What personal lubricant do i choose and why?
In a nutshell, lubricants facilitate slide and glide of one part of the body on another in any sexual activity that might or might not include vaginal penetration. In many areas of our work, for example with women who have pain with vaginal penetration, or for men after prostate surgery who don’t have erection sufficient for penetration, we are trying to broaden minds to consider “sex” to include all things intimate that feel good and a lubricant may help us discover these things.
For many women, their own vaginal lubrication is enough for vaginal sex. The lining of the vagina produces natural lubrication in response to arousal. But there are many times in a woman’s life when this natural response doesn’t occur so well and vaginal dryness occurs. The most common factor is low oestrogen which is a fact post menopause or for when women are breast feeding. Women who are treated with oestrogen depletion treatment after breast cancer commonly experience vaginal dryness.
Many women relate to the reality of those times in life when we are juggling all our roles as worker, mother, partner and we’re just exhausted. We want intimacy with our partner but sometimes, a lubricant might just help us get things going! Likewise sex toys might just enhance pleasure and a lubricant might be needed. Lack of one’s own lubrication shouldn’t be seen as a sign of lack of desire. We should accept that help from a personal lubricant is all that’s needed.
But many options confront us: oil based, water based, silicone based, warming, flavoured, organic, hypoallergenic, all natural, plant based. …how on earth to me make an informed choice?
The aim of this blog is to try and bring some clarity to the subject.
So let’s start with a little bit of anatomy
the vagina is has a dense supply of blood vessels and produces mucus that protects against and washes away harmful bacteria. The lining of the vagina is a “mucous membrane” and secretes and absorbs fluids at a higher rate than the skin. Therefore we need to make sure that we don’t use products with chemicals that might be absorbed into our bodies and be harmful.
Likewise, we need to make sure that the product we use doesn’t actually take too much water out of the vaginal surface. The process of water crossing a membrane in the body is called “osmosis”. So certain products can actually pull water out of the vaginal surface by osmosis if the product being used is too concentrated.
The vagina has a naturally acidic PH level of around 3.4 to 4.5. This PH level enables the vagina to fight off bad bacteria. If we apply products that upset this balance, we may set outselves up for vaginal bacterial or yeast infections (eg thrush or bacterial vaginosis).
The vaginal wall can be irritated by preservatives. Most of us have worked out we need to avoid parabens in beauty products such as skin creams and hair products, so why would we put parabens into the vagina? (Wendee Nicole 2014)
So lets think now about the pros and cons of the 3 main categories of lubricant: water based, oil based and silicone based.
Water based lubricants
The main benefits of water based products is that they are cheaper than other products to make so they will be cheaper to buy. They also clean up easily: so they wash off the skin easily and linen won’t be stained. A good water based lubricant can mimic and feel very much like our own natural lubricant. BUT, if sex is to take place in water, a water based lubricant will wash off immediately. Water based lubricants are safe to use with latex condoms or condoms made with non latex polyurethane.
However because the main ingredient is water, thickeners have to be added to create a lubricant which can be applied to the skin. The thickeners might be glycerine or propylene glycol. In higher concentrations these will draw water out of the vaginal wall by osmosis. The scientific guidelines are very specific about how much is allowed in a product but does the packaging tell us what concentrations of what are inside? Not always….. The World Health Organisation recommends that these products would not be more than 9.9% of the total product. (WHO 2014) How do we work this out from the ingredients listed? i don’t know….
Water based products also need preservatives which most commonly might be parabens (for those wanting exact details, parabens are esters of P-hydroxybenzoic acid). Other preservatives include sorbic acid, sorbates, phenoxyethanol, benzoic acid. Parabens may be toxic to the skin and cause micro damage. We are familiar with paraben free products elsewhere in the body so why would we use them vaginally? The Yes Organic intimate product company writes about phenoxyethanol as the safest preservative and they use it in their water based products.
Citric acid in the ingredients will be there to help achieve the correct acidic, vaginal PH value of 3.5 to 4.5.
There are many, many water based products on the market all vying for your dollar. You will notice that many claim to be organic and when you look at the ingredients there might be guar gum, flax extract, kiwifruit extract and other plant based products. Perhaps it might make sense to choose organic if you don’t want any possibility of residual pesticide passing into your body from non organic natural products.
You will also notice perfumes and flavours in some products. Again, it is for you to decided if you want these added ingredients.
So when choosing a good water based product, buy from reputable places. Perhaps go online and read the small print, or to a sex shop where staff are often very knowledgable. Or ask us! Be prepared to try a few out. Some are thicker, some are thinner, some are stickier, some are just perfect for you.
From all my reading for this blog, i can mention 2 products that tick the boxes for products that tick boxes for ideal pH and osmolality: “Good Clean Love Water Based Lubricant” and “Yes organic vaginal lubricant”. I will try and keep up the research and see if i can find more to add.
Silicone based lubricants do not need added ingredients beyond just silicone. Silicone is an inert substance which doesn’t allow the growth of bacteria so preservatives don’t need to be added. Silicones are naturally thick so thickeners don’t need to be added. But, silicone based products tend to be more expensive. However silicone does not get absorbed into the skin so it doesn’t need re-application as regularly as water based. It does leave a very fine coat on the skin even after washing which is not unpleasant. It is therefore suitable for use for sex in water.
One of the big drawbacks of silicone based lubricants is that supposedly they can’t be used with silicone based sex toys. But there are sources pointing out that if you buy high quality silicone products, it will take many years for the silicone of the vibrator or sex toy to be degraded. Many women might be put off using silicone products for this reason and this is a shame. Silicone products are a great choice for a lot of people.
Oil based lubricants
Oil based lubricants can be sensual and feel great for all forms of massage. There are some who point out that for massage elsewhere in the body, oil is great, but for the vagina, perhaps not so.
Oils and oil based lubricants should not be used with latex condoms. The latex degrades quickly and the condom may break much more easily. If you use non latex condoms, then oil based is fine. Oil can mark bedding and clothes making cleaning difficult. As a natural lubricant, olive oil has been studied as an option for women managing vaginal dryness after breast cancer. Colourless olive oil can be bought at some Pharmacies as “olive oil B.P.”. We recommend olive oil for therapies for women trying to overcome sensitivity and pain from certain conditions and it is considered safe but research is limited.
It is not in the scope of this blog to talk of lubricants suitable for men who have sex with men or the specifics of lubricants for anal sex where the anal canal has a different pH to the vagina. Nor is it in the scope of this blog to discuss specific vaginal “moisturisers” or lubricants for those trying to conceive.
Several articles were used in the writing of this blog. I would like to acknowledge:
World Health Organisation guidelines for use and procurement of additions lubricants for male and female condoms (2014)
N Wendee, Environmental Health Perspectives volume 122, number 3, 2014
Edwards and Panay, Climacteric vol 19 No 2 2016