If you’re like me, lube might be something you don’t usually think you need, until you really, really need it. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that my lube literacy hasn’t always been great, and I never used to give it much thought beyond the jar of coconut oil I kept in a drawer next to my bed, which actually isn’t even a great lube after all. I thought all personal lubricators were basically the same, so why would it matter which one I decided to slather on my own sex toys with? Turns out, lube ingredients make a big difference — there are some body-safe ingredients, while other ingredients should be avoided.
There’s a common misconception that lube is an extra add-on that most people don’t need unless they’re experiencing some sort of “problem” with sex, when really, lube can be used by anyone, anytime. The right lube can heighten pleasurable sensations, and reduce chafing during an all-night sex marathon, but some formulas contain ingredients that some believe may increase the risk of getting a yeast infection or cause other health problems.
Not all lube is created equal, and with so many options available, shopping for lube can feel overwhelming. Before wandering the aisles of your local sex shop or shopping online, it’s important to know what lube is good for, which ingredients are going to work for the kind of sex you’re having, and which you should avoid.
The Three Big Types of Lube: Oil, Water, and Silicone
While lube can definitely add to almost every sexual experience, all lubes are not alike. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, says most lube can be divided into three main categories: oil-based, water-based, and silicone-based. “While they all do the job similarly, you must take different precautions depending on your needs,” Zeichner says.
When choosing a product, consider the kind of sex you’ll be having and whether you’ll be using condoms or adding sex toys. Water-based lubes are typically the easiest to find and are often the more affordable formulas found in drugstores, including some of the offerings from brands like Astroglide and K-Y. They’re compatible with sex toys, safe to use with latex condoms, and won’t stain fabrics, making water-based products a versatile option for vaginal or anal sex.
However, as Archie points out, water-based varieties tend to dry out quickly, have the longest list of ingredients, and won’t work for sex in the shower or anywhere else you’ll be underwater. While oil-based lubrication formulas often last longer than their water-based counterparts, there’s a downside. “Oil-based lubrication may lead to the breakdown of latex, so it may be best to stay away from if you are using condoms,” Zeichner explains.
Silicone-based lubes often last longer than water-based lubrication, as well, but in turn, they can be irritating for people with sensitive skin and may damage silicone toys.
Lube Ingredients to Avoid (and Why)
While it’s true that different types of lube can work for different needs, some ingredients may cause problems for some people, according to our experts. Some of the most popular, easy-to-find lube brands tend to contain some ingredients people prefer to avoid, and tracking down a body-safe lube isn’t impossible if you know what to look out for. Just as you might check the labels on something you’re about to eat, get to know your lube ingredients, and if you wouldn’t buy a super-cheap sex toy from an unknown seller on Amazon, it’s similarly important to make sure the lube you’re using won’t risk your health or wreak havoc on your sex life.
To begin with, Hutcherson recommends steering clear of any flavored lubes during penetrative sex. “When used during intercourse, flavored lube can increase the risk of vaginal infections, especially yeast, due to the sugar component that can’t be completely removed from the vagina,” Hutcherson says. Glycerin, a popular ingredient in water-based lubes, has been associated with an increased risk of yeast infections according to one 2013, study, and many experts advise that it should also be avoided during vaginal intercourse if you’re prone to frequent yeast infections.
Petrolatum, petroleum jelly, and microbicide nonoxynol-9
According to Zeichner, petrolatum and petroleum jelly can interfere with the proper functioning of the skin, alter the vagina’s natural pH, and contribute to bacterial overgrowth. Another ingredient, the microbicide nonoxynol-9, has also been found to disrupt the balance of vaginal flora.
Preservatives, including parabens
Parabens, which Zeichner explains are preservatives often used to prevent overgrowth of bacteria in personal care products, are also a common component of many commercial lubes. “While there is no data showing that they are harmful to your health,” he says, “many people prefer to stay away from them.” Fair enough.
Propylene glycol, benzene, benzoic acid, chlorhexidine, and benzocaine
Further, Zeichner says that ingredients like propylene glycol, benzene, benzoic acid, and chlorhexidine can potentially cause irritation and even allergic contact dermatitis. Benzocaine, a numbing ingredient found in some lubes that dulls the sensation of pain “can produce allergic contact dermatitis and should be avoided,” according to the American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology’s “Vulvodynia Guideline.”
Lube Basics: Why and When to Use It
Even though many of these side effects sound off-putting, generally speaking, lube is pretty great — and it’s gynecologist recommended. “I consider lubricants to be pleasure-enhancers and underappreciated treats,” says Hilda Hutcherson, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. As Hutcherson explains, lube can decrease friction during hand play, while using toys, or during intercourse, as well as prevent pain during sex and prevent post-sex soreness. “I recommend that women use lubricants frequently, if not always,” Hutcherson says. “It can make great sex even better.”
The right lube can prevent pain and injury, make toys more
comfortable, and minimize the chance of condom breakage.
According to Archie and Cat, sex educators and lube enthusiasts at Minneapolis sex toy shop Smitten Kitten, people of all genders can use lube for practically any type of sex, whether it’s solo or partnered. “Lube can be the difference between painful, uncomfortable sex and dreamy, amazing sex,” Cat says. “It reduces friction, maximizes sensation, and protects our pleasure zones from abrasions or tearing.”
The right lube can prevent pain and injury during anal sex, make certain toys feel more comfortable, and minimize the chance of breakage when using condoms. In fact, Hutcherson explains that many people with vaginas might need lube during sex for a variety of reasons, including age, time of menstrual cycle, side effects of certain medications, stress, chronic illness or medical issues, inadequate foreplay, or prolonged intercourse.
People of all genders can use lube for practically any type of sex,
whether it’s solo or partnered.
Cat adds that there’s also nothing wrong or shameful about simply wanting a little extra moisture. “There’s a nasty myth out there that any time we’re sexually aroused, our vaginas will automatically produce enough lube for any kind of sex we want to have. Super not true! Vaginas [sometimes] do self-lubricate under the right circumstances, but there are a million reasons why our bodies sometimes don’t produce enough lubrication to make a certain sex act comfortable or possible.”
How to Find a Body-Safe Lube
As a general rule, Hutcherson says that any lube with the fewest number of unfamiliar ingredients is a good bet. She continues, “The more natural, the better.” Archie and Cat recommend silicone- and water-based formulas by Überlube and Sutil Luxe, while Good Clean Love’s Origins Love Oil is an oil-based option with easy-to-pronounce ingredients.
Ultimately, choosing the “best” lube for you can be a matter of personal preference. Hutcherson recommends trying a variety of different lube formulas with simple, pared-down ingredients until you find the one that feels best for you and your partners. That’s when the real fun starts.
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