category differs from natural oil-based lubricants and can include vegan, botanical, organic and/or other plant-based options. Natural lube is usually paraben-free, so no synthetic compounds used as preservatives like many other products including certain brands of lube. Parabens can negatively impact proper hormone function, and certain studies suggest their carcinogenic qualities (27).
Note that most natural lubricants are plant-based and preservative-free, so they can spoil. They’re also usually pricier and less widely available than drugstore options.
If you’re vegan, make sure you do your research before whipping out your wallet. The FDA classifies lubes as “medical devices” and therefore requires them to be tested on animals. Many vegan lubes choose not to be FDA approved. Just be aware of this when researching and buying lubes!
How to use lube
There’s no one “right” way to use lube! Also, lube isn’t just for partnered sexual activity. It’s great for solo sessions as well.
One thing is for sure: there is absolutely nothing “wrong” with you if you and/or your partner decide to use lube. In fact, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, showed that vagina owners “felt positive about lubricant and lubricant use, preferred sex to feel more wet, felt that they were more easily orgasmic when sex was more wet, and thought their partner preferred sex to feel more wet than dry” (30).
You may want to lay a towel down on the surface you’ll be playing upon (especially if you’re using a staining type of lube, such as oil-based). If the lube isn’t of the self-warming variety and you aren’t in the mood for a cooling sensation, it’s a good idea to rub it around in your hands first to warm it up. Apply generously and remember: lube can be used as a body massage oil too!
If you’re going to be engaging in penetrative activities, you’ll want to make sure you lube before starting these activities. Also, if condoms are a part of your sexual routine, make sure those are properly secured prior to lube application. Never apply lube before putting on a condom, as this can cause the condom to fall off!
Keep in mind: it varies from person to person, but there is such a thing as too much lube. If you and/or your partner are overly slicked, that can decrease the amount of sensation able you can feel during sexual activity. You want to use enough lube to reduce any painful and/or uncomfortable friction, but not so much that there’s no friction at all.
Keep lube handy while playing—especially if it’s water-based lube—so you can reapply if necessary.
Lube doesn’t just come in the toothpaste-sized tubes you see at the pharmacy. Many brands make single-use packets—perfect for slicking-up on the go or if you need to bring lube in a carry-on! If you’re more inclined to buy in bulk, then go for a lube-filled jug or drum (think: a 55-gallon behemoth).
What not to use
A few things shouldn’t be used as lube. We don’t actually recommend converting culinary staples like coconut and olive oil into lube (see the section on oil-based lubes above).
Likewise, it’s best to avoid anything fragranced, flavored, or sugary. Whipped cream may look fun in porn, but it’s not a good idea to use Reddi-Whip as lube. Scented lubes can contain irritating chemicals, and flavored ones can be high in sugar, which can lead to yeast proliferation and a potential yeast infection (31,32).
When it comes to lube, there’s no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” option. What matters is choosing the lube that makes you (and, if you’re engaging in group play, your partner or partners) feel slick, smooth, and comfortable.
Written by: Lizzy Steiner
Medically reviewed by: Aisha Wagner, MD. Family Physician with fellowships focusing on contraception and abortion advocacy
All content found on this Website, including: text, images, audio, or other formats, was created for informational purposes only. The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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