Could Your Lube be Hurting You?
- Written by Nancy Hoi Wong OTD, OTR/L, RYT200
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Personal lubricant (lube) is something most people will use at least once during their sexual lifetimes, if not every time they are sexually active.
What are lubricants?
Lubricants are fluid or gel substances designed to offset genital dryness or inadequate natural lubrication which can be associated with discomfort or pain with sex or general activity. Lubes can be used for sexual activity, or just to alleviate dryness throughout the day.
Vaginal dryness is a common symptom during aging and menopause, breastfeeding, medical conditions including diabetes, and also a side effect of cancer treatment and some medications. Applying a thin layer of lubricant can help with dryness and irritation during the day.
For sexual activity, lubricants are a fantastic tool (if you find the right one)!
- Be used for penetrative and non-penetrative sex, masturbation, and sex toy play
- Improve lubrication, pleasure, and moisture
- Decrease friction and discomfort
- Decrease failure of sexual barriers (IF COMPATIBLE, more on that later)
- Takes some pressure off the body to “perform” and create enough moisture
- Makes sexual activities possible for many folks
Common types of lubricants: oil, water-based, and silicone
Water-based lube are ideal for people with sensitive skin or vaginal irritation and are safe to use with condoms and sex toys. However make sure your lube has proper osmolality and pH level (read below). Water-based lubes tend to get "sticky" and you may need to re-apply if you are engaging in sex for a long time.
Silicone-based lube is very slippery and long lasting and is safe to use with condoms. However, silicone-based lubes cannot be used with silicone sex toys, as they can damage the toy. Silicone-based lubes may be more difficult to wash off skin than water-based and may stain sheets, so keep that in mind.
Oil-based lube (we like to recommend organic coconut oil) is slippery and lasts longer than water-based lube. However, oil based lubes are not compatible with latex condoms, as they make the condoms easier to break. Like silicone-based lube, oil-based can stain sheets and be harder to wash off than water-based lube.
Problems with Lubricants
In 2012 the World Health Organization released an Advisory Note that underscored the importance of appropriate pH as well as osmolality of personal lubricant, it’s also important to be on the lookout for toxic chemicals in your lube as well.
The pH of a lubricant should match the area you’re using it with.
Vaginal: The pH of a lubricant to be used vaginally should be pH 3.8- 4.5. Lubricants with pH above 4.5 will increase risk of bacterial vaginosis. Unfortunately, many commercially available lubricants have pH levels far exceeding 4.5.
Anal: Lubricants to be used anally should have a pH level of 5.5 – pH 7.
High osmolality can damage tissue and increase risk of infection and disease transmission.
Many lubes on the market have a high osmolality, which is a high ability to draw moisture out of tissues and cells. Lubricant with a higher osmolality than normal vaginal secretions can damage vaginal tissue and breakdown mucous membranes which lead to irritation, reduced protection against infection, and increased transmission risk of sexually transmitted infections including HIV.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends osmolalities of less than 380 mOsm/kg, or at most 1200 mOsm/kg
Stay away from toxic chemicals in your lubricants.
Chemical ingredients found in lubricants can be toxic to vaginal tissue and harm the microbiome.
Chlorhexidine gluconate – A disinfectant chemical that can kill strains of lactobacillus, which is a bacteria that is necessary for a healthy vagina.
Parabens (look for methylparaben and/or propylparaben) — Preservative chemicals that can irritate vaginal mucous membranes, contribute to genital rashes, and potentially cause fertility problems and endocrine disruption.
Cyclomethicone, cyclopentasiloxane and cyclotetrasiloxane — Commonly found in silicone-based lubricants, these substances are linked to reproductive harm and uterine cancer in animal studies. Almost no research has ever been conducted to examine the long term impacts of vaginal exposure to these chemicals in women.
Undisclosed flavors or fragrance — Be weary of ingredient lists that generically list “flavor”, “fragrance” or “aroma.” Flavors, fragrances, and aromas can include a mix of chemicals which can cause irritation and allergy. 
Lube and Fertility
There are some lubes on the market with pH levels that do not affect sperm motility (Pre-Seed and Yes Baby). Lubes with low pH and high osmolality decrease sperm motility. The best conditions for sperm survival is pH 7.2-8.5 and osmolality 270-360 mOsm/kg.
Takeaways: Picking the right lube for you
- Make sure your lube matches what you want to use it for (vaginal vs anal, penetrative vs superficial skin contact, oral, etc.)
- For Vaginal intercourse, pick a lube that is pH 3.8- 4.5 and osmolality under 380 mOsm/kg, or at most 1200 mOsm/kg
- For Anal intercourse, pick a lube that is pH 5.5 –7 and osmolality under 380 mOsm/kg, or at most 1200 mOsm/kg
- Check out this chart published by the World Health Organization (WHO) listing brand names of lubricants and the pH levels and osmolalities of each product.
- Look at the ingredients list and avoid chemicals listed in this article.
- Avoid unneeded smells, flavors, heating, or cooling chemicals.
- Notice if you feel any stinging, burning, or irritation after using a lubricant and discontinue use if you notice any reactions
World Health Organization. Use and procurement of additional lubricants for male and female condoms: WHO/UNFPA/FHI (2012) http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/76580/1/WHO_RHR_12.33_eng.pdf
World Health Organization (2012) Use and procurement of additional lubricants for male and female condoms: WHO/UNFPA/FHI360 Advisory note. Department of Reproductive Health and Research. 2012. Available at: http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/76580/1/WHO_RHR_12.33_eng.pdf
Dezzutti CS, Brown ER, Moncla B, Russo J, Cost M, Wang L, Uranker K, Kunjara Na Ayudhya RP, Pryke K, Pickett J, Leblanc MA and Rohan LC. (2012) Is wetter better? An evaluation of over-the-counter personal lubricants for safety and anti-HIV-1 activity. PLoS One.7(11):e48328. 2012. Available at: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0048328
Fontaine, M. (2016). Slippery When Wet: Is Your Lubricant Causing Pelvic Pain, Infections, or Fertility Problems? Available at: http://pelvicpainrehab.com/female-pelvic-pain/3836/slippery-wet-lubricant-causing-pelvic-pain-infections-fertility-problems/
Smith, KW, Souter, I, Ehrlich,S, Williams, PL, Calafat, AM and Hauser, R. (2013) Urinary paraben concentrations and ovarian aging among women from a fertility center. Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 121, Issue 11-12, pp. 1299-1305. December 2013.
Women’s Voices for the Earth (2015). Slippery Slope: Potential Hazards of Lubricants for Women. Available at: https://www.womensvoices.org/lubricants-womens-health/
Women’s Voices for the Earth (2015) Fragrance Chemicals of Concern Present on the IFRA List 2015. Available at: https://www.womensvoices.org/fragrance-ingredients/fragrance-chemicals-of-concern-on-ifra-list/