Lube! A 7 Chapter Ultimate Guide To Personal Lubricants

In the USA, 65% of women and 70% of men have tried personal lubricants.[74][75] Even though lube is common, most people don't know the risks associated with certain brands and ingredients.

Especially If you are using a lube vaginally or anally you need to be extra vigilant.   Harsh preservatives and petroleum derived ingredients can increase the risk of infections, cause contact dermatitis, and lower the body's natural defenses against STIs.

I've made this guide as a resource to help people understand personal lubricants, their ingredients and how they are regulated.  By the end, you'll be able to find healthy lubricants that work with your body and not against it.

Contents

4. Types of Lubricant

5. Lube Regulations And Testing

6. Best Lubes For Different Occasions

Lube Regulations

[img = cute rabbit sitting next to a bottle of lube]

Before a new lubricant hits the shelves, a company needs to get it tested and approved by the FDA.

Some scientists are not happy with the current approval process[78]. For starters, the tests are done on rabbits, not humans. Scientists argue that because a rabbit's vaginal environment and tissue is very different than a woman's, these tests do not give an accurate assessment of safety[78][82].  The rabbit's vaginal pH is 7, a human's is 3.5-4.5; a rabbit's entire vaginal cavity works like a urethra and is exposed to urine, in a person it isn't;  the rabbit also doesn't have compelx vaginal flora and glycogen in their vagina, but people do.

Moreover, the FDA considers anal use an off-label application of personal lubricants and does not do any tests exposing them to tissue in the rectum[9]. Considering that 32% of all lubricants are used for anal sex, and the very delicate nature of colon tissue, a large group off people are told ignored and essentially told "use it at your own risk".

The FDA also has GRAS, a list of chemicals that are "Generally Recognized as Safe".  Lubricants with ingredients on this list don't need to be tested as much.  However, the chemicals on this list are recognized as safe on the skin.  The vaginal environment is much more sensitive and the long-term effects of these chemicals regular exposure isn't well known.  Once these not-so-safe lubes are approved, a company doesn't need to list the ingredients on the bottle, which makes comparing lubricants difficult.[9]  

When other scientists tested FDA-approved lubricants on human vaginal and colorectal tissue, they found they caused varying amounts of damage[1][4][6][36][78], especially from hyperosmolar lubricants like K-Y jelly, which a rabbit's vaginal tissue is more resistant to[82].

This lack of thorough regulation leads to people using and trusting lubricants that put them at high risk for unhealthy reactions.

Lube Interactions

The most common lube reactions don't happen right away, instead they show up weeks after frequent use, in the form of bacteria infections, yeast overgrowth, or an STI from lowered natural defenses[78].  The big danger is that most people don't realize their lube is the problem and can blame themselves or their partner.

This section will help you know the most common reactions and identify what causes them.

Contents

1. Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)

2. Yeast Infections

3. Increased STI Susceptibility

4. Contact Dermatitis

5. Allergic Reactions

6. Rare Reactions

Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)

The vagina naturally has a balance of both good and bad bacteria, collectively called vaginal flora.  

The good bacteria, usually the species Lactobacilli, produce an acidic environment that keeps damaging bacteria and pathogens at bay.  Keeping the vagina naturally clean.[2]

However, if the Lactobacilli is disrupted or killed, harmful bacteria go wild and can reach 1000 times their normal level.  This bad bacteria take-over is called Bacterial Vaginosis and requires anti-biotics for treatment.[76]

The main culprits of Lactobacilli kill-off are harsh preservatives like chlorhexdine and hyperosmolar ingredients like glycerol[6].  The longer and more regularly these lubricants are used, the greater the risk of BV.

Symptoms:

  • Thin gray, white, or green discharge
  • Burning after you pee
  • Itching
  • Fishy smell

​​Risks:

  • Increases risk of STI contraction like herpes, chlamydia, and gonorrhea.
  • Premature births in pregnant women with BV

[84]

Vaginal Yeast Overgrowth (Candidiasis)

Another member of the vaginal flora is a yeast called candida.  When it grows out of control, Candidiasis or a yeast infection happens.  It shows up as a visible white fungus and feels itchy and uncomfortable.

Lactic acid produced by Lactobacilli helps keep the candida in check.  Just like with BV, lube ingredients that disturb Lactobacilli increase the risk of a yeast infection developing[85]. 

Unlike BV though, it can be caused by lubes containing sugar, honey, glycerin, or maltodextrin which feed yeast and cause it to grow faster than the lactic acid can maintain it.[1]  These are usually found in flavored lubricants and glycerin is found as a thickener in water-based lubes like K-Y and Astroglide.

Hyperosmolar lubricant ingredients can also damage and peel the epithelial layer giving yeast more surface area to grow on.

Symptoms:

  • Extreme Itchiness
  • Redness and swelling of the vagina and vulva
  • Pain and burning when you pee
  • A thick, white discharge from the vagina
  • Discomfort during sex

Risks:

  • Increased STI risk
  • More susceptible to injury

[85]

Increased STI Risk

Many popular lubricants have been shown to damage the delicate tissue of both the rectum and vagina[4][6][36][78].  A more recent 2018 study found that the epithelial layer of tissue had its integrity reduced and became "leaky",  increasing its susceptibility to STIs like HIV and Herpes[78].  

STI risk is also increased by a lower vaginal acidity, caused by lactobacilli kill off.  In addition, conditions like BV and Candidiasis increase risk of STIs as well[2].

Harsh lubricants not only damage the body's natural defenses, they can also help invaders. Lubes containing polymer Ingredients like PQ15,  have been shown to increase the replication rate of viruses.[49]

Contact Dermatitis & Allergic Reactions

Contact Dermatitis is a redness, itching, or burning caused by allergens or irritants.  The onset of this can range from a few seconds to a few hours after using a lubricant.  There are two main types: Irritant reaction & allergic reaction.

Irritation happens when a chemical damages the epithelial (outer) layer of your skin.  The causes range from cell death caused by hyperosmolar lubricants like KY warming jelly to irritation from fragrances.

Allergic reactions are when your body has an auto-immune response to a chemical.  These are more rare and depending on the person risk varies.  Some chemicals that are more likely to cause an allergic reaction are chlorhexidine and benzocaine. 

Celiac - If you are sensitive to gluten products try to avoid lubes with oat beta glutin and vitamin E tocopherals.  Your best choice would be the Sliquid Naturals line of lube.

Other Reactions

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) - rare type of infection that happens when bacterial infections get out of control.
  • Sexual development problems - ingredients classified as Xenoestrogens mimic estrogen and can cause feminizing in male bodies and masculinizing in female bodies.

Lube Chemistry 101

This section will go deeper into the vaginal ecosystem and explore how lube interacts with cells of tissue.

Osmolality

The concentration of suspended particles in a solution is called osmolality, measured in mOsm/kg.  Pure water has an osmolality of 0 mOsm/kg, the fluids in the living cells of vaginal tissue have an osmolality of 285-295 mOsm/kg, and the osmolality of water-based lubricants ranges anywhere from 100 - 10,000 mOsm/kg.

Lubricants can be Hyper-osmolar, Hypo-osmolar, or Iso-osmolar.

[osmolality illustration]

Hyperosmolar lubes have much higher osmolality than the vagina and rectum. 

If a hyperosmolar lubricant makes contact with your cells, then osmosis occurs, causing the lubricant to suck water out.  This causes your cells to shrivel and eventually die, increasing risk of infection, STIs, chronic dryness and irritation[1][6][4][78]. A 2010 study showed that mice exposed to the hyperosmolar K-Y warming jelly were 9 times more likely to get herpes than a control group.[8]

Examples of Hyper-osmotic lubes:

  • K-Y Jelly - 2,000 mOsm/kg
  • Astroglide - 6,000 mOsm/kgIs
  • K-Y Warming Jelly - 10,300 mOsm/kg

Hypo-osmotic - If the tables are turned, and the lube has a much lower osmolality than the vaginal cells, the lube is called Hypo-osmotic.  In this case, the cells suck water out of the lube until they are bloated or burst.  In one study, the hypo-osmolar lubricant 'Slippery Stuff', was shown to cause damage to the epithelial cell layer of the rectum, while iso-osmotic and silicone-based lubricants in the same test did not.[6]  Other than this study, there is very little research on the effects of hypo-osmotic lubricants.

Iso-osmotic Lubricants match your mucosa's natural osmolality of 285-295 mOsm/kg[6].  These are the safest lubricants and have been shown to not only leave the epithelial layer unscathed, but also restore and rejuvenate cell growth.[6]

Graph of Lube Osmolalities

[graph of osmolality]

Osmometers

An osmometer is a tool used to measure osmolality (and one of my favorite words to say three times fast).  In the study Is Wetter Better? researchers examined the osmolality of 10 common lubricants using a vapor pressure 5520 osmometer made by Wescor.  The same model is available used for $3950 on labx.com.

lube osmolality measuring tool

Vapor Pressure 5520 Osmometer

The Vaginal Ecosystem

[image, layers of the vaginal wall]

Female sex organs are naturally self-cleaning.  The vaginal canal produces a mucous that naturally protects it from harmful microorganisms[60][57].  Natural bacteria called Lactobacillum increase the acidity of the mucous to further up the defenses.[2] 

The ecosystem is delicate though, and if disturbed self-cleaning mechanisms can and this leads to infection.

To better understand what can cause it to go out of balance, let's go over some important parts of the vaginal ecosystem.

  • Epithelial Layer
  • Mucous Membrane
  • Microbial Flora
  • pH

Epithelial Layer (Epithelium) 

A thin tissue that forms a protective outer layer on most surfaces on the body.

Both the vagina and the rectum have epithelium that prevents pathogens and STIs from entering the blood stream.

Some dangerous lubes like Nonoxynol-9 can strip this layer from the vagina, causing pain and increase STI risk.

Mucous Membrane (Mucosa)

An epithelial layer on top of connective tissue is a membrane. The skin on your hands and most of your body is a cutaneous membrane.  

Mucous membranes are moist skin inside orifices like the nose, mouth, vagina and rectum.  They produce mucous that blocks pathogens and dust, and add lubrication for things coming in and out of the body.

Bad lubes can dry out the mucous membrane which leads to epithelial damage, and less defense against pathogens.

Flora & Lactobacilli

[image, gatekeepers of the vagina]

Flora are the natural microorganisms and bacteria that occur in the body.  Vaginal flora are especially important and act as gatekeepers, protecting from bad bacteria and STIs.

One of the most common types of Flora is lactobacilli, which produces lactic acid to lower the vagina's pH and make it inhospitable to bad bacteria.  They also attach themselves to the epithelial cells, preventing bad bacteria from having a place to set up shop.

If a bad lube kills off the lactobacilli the gates to the vagina are left open and unguarded.  Bad bacteria swoop in and take over, causing infections like bacterial vagenosis.

One study found that K-Y Jelly killed three types of Lactobacillus it was applied to, which researchers believed this was caused by the ingredient Chlorahexidine, a strong preservative.[1]

One study found that the types of microorganisms in a vagina's floral makeup varies greatly by ethnicity, with some people having lower amounts of Lactobacilli and higher amounts of other bacterias.[76][73]  This might explain why some women are at more at risk than others when it comes to bacteria infections.

pH

[pH diagram, showing pH of vagina, rectum, and semen]

pH measures acidity on a scale from 0-14 with 0 being the most acidic and 14 being the least acidic.  The vagina fluctuates from 4-5.5 pH depending on where you are in your cycle.  The rectum is about 7 pH.

In women with bacterial and yeast infections, vaginal pH typically indicates a decrease in Lactobacilli and an overgrowth of E. coli and Gardnerella bacteria.[2]

Some lubes can raise the pH of the vagina and increase the risks of bacteria infections.

Lube pH

When picking a lube, you want something that is in this pH 3.5 - 7 range, preferably around 5.  If the pH is too low the lube can sting, and too high ph can disarm the vagina's natural defenses and increase risk of yeast infections and BV[3].

Since the rectum has a lower acidity than the vagina it's a good idea to pick separate lubes for each.  A vaginal lube's higher acidity can even sting if used anally.

Ingredients

Chemicals you put inside your vagina or rectum can enter right into your blood stream.  Mucosa tissues absorb chemicals much more than skin on the hands and arms[2].  So well in fact, that some drugs are better delivered vaginally than orally[60].

So when it comes to lubricants, you really want to make sure that you trust the ingredients to be natural and kind once they are inside your body.  Especially since the long-term effects of some synthetic lube ingredients like parabens and chlorahexidine is not well known.[2]

To help you make more informed decisions this guide will cover common lube ingredients and scientific studies performed on their risks.

For most personal lubricants, the ingredients fall into these categories:

  • Base (Water in water-based lubes)
  • Preservatives and Microbicides
  • Thickeners
  • Surfactants
  • Flavors & Fragrances

There are 4 main types of lube bases: water-based, silicone-based, oil-based, and hybrid. Water-based lubes account for 72.5% of all lubes sold [77] and are more likely to cause irritation than the other types of lubricant.

Preservatives & Microbicides

Preservatives need to be in a sweet spot: not too strong and not too weak.

Too weak, and water-based lubes can spoil; too strong, and they can eat away at the good stuff like your epithelial layer and vaginal flora.  

Chlorhexidine (Preservative)

Citric Acid (Preservative)

Nonoxynol-9 (Spermicide, Microbicide, Surfactant)

Parabens (Preservative)

Polyquaterniums (Preservative, Thickener)

Sodium Hydroxide (Preservative)

Risky

  • Parabens
  • Sodium Hydroxide
  • Nonoxynol-9
  • Benzyl Alcohol
  • Diazolidinyl Urea
  • Chlorhexidine Gluconate
  • Polyquaterniums

Safer

  • Citric Acid
  • Potassium Sorbate

Thickeners, Excipients, Gelling-Agents

All these words refer to the same type of ingredient.  They are used to help thicken the base, usually water, so it stays in one place.  Without thickeners the lube would be more like water and run all over the place.

Aloe Vera  (Base, Thickener)

Carageenan (Thickener)

Glycerin (Thickener, humectant)

Risky

  • Glycerin

Safer

  • Carrageenan
  • Aloe Vera

Petrochemicals

These are derived from crude oil and petroleum and used as thickeners and surfactants.  Petrochemicals increase the osmolality of a lubricant[1], so I'd recommend avoiding lubricants with these ingredients.

Some lubricants have a bio-derived version of propylene glycol.  This has a similar chemical structure but comes from plants instead of crude oil.

Risky

  • Propylene Glycol 
  • Glycerin(e)
  • Butylene Glycol,
  • Ethylenes,
  • Petroleum,
  • Mineral Oil

Safer

  • Carrageenan
  • Aloe Vera

Fragrances and Flavors

Avoid flavored lubricants containing sugars, honeys and sugar alcohols.  They may work well for oral sex with penises, but for vaginas the sugars feed yeast and increase the risk of infection.

Risky

  • Menthol
  • Honey
  • Maltodextrin

Safer

  • Asparatime

Aloe Vera  (Base, Thickener)

Benzocaine (Numbing Agent)

Carageenan (Thickener)

Chlorhexidine (Preservative)

Citric Acid (Preservative)

Glycerin (Thickener, humectant)

Nonoxynol-9 (Spermicide, Microbicide, Surfactant)

Parabens (Preservative)

Polyquaterniums (Preservative, Thickener)

Propanediol Petrolium-Free (Surfactant)

Sodium Hydroxide (Preservative)

Water (Base)

Humectants & Dispersants

These prevent the lube from separating into different liquids and from evaporating.  Some petroleum based humectants can greatly increase the osmolality of a lubricant.

Risky

  • Sulfates
  • Glycols
  • Nonoxynol-9
  • PEGs
  • Polyquarterniums
  • Chlorhexidine Gluconate

Safer

  • Bio-derived Propanediol

Behind The Label

For this section, i've put together a list of several example lubes in each lube category.

Jump To

1. Water-based Lubricants

2. Silicone-based Lubricants

3. Plant and Oil-based Lubricants

4. Hybrid Lubricants

Water-based Lubes

Water-based lubricants are made up of over 90% water.  Other ingredients are added to make the water more ideal for sex.  

Thickeners prevent the water from running all over the place, giving a lube-y feeling.  

Humectants keep the water from evaporating too quickly.

Preservatives increase the lubes shelf life and prevent mold and bacteria from growing.

lube with bad ingredients

K-Y Jelly

Ingredients: Water, Glycerin, Chlorhexidine, Gluconate, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Gluconolactone, Methylparaben, Sodium Hydroxide

Astroglide Liquid

Ingredients: Glycerin, Propylene Glycol, Polyquarternium-15, Methylparaben, Propylparaben

Sliquid H20

Ingredients: Purified Water, Plant Cellulose (from Cotton), Cyamopsis (Guar Conditioners), Potassium Sorbate,  Citric Acid

Waterslide

Ingredients: Water, Propanediol,  Carrageenan, Citric Acid

Sutil Luxe

Ingredients:  Water, Propanediol (Botanical Source), Hyaluronic Acid (Botanical Source), Nelumbo Nucifera Root Extract, (Lotus Root), Oat Beta Glucan, Gluconolactone, Sodium Benzoate, Citric Acid.

Silicone Based Lubes

Silicone-based lubricants have less ingredients, usually 2 or 3, and they don't need preservatives, thickeners, or humectants.  Because they are inert and non-toxic they are great lubes for sex, especially anal.

They've also been shown to have no effect on the healthy Lactobacillus bacteria in the vagina, and caused no damage to vaginal or gastrointestinal tract tissues.[6]  This is a great type of lubricant if safety is your concern.

The main downside of silicone lubricants is they dissolve silicone toys.  There's a technical chemical reason for this, when silicone meets silicone they act like a magnet to each other.  Just be sure to keep your silicone toys away from silicone lubes.

It's also not water-soluble, making it difficult to clean.  I rub it off with a towel but your hands will still have a bit of slickness to them for a while, like after applying a lotion.  The good thing about their water-resistance is they can be used as lubes in the shower or tub.  The lube will naturally exit the vagina and rectum on its own a few hours after use.

Sliquid Silver

Ingredients: Cyclopentasiloxane, Dimethicone, Dimethiconol

Uber Lube

Ingredients: Dimethicone, Dimethiconal, Cyclomethicone, Tocopheryl Acetate (Vitamin E)

Pjur Back Door

Ingredients: Cyclopentasiloxane, Dimethicone, Dimethiconol, Jojoba

Plant and Oil-Based Lubes

Instead of water these lubes use bases like cocoa butter, coconut oil, aloe vera, and sunflower seed oil.  These bases are naturally good lubricants and require less stabilizing ingredients than water-based lubricants.

Proper plant oil based lubes are hydrating, natural, and gentle on the mucous membranes.  You don't need to worry about osmolality with these lubes since they are not water-based.

A common natural lube is unrefined virgin coconut oil (don't get liquid/fractionated coconut oil).

All oil based lubes don't work well with latex condoms though, only nitrile and polyurethane condoms.  And you also can't use them on porous sex toys which will absorb the lube.  Stick to using non-porous toys like silicone, metal, and glass.

Almost Naked

Ingredients: Organic Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Xanthan Gum, Agar, Lactic Acid, Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Benzoate, Natural Flavor

Coconu

Ingredients:  Sunflower Seed Oil, Coconut Oil, Beeswax, Shea Butter, Theobroma Cacao (Cocoa) Seed Butter, Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Oil, Canola Oil, Aleurites Moluccana (Kukui) Seed Oil, Hippophae Rhamnoides (Sea Buckthorn) Oil, Tocopherol (Non-GMO)

The Butters Lube

Ingredients:  Raw cocoa butter, organic aloe vera, raw shea butter, pure coconut oil, pure extra virgin olive oil, pure grapeseed oil, apple cider vinegar, sea salt

Hybrid Lubes

Hybrid lubricants are made by combining water-based lubes with a bit of silicone lube.  Lubes like Sliquid Silk have about 10% silicone, making them safe to use on silicone toys.  They are also easier to clean off than silicone lube and come off with a quick shower.

Sliquid Silk

Ingredients:  Purified Water, Plant Cellulose, Isopropyl Palmitate, Polysorbate 20, Dimethicone, Emollient Ester, Potassium Sorbate, Citric Acid

Good Vibes Please Cream

Ingredients:  water, sorbitol, isopropyl palmitate, dimethicone, glyceryl stearate, cetearyl alcohol, ceteareth 20, polysorbate-20, cellulose gum, sclerotium gum, potassium sorbate, citric acid, sodium benzoate, disodium edta

A Healthier Lube For Every Occasion

Hopefully now you have an understanding of how lubricants work and which ingredients and brands to avoid.  In this section I will use what we learned above to show you the best lubes for certain uses and effects.

Anal Lubes

Anal lubes need to long lasting, thick, and also gentle on the skin.

  • Aloe Cadabra (good for sensitive skin or people with allergies)
  • Sliquid Satin (good for sensitive skin or people with allergies)
  • Southern Butter Bliss-on
  • Ride H20
  • Sliquid Organics Gel

Lubes For Conception

Lubes with glycerin can damage sperms and slow their sprint to the uterus.  Here are some glycerin free lubes that will help, not hinder, the baby making process.  

  • Waterslide - good for sensitive skin or skin allergies, good if you are prone to chronic BV or yeast infections.
  • Coconu Water Based - Natural and organic
  • Yes Baby - Natural and organic
  • Preseed
  • Sliquid Organics Oceanics

Flavored Lubes

When it comes to flavored lubes it is important to avoid products that contain sugars and sugar derivatives, which can cause a yeast infection.  The flavored lubes in this list contain natural flavorings that don't mask natural tastes just enhance them.

  • Hathor Lubricant Lickeurs - natural and organic
  • Sliquid swirl - eight flavors
  • Aloe Cadabra Flavored Lubes (Tastiest)
  • Blossom Organics - Doesn't taste bad

Warming and Stimulating Lubes

Warming and stimulating lubes contain different herbal extracts.  Some contain small amounts of Capsaicin which is also in chilli peppers.

  • Power Glide - Best for penises
  • On Arousal Oil
  • Arousal Balm
  • Southern Butter Enhance Balm
  • Hathor Aphrodisia (Warming)
  • Aloe Cadabra Peppermint Tingle (Warming)
  • Blossom Organics Warm Sensation (Warming)

My Favorite Lube Companies

Just like sex toys, it's important to choose lube brands that care about your health and won't take advantage of the lack of regulation.

Here's a list of companies vetted and sold by sex-positive shops around the US.

Works Cited:

[1] https://cen.acs.org/articles/90/i50/Studies-Raise-Questions-Safety-Personal.html , Studies Raise Questions About Safety Of Personal Lubricants

Disclaimer:

I am not a scientist or a medical professional. I've compiled this information by reading over 100 scientific journals, interviews, and studies.