When you were a kid, did you ever play on a Slip ‘N Slide? Pretty good times, right? Yeah! Well, good times until you hit that one dry spot. Ouch. Not fun. Sex without lube, then, is kind of like a Slip ‘N Slide without nearly enough water.
Why use Lube?
At The CSPH, we strongly recommend that lube becomes your best friend for all sexy times — for masturbating, for penetrative vaginal sex, certainly for any and all types of anal play, and beyond. As a rule, we always recommend lube because, fundamentally, it makes sex safer — it minimizes chances of injury, thereby diminishing the risk of STI transmission. By reducing friction, it also makes condoms less likely to break. And the additional slipperiness just makes sex more fun! (Like a Slip ‘N Slide with plenty of water.)
Many vulva-owners experience some degree of chronic vaginal dryness. Actually, vaginal wetness isn’t necessarily correlated with arousal at all; it can be, but it is not always for everyone. A vulva-owner can be totally turned on and ready to go but completely dry. (Conversely, a vulva-owner can also be really wet while otherwise completely not aroused, just going about daily business. Vaginal lubrication is not necessarily reliable or predictable!) Also, certain prescriptions can contribute to vaginal dryness, including but not limited to hormonal birth control, antidepressants, and antihistamines. Since vaginal lubrication is not always — or even usually — sufficient for penetrative vaginal sex, we recommend lube for these activities.
Also, the anus is not self-lubricating at all. Anal tissue is approximately 40% thinner than vaginal tissue, too, which makes it more prone to fissures and injury. All of that being said, lube for any type of anal play is a must, both for pleasure and for safety.
All of that being said, we want to stress before we proceed that lube is better than no lube. There are certain lubes that may be better suited for certain activities. As with most consumer products, some lubes are higher quality and ultimately more body-safe than others. At The CSPH, we do recommend certain, more body-safe lubes over others. Still, at the end of the day, as long as you’re using some kind of lube, it’s better than nothing. We hope to educate about many different issues specifically regarding lube, but please bear that in mind as you read. So, again, remember:
Lube is better than no lube.
Some people are sensitive to certain products commonly found in drugstore lubes. Luckily, research has isolated the main ingredients that are most commonly irritating for folks. Those are most notably glycerin, propylene glycol, and parabens. Some folks might think, “Yeah, I tried this KY stuff one time and got a beastly yeast infection, so I don’t think lube is for me.” To that, we say: Hold up! That’s just one type of lube, my friend, and it probably contained at least one commonly irritating ingredient. There are lots of other options. Here’s a short, sweet chemistry lesson for you.
Glycerin is in most drugstore lubricants — you know, your standard KYs and Astroglides. Unless otherwise specified, it’s in most drugstore lubes. Glycerin is a humectant, meaning that it absorbs ambient water and locks in moisture. This obviously makes it ideal for lube and many other personal care products as well, including lotion and many cosmetics. Glycerin, too, is sweet and safe to eat; it’s also in plenty of food products. There are many reasons companies use glycerin; it’s dynamic, inexpensive, and, fundamentally, safe; it doesn’t degrade condoms, it’s non-toxic, and it’s easy to clean up.
Still, some vulva-owners prone to irritation and/or yeast infections find glycerin problematic. Glycerin is not a type of sugar, but it is chemically very similar to glucose. If you have a generally sensitive vagina or you’re prone to yeast infections, glycerin can bring on a yeast infection or simply cause irritation. If you use lubes that contain glycerin and get a yeast infection or experience irritation, we recommend avoiding them in the future. Higher-quality products usually do not contain glycerin since glycerin can become sticky and tacky in an uncomfortable way. (Not to be elitist about it, but we’re just sayin’.) Still, all things considered, it’s important to note that glycerin is not inherently harmful or unsafe; it’s just not ideal for some people’s bodies. If you have a lube that contains glycerin that works for you, there’s no need to throw it out.
Lots of people are allergic or sensitive to propylene glycol, too. Like glycerin, propylene glycol is a humectant that is in a lot of personal care products. According to the Scholar Chemistry Material Safety Data Sheet, side effects of propylene glycol can include irritation and sensitivity to the eyes, skin, and mucous membranes. Yep, mucous membranes. You know what body parts are almost entirely comprised of mucous membranes? Vaginas and anuses. That being said, it might be wise to find a lube that doesn’t contain propylene glycol. Again, it’s not like it’s toxic, and some folks don’t experience much or any irritation from it. Still, if you use it and find that it’s irritating to you, we recommend a lube without propylene glycol. (More on our specific lube recommendations a little bit later as we break down specific types of lubes further.)
Also, an additional note on propylene glycol and glycerin: Recent research indicates that it may facilitate cell damage and small tears in mucous membranes, which can potentially lead to increased risk of STI transmission. Water-based lubes in general evaporate as you use them, which can contribute to chafing and subsequent minute fissures in mucous membranes. All of that being said, you may want to avoid lubes that contain propylene glycol and/or glycerin if you’re engaging in activities that pose a high risk of STI or HIV transmission, like unprotected anal sex. For low-risk activities, for masturbation, or if you know your partner’s status, however, it’s probably safe for you to use products that contain propylene glycol or glycerin provided they don’t irritate your body.
Parabens, too, can cause issues. According to research that has emerged in the last ten years or so, parabens — a common preservative found in nearly all beauty and personal care products — are potentially harmful, both for your body and the environment. Some folks report issues — like irritation and increased infection rates — after using lubes that contain parabens. The good news is that many lube manufacturers have begun making products without parabens in response to increased public awareness about their potential risks. If you’re on a budget or in need of a drugstore lube, Astroglide actually makes a pretty decent ultra-gentle water-based gel that does not contain parabens. You can pick that one up for a few bucks at most drugstores. Parabens might not be a big deal for you personally, though, and that’s okay. They are in many other personal care products, after all.
It’s also important to note that many high-quality and/or organic lubes contain aloe or aloe derivatives. Aloe can be a great ingredient for lots of folks with sensitive skin. If you’re allergic or sensitive to aloe, however, make sure to check the ingredients on your lube comprehensively before use.
The bottom line is that sex should ideally be both pleasurable and as healthy and safe as possible. Using an irritating lube can hinder both your pleasure and your safety. So, if you notice any itching, burning, or general irritation after using a certain lube, it’s best to discontinue use ASAP. You may also want to seek out lubes without certain ingredients for the reasons delineated above.
Sometimes, people hear the word “silicone” and have an immediate negative reaction. A person might think, “Silicone? That sure doesn’t sound natural! Should I really put that in my body? Is it safe? Will I have an allergic reaction?”
Here’s the thing — silicone itself is actually hypoallergenic, and most high-quality silicone lubricants contain five or fewer ingredients, so they can be awesome for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin. Silicone is condom-compatible, tasteless, and odorless. Some research indicates that high quality silicone-based lubricants do not increase your chances of contracting an STI while the additives in some common drugstore lubricants might. Silicone lubes don’t evaporate or “dry up” like water-based lubes do, which can make them safer in a number of ways. Silicone lube is not soluble in water, either. So, for steamy shower sex sessions or a hot tub romp, silicone lube could be a great option.
The risk of damage to cells and mucous membranes is lower with silicone based lubricant since it doesn’t evaporate. For this reason, we recommend silicone lube as a reliable option for anal sex. Again, however, we will stress that any lube is better than no lube.
Some people adore the ultra-slippery nature of silicone-based lube, and some people find it feels “gross” and difficult to wash off. To each their own, right? The bottom line, though, is that you won’t know till you try.
While we do recommend silicone lube for anal play, some folks don’t prefer it for that purpose. For some, the thinness of silicone-based lube might not be ideal for anal penetration. If this tends to be your experience, you could try combining a silicone lube in tandem with a more cushiony water-based one. You could also try a hybrid lube, or a thick water-based lube specifically manufactured for anal sex, like Sliquid Sassy.
Silicone Lube Reccomendations
As far as recommendations go, you really can’t do better than Uberlube as far as silicone-based lubes go. Uberlube is a very high-quality hypoallergenic silicone lube that contains only five ingredients. A little goes a very long way; honestly, just a tiny drop of Uberlube will gets you pretty dang far. It comes in a lovely glass bottle with a convenient pump. For some folks, though, it might almost be too slippery. (Seriously, y’all, the stuff is intense.) The silicone formulas from Pink and Gun Oil are body-safe, and can be purchased at most drugstores. (They are the exact same product, by the way, just with different marketing.) One: Move’s silicone formula is also at many drugstores these days. We also recommend Grizzly’s silicone formula, WET Platinum, and Wicked Ultra.
Words of caution with silicone lube
If you’re using silicone lube with a silicone toy, be careful — in some instances, silicone lube can bond to silicone toys and ruin them. You can always conduct a spot test by putting a small dab of lube on a non-essential part of the toy. The spot test method is somewhat fallible, however, in that sometimes damage is done to the toy over time rather than in one isolated incident. If you don’t want risk damaging a beloved silicone toy, you can cover the toy with a condom to protect it.
Also, be careful if you spill silicone lube on a smooth surface like a hardwood or linoleum floor since it’s thin, very, very slippery, and difficult to clean up. Also, it can stain fabrics, like clothes or bedsheets. Silicone lube, unlike water-based lube, is also flammable. So, please, put down those massage candles for now.
Water-based lubes are diverse and dynamic; they come in a wide range of consistencies and textures ranging from thin and slippery to thick, cushiony gel. If you’re unsure of what a product’s consistency will be, you can tilt the bottle slowly from side to side. If it moves easily and looks watery, it’s most likely going to be a thinner lube. If it doesn’t budge easily, it will probably be more gel-like. If your water-based lube dries up as you’re using it–as water-based lubes do–you can revive it with a little bit of water or a dab of saliva.
Our top water-based recommendations are: Sliquid H2O, Sliquid Organics, Sliquid Sassy, Aloe Cadabra, and Naturally Yours. All of Sliquid’s products are vegan, hypoallergenic, and free of gluten, glycerin, glycol, and parabens. The quality of their products is excellent, and essentially entirely natural, if that’s a point of concern for you. We will note that their Organics line contains aloe, so if you’re allergic, you should avoid that. For most folks, though, Sliquid is a very body-safe option for water-based lube. Also, although Sliquid Sassy was manufactured with anal penetration in mind, it’s simply a thicker, more gel-like version of Sliquid’s basic H2O formula that can be used for any type of sex.
As the name implies, hybrid lube — also often called “silk” lube — is a water-based lube smoothly blended with a little bit of silicone. Hybrid lubes were originally designed to treat vaginal dryness; as such, their texture mimics a vulva-owner’s vaginal secretions more closely than water-based or silicone-based lubes alone do. Liquid Silk, for example, is a very popular hybrid lube. (Although it does contain parabens, which may be something to consider.) Hybrid lubes can feel more oily or creamy than standard water-based or silicone-based lubes, and they last longer than most water-based lubes. Satin by Sliquid is another excellent hybrid lube, and it does not contain parabens. We also recommend Blossom Organics Natural Moisturizing Lube and Good Clean Love.
Oil-Based Lube & Masturbation Creams
Oil-based lubes, like silicone lubes, are ultra long-lasting. They’re very slippery, and they don’t evaporate. Oil-based lubes are often considered ideal for anal penetration in that they’re thick, heavy-duty, super-slippery, and very long-lasting. They can pose issues for vulva-owners, however, in that they can irritate vaginal tissue and throw off the vagina’s pH levels which can lead to infection. Also, since they don’t evaporate, they are difficult to clean out, which can increase a person’s chances of infection. At the end of the day, while some folks swear by oil-based lube, there are a number of concerns that go along with it.
Before we go any further, too, it’s important to stress that oil-based lubes are never compatible with latex. A latex condom will definitely break if you try to use it with an oil-based lube. (Yes, even coconut oil. The internet may tell you otherwise, but please take our word for it.) Oil-based lubes can, however, be used safely with internal condoms and any safer sex product made from polyurethane.
While oil-based lubes can pose problems for vulvas, they can be just fine for anuses and penises. There are many great masturbation creams out there for penis-owners, like Stroke 29 or Grizzly Bear Paw Masturbation Cream. (Stroke 29 does contain almond oil, however, so please steer clear if you’re allergic to nuts.)
In case you hadn’t heard, the dynamic uses of coconut oil have been heavily extolled by the beauty community over the last couple of years or so. Some folks say that coconut oil makes excellent lube, too. This has not been adequately researched, so we cannot actively recommend coconut oil as lube. If you’re committed to using coconut oil as lube, we recommend you pair it a non-latex condom, or an internal condom for vaginal or anal sex. Some vulva-owners may experience vaginal issues when using coconut oil as lube, but not for the reasons you might expect. Since coconut oil has antifungal properties, it can actually eliminate problematic bacteria or excess yeast. In that process, however, it can sometimes wipe out good bacteria along with the bad, which can potentially upset the vagina’s pH balance. All in all, though, coconut oil could potentially be a good option for folks with lots of sensitivities since it’s 100% natural, without any preservatives or additives. (Coconut oil also makes an excellent massage oil, for your reference. Ha-cha-cha.) However, although this may be true, The CSPH still recommends products that are explicitly intended to be used as lubricants. There are plenty of high-quality lubes on the market today that are manufactured without additives or preservatives.
Oil-based lubes are, according to some, a must-have for anal fisting. At The CSPH, we always recommend gloves for fisting to minimize risk of injury. Non-latex gloves — like nitrile, for example — would be a good option if you’re going to use an oil-based lube for anal fisting.
Flavored lubes can be fun and delicious. Most flavored lubes are not recommended for internal use since they contain ingredients that can be irritating, like sucralose, glycerin, and various types of glycol, all of which can bring on yeast infections for vulva-owners and potential irritation for anus-owners, which is…everyone. Sliquid’s Swirl line is actually delicious; the blue raspberry flavor tastes just like a Jolly Rancher — no lie. Those are safe for internal use, as are some other organic, all-natural brands, like Naturally Yours.
Lube and Conception & Pregnancy
If you’re trying to get pregnant, we recommend that you use a fertility-friendly lube, such as Pre-Seed or YES Baby. Most lubes, unless otherwise specified, have been shown in clinical studies to reduce sperm mobility. (Although, hey now — don’t get carried away, all you folks who don’t want to get pregnant. You can absolutely still get pregnant if you’re using lube; make no mistake.) We’re simply saying that, if you’re actively trying to get pregnant, we recommend an expressly fertility-friendly lube. Many vulva-owners experience stress when attempting to conceive; 75% of vulva-owners trying to conceive experience stress-related vaginal dryness. A fertility-friendly lube like Pre-Seed or YES Baby, then, works by mimicking a vulva-owner’s fertile body fluids. Usually, fertility-friendly lubes come with disposable applicators so you can adequately lubricate inside and out before intercourse. The lube actually assists rather than hinders sperm mobility, and it feels great to boot.
Some vulva-owners experience severe vaginal dryness during pregnancy, so lube could become even more crucial to happy, healthy sexy times. As far as the best types of lubes to use while pregnant, we recommend all-natural water-based formulas. See the water-based section above for our water-based recommendations.
One may ask, “If the point of lube is to add moisture during intercourse, what is the difference? Much like one might use a heavy duty skin protectant, like Aquaphor if you wanted to prevent chapped skin, sexual lubricants are designed to reduce friction, not replace moisture. Vaginal moisturizers are more like a typical hand lotion…for the vulva. An important distinction here is that, much like squares and rectangles, some lubes, like Sliquid Satin, are also vaginal moisturizers, but not all vaginal moisturizers, like Neogyn, are lubes.
Desensitizing or Numbing Lubes
Some lubricants contain lidocaine or benzocaine, which are supposed to numb or desensitize body parts, like the anus or vagina. Sometimes, they’re also used to dull sensation in the penis in order for a penis-owner to “last longer” during intercourse. Numbing lubes are most typically touted for use, however, during anal sex. At The CSPH, we don’t recommend these products; in fact, we recommend that you actively steer clear of them.
Contrary what some folks have mistakenly come to believe, anal sex should not be painful. No type of sex should be.
If any type of sex is painful or uncomfortable for you, that is your body attempting to send you an important signal. When your body signals that something is painful, it’s best to take heed rather than cover up the sensation. If you block or numb your pain receptors, you could end up getting hurt, and we never want that! For this reason, we recommend against desensitizing lubes as a general rule.
Warming & Cooling Lubes
Some people seek out warming and cooling lubes since they can provide interesting sensations on the surface of the skin. Warming lubes often contain small amounts of capsaicin, the hot and spicy substance found in hot peppers. (For a lot of people, capsaicin is too much to handle, especially when used over time.) Some manufacturers will use vanillyl butyl ether to create a warming sensation instead of capsaicin since it is less likely to induce negative side effects. Cooling lubes usually contain some amount of either peppermint oil (AKA “mentha piperita extract”) or menthol, which is just synthetic peppermint oil.
Overall, the key ingredients in warming and cooling lubes are body-safe. However, we don’t recommend warming and cooling lubes to be used consistently. Once in a while? Sure, yes. Every day? Maybe not. The ingredients necessary for warming or cooling lubes to work are too intense for most people to use comfortably all the time. And, if you have sensitive skin or mint allergies, we recommend you avoid them. One more important note–some warming/tingling lubes use L-arginine–which, while body safe, can trigger an outbreak for those with herpes (so, know your status, and your ingredients.)
If you’d like to use a warming or cooling lube, we recommend you look for one that does not contain parabens, glycerin, or propylene glycol. For example, you could try Sliquid Organics Warming Lubricant, Sliquid Naturals Sizzle Added Sensations Warming Lubricant for Water-based options, or Wicked Platinum Silicone lubricant in Heat of Chill. Aloe Cadabra Peppermint Tingle and Sliquid Organics Sensation are both solid potential options for cooling lube, too.
Lube for Sounding
For urethral play, plugging, and sounding, it is imperative to use sterile, surgical lube, lest you risk contracting a UTI. “Sterile, surgical lube” might sound like an intimidating title, but it’s actually not; it can be purchased pretty inexpensively at most drugstores or on Amazon.