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How to pick a lubricant

by Nicole Telfer, Science Content Producer
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Personal lubricant (lube) can be used to help make sexual acts—like sex, masturbation, or sex toy play—more pleasurable. Lubes work to reduce friction between your skin and the person/object/or body part that you are using, which can eliminate chafing, pain, and uncomfortable rubbing.

Why use lube?

Why not use lube? Lube is great! Using lube is nothing to feel shameful about—it can be a great addition to your sexual experience. You should not feel embarrassed to use a personal lubricant. Many people who produce ample amounts of vaginal fluids still choose to use a lube to further increase their sexual pleasure.

Around half of post-menopausal women tend to notice more vaginal dryness and discomfort when having sex (1,2). After menopause, the genitourinary area (including the vagina and vulva) may change and atrophy due to the decrease in estrogen levels. Without higher levels of estrogen, these tissues become thinner, less flexible, receive less blood flow, and produces less natural vaginal fluids (1). Using a lubricant helps decrease the discomfort of sex when experiencing vaginal dryness, but does not prevent the underlying problem of vaginal tissue atrophy.

Some people may experience vaginal dryness, which can lead to discomfort or pain during intercourse. Every person is different. People who are breastfeeding, who are taking medications (including antihistamines and antidepressants), breast cancer survivors, and people with Sjogren's syndrome may also often experience vaginal dryness (2). In these situations, a lubricant can be helpful.

Lubricants produced by your body

There are many fluids that your body produces that can act as lubrication, many of which depend on where you are in your cycle:

Menstrual blood can be used as a lubricant for masturbation or sex at the beginning of your cycle.

Cervical fluid, particularly around the time of ovulation, will provide you with a slipperier glide (just remember that having unprotected heterosexual sex around the time of ovulation has the greatest chance of pregnancy).

Vaginal and arousal fluid is available to you all month to help moisten and lubricate your vagina. Be sure to make enough time for foreplay to allow your arousal pathway to produce enough fluids.

Saliva can also be used as a lubricant. Using your own saliva to masturbate may actually be protective against the development of vulvovaginal candida (3). Researchers think this could be due to some of the protective bacteria and antifungal properties found in saliva, plus a lack of immune response against your own fluids. In comparison, receiving cunnilingus (oral sex on the vulva) may actually increase your chances of getting a candida infection (3).

How to pick a lube

Water-based lube is your safest bet to start with. It can be used for all of your sexual needs: penetrative sex, masturbation, and sex toy play. Water-based lubes are also ideal for people with sensitive skin or vaginal irritation, and can be used with condoms and sex toys (4). They are also really easy to clean out of sheets and clothes, and won’t leave a stain.

Water-based lubes do have some downsides though. They are not good for water-play/shower sex, as they will just wash away. Also, water-based lubes tend to get sticky and require frequent re-application. So if you are planning to have marathon sex, might we suggest another type of lubrication?

Silicone-based lube is slippery, long lasting, and is ideal for a longer session (4). It requires less lube be applied, and needs reapplication less often. Silicone-based lubes are also great for shower sex or masturbation in the shower, as they don’t wash away so easily. The catch is that silicone-based lubes are a bit more tedious to wash off, as you will need soap and water to clean up afterward. Sometimes silicone-based lubes may also stain sheets. (Word of caution: never spill a bottle of silicone-based lube on your hardwood floors—it will stain and leave your floor slightly slippery for months.)

Silicone-based lubricants should not be used with silicone-based sex toys, as they can break down the rubber over time. However, this doesn’t mean all sex toys are off limits with silicone-based lubricants—there are many toys made from other materials, like hard plastic, glass, and steel.

Oil-based lube also provides a slippery feel that lasts longer than water-based lube. These lubes are ideal for masturbation (hands or toys), penetrative unprotected sex, and water-play. Oil-based lubes can also be used for a sensual massage.

Oil-based lubes (or any other oil products like petroleum jelly or mineral oil) should not be used with latex condoms, as they can dissolve the latex of the condom and may cause latex condoms to break (4). Latex diaphragms and latex sex toys should also be also kept away from oil based lubricants. Non-latex condoms (like those made of polyisoprene) are also sensitive to oil-based personal lubricants, so check the package before use (5).

Another downside to oil-based lubes is that they can be more difficult to clean off of sheets and your body.

Lubes for anal sex

Personal lubrication is recommended for anal sex since the anal canal does not produce fluids to help ease penetration. Plus, the tight muscular sphincter at the entrance of the anus offers much more resistance than the vagina, which is full of folds and stretchable tissue.

Using a personal lubricant can also make anal sex safer. Using a water-based lubricant decreases the chances of condom breakage while having anal sex, in contrast to oil-based lubricants or saliva, which both increase the chances of condom breakage during sex (6). The chances of the condom slipping off during anal sex are also related to lubrication. Applying lubrication to the outside of the condom can decrease chances of slippage, while applying lubrication to the inside of the condom can increase chances of slippage (6).

Good to know before you buy

In general, avoid any lubricant that contains any artificial flavors, colors, sugars, essential oils, additional additives, or glycerine—you never know how you’ll react to these additives. Especially if it’s your first time using a personal lubricant—some of those extra features like “warming” or “tingling” can be more overwhelming than expected. Also, just because a product is “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better for you. Check the ingredients list, read product reviews, or go to a sex toy shop and ask the experts there.

Glycerin or glycerol is a sugar alcohol that is sometimes used in lubricants. The verdict is still out on whether there is a link between glycerin/glycerol containing lubricants and the health of the bacteria in your vagina. Some evidence suggests that lubricants containing glycerin may increase the chances of vaginal infections, while others actually find glycerin makes no difference to the microflora of the vagina at all (7,8). More research is needed here.

Sometimes a large amount of glycerols (and other similar compounds) are used in lubricants to provide special properties, like warming sensations or extra slipperiness (5). A lube with a high concentration of glycerols can actually have a negative effect on anal and vaginal tissues, by causing damage and dehydration to these tissues (9-11). This tissue damage is not only uncomfortable, but can also increase the risk of STI transmission (5).

When picking a water-based lube, try to pick one that reflects the acidity of a healthy vagina—around pH 3.8 to 4.5—to prevent increased risk of bacterial vaginosis (5). The anus has a more neutral acidity level (pH 5.5 to 7), so also try to pick a lube appropriately here too (5).

Some lubricants may also contain spermicide chemicals, but these may cause irritation to the vagina, and are therefore not recommended for use (5). If you are trying to conceive and are using lube, make sure to buy one that is specific for conception, as some lubricants may decrease sperm motility.

Painful sex—a caution

If sex is painful to you, increasing lubrication isn’t always the answer. Many illnesses or infections can present with symptoms of pain during sexual intercourse, particularly vaginal sex. This includes skin disorders, inflammation, infections, hormonal changes, trauma, and many other causes (4). If you do experience recurrent or worsening pain during sex, see your healthcare provider.

Download Clue to track your period, cervical fluid, and sex.

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