Ask anyone what type of lubes they've use, and the answer will probably be K-Y or Astroglide. Even though lubes like K-Y are popular, people aren't aware of their risky ingredients, which studies have shown can lead to infections, irritation, and increased STI susceptibility[6-13].
This guide will help broaden your lube horizons beyond K-Y and show you the best and healthiest lubes for the kinds of sex you enjoy most. You'll also learn about the science behind lube, their ingredients, and how they work.
89% of MSM relationships in San Francisco use lube on a regular basis. Lube is an absolute must for anal sex, where the body provides very little natural lubrication, without it, delicate rectal tissue is easily damaged and torn.
A survey of 1,021 women found that 20% had used lube within the last 30 days, and 65.5% had used it at least once in their lifetime. For vaginas, lube can make sex more comfortable, fun, and pleasurable and decrease discomfort/pain. If you are taking a medication or having anxiety, lube can also help give a boost in times of dryness. Also, every body is different and some people produce less natural lubrication than others.
A similar survey found 25% of men had used lube within the last 30 days, and 70% had used it at least once in their lifetime.
The 'base' is the main ingredient in lubes, and there's four main kinds: water, plant-oil, silicone, and hybrid. Other ingredients are added to the base to alter the thickness, add flavoring, or increase its shelf life.
These lubricants are around 95% water, and feel like the vagina's natural lubrication (also mostly water).
Since water is inexpensive, so are water-based lubes, helping them make up 72.5% of all lube sales in 2015.
Other ingredients are added to water lubes to make them thicker, adding a slippery feeling you can swirl in your fingers. You'll also find preservatives, humectants, and dispersants in most water-based lubes.
Some of these ingredients are very controversial. Lubes like K-Y use petroleum derived ingredients like glycerin and preservatives like chlorahexide that recent studies have found can damage vaginal and anal tissues, leading to an increased risk of infections, STIs, and Irritation. The companies stick with these ingredients because they are cheaper than healthy alternatives like seaweed extract and citric acid.
Water soluble, easy to clean
Feels similar to the vagina's natural lubrication
Some can contain risky ingredients
Evaporates quickly and needs frequent reapplication, especially for external use
Meet the silicones. A lube family with truly super-lubricant powers.
Unlike water, silicone ingredients don't evaporate or absorb into the skin. The result? A lube that keeps going and going and going. This lube can last your entire sex without needing reapplication.
It's also completely impervious to water. This makes it a pain to get off your hands, but let's you reach a whole new level of shower sex possibilities.
Silicone lube is also inert, non-toxic, and hypoallergenic. It doesn't need preservatives, and is shown to be one of the safest and gentlest lubes ever applied to delicate tissue.
There's a dark-side to silicone lube, though. It hates silicone rubber, a popular and expensive sex toy material. I don't know why exactly, there's probably a good reason; what I do know, is that as soon as they touch, silicone lube will warp and mangle your sex toy, which hopefully is not your new $200 Fun Factory Stronic Surf (my situation 3 years ago, rip).
You've been warned, keep these two rough-housers away from each other.
Very long lasting
Hypoallergenic, inert, and non-toxic; doesn't absorb into the skin
Compatible with condoms, and usually the type of lube that comes on pre-lubricated condoms.
Can warp and ruin sex toys made of silicone
Difficult to clean
Plant-based lubes contain natural ingredients like coconut oil, cocoa butter, shea butter, and aloe vera. They are all usually 100% organic and some of the most gentle personal lubricants on the skin.
Unlike water-based lubricants, these do not need added ingredients like thickeners, humectants, and many are naturally self-preserving and don't need any added anti-microbial chemicals.
And because there is no water these lubricants have no pH and no osmolality (more about these terms in the next section) which makes them extra safe on vaginal and anal tissues.
They aren't compatible with latex condoms though, same goes for other oil-based lubricants. The oil will cause the latex to warp and easily break. However, they do work with condoms made of polyurethane.
Gentle and hydrating
Often 100% organic
Compatible with sex toys
Lasts longer than water-based lubes
Not compatible with latex condoms
Take longer to completely exit the body
When a water lube and a silicone lube meet, they make beautiful lube babies together called hybrid lubes.
The most popular hybrid is Sliquid Silk which contains 12% silicone by volume. These feel like water-based lubes, but last like silicone lubes. They are also easier to clean up and can be used on silicone sex toys.
Other Hybrid lubes include Good Vibrations Please Cream, and 'Pop! Lube'
Lubes around the house deserve a special mention. These aren't marketed for sex, but make good substitutes in a pinch. It's important that you only use safe lubes. The best options for vaginal use are pure coconut oil or shea butter. I would not recommend trying anything besides these two because of the high absorption of vaginal tissue, whatever chemicals you put inside you can easily be absorbed into the blood stream.
These rules don't apply to the penis, which is less delicate and only has mucosa tissue in the urethra. Using highly acidic makeshift lubes, or lubes with harsh preservatives have the potential to cause urethral irritation and burning.
Safe Household Lubes
AVOID (Dangerous for vaginal and anal tissue)
Anything with sugar in it (honey, whipped-cream, etc)
Risky Lubes - Recently, lubes like K-Y, Gynol, Durex Play, and Astroglide have come under scrutiny for using petroleum-derived ingredients and harsh preservatives. In some studies these lubes were shown to damage tissue and increase the risk of B.V., Yeast Infections, and lower the body's natural STI defenses[7-13]. In light of the studies, the United Nations' world health organization made an announcement recommending people avoid many water-based lubricants on the market.
To understand the controversies around water-based lubes, it helps to know some sexy science.
You shouldn't need a chemistry degree to pick out a lube. However, by understanding pH, osmolality, and how they interact with your delicate tissue, you'll be a much better judge of water lubes.
In 2012, the United Nations' World Health Organization announced that all water lubricants above an osmolality of 380 mOsm/kg are a potential health hazard and should be avoided.
Osmolality is the concentration of a solution, aka the amount of stuff in water besides H20. Using scientific instruments call osmometers, scientists can measure a liquid's osmolality and get a number of mOsm/kg or milismoles per kilogram.
Here's some osmolality measurements of different liquids:
Cell fluid, at 280-290 mOsm/kg, is also the osmolality of the vaginal and anal environment. Safe lubricants are Iso-osmolar to cell fluid, meaning they are close to this 280-290 range, and like the United Nations recommends, we definitely want to avoid lubes above 380 mOsm/kg, aka the hyperosmolar.
A hyperosmolar lube has a higher osmolality than the fluid in your cells, and when the two touch, osmosis happens, a reaction where natural forces attempt to balance the difference of water in two concentrations.
This means lube will suck water out of your tissue causing cell death and tissue dehydration. The long term affects of using hyperosmolar lubes include dryness, painful irritation, B.V., yeast infection risk, and lowered STI defenses[7-13].
Some hyperosmolar lubes include K-Y Jelly, Astroglide Liquid, and Wild liquid. The most hyperosmolar lube studied is K-Y warming jelly at 10,300 mOsm/kg, 36 times the bodies natural level. A 2010 study showed that mice exposed to the KYWJ were 9 times more susceptible to herpes.
These lubes have a lower osmolality than your tissue. Now the tables are turned, and your cells suck the water out of lubricants, causing them to swell and eventually burst.
Hypo-osmolar lubes are more rare than hyper-osmolar lubricants, and there is only one study showing that a hypo-osmolar lubricant (Slippery Stuff) caused damage to vaginal tissue. Slippery stuff had an osmolality of 13, about 22 times less than the your natural lubricant's osmolality. Other lubes like Sliquid H20 have an osmolality of 103 (three times less), but didn't cause any damage to vaginal tissue.
These lubes are closest to that sweet spot of 285-295 osmolality. When an iso-osmolar lube and cell meet they respect each other's personal space and don't steal water from the other. 'Leave the vagina as you found it' is the motto of iso-osmolar personal lubricants. Iso-osmolar lubes are the safest and have been shown to not only leave the epithelial layer unscathed, but also restore and rejuvenate cell growth.
The pH scale measures how acidic a liquid is. 0 pH is the most acidic, and 14 is the least acidic.
The vagina is naturally acidic, with a pH of 3.5 - 4.5. This acidity, created by lactic-acid producing lactobacilli, keeps the vagina clean, and prevents bad bacteria and pathogens from growing out of control. A vaginal lube should have a pH in this 3.5 - 4.5 range. If the pH is too high, the lube can lower your natural defenses against infections and STIs.
The anal environment is less acidic than the vagina, with a pH of 6-7. The slight acidity acts as a buffer between alkaline fecal matter and the body. Since most water-based lubes have a pH of 4-5, some people with sores or lesions can have burning when using these lubes anally. If you experience any burning during anal play, try switching to a silicone-based or plant-based lube, which don't have pH levels.
The vagina is very skilled at taking care of itself and keeping things clean. Vaginal fluids flush out anything that shouldn't be there, and healthy flora produce lactic acid to kill off attacking microbes.
If the natural ecosystem is disrupted though, risks of infection increase. To better understand how things get unbalanced, it helps to know a bit about the Epithelium, Mucosa, and Lactobacilli.
Both the vagina and the rectum have epithelium, the outer most layer of skin and first line of defense against pathogens and STIs. The epithelium in the rectum is only one cell layer thick and very delicate. Epithelium in the vagina is several cell layers deep, making it more flexible and durable.
Epithelial layer cells are the first ones damaged by the hyperosmolar lubes we talked about in the previous section. Damaged cells means the epithelium barrier is compromised and STIs can stroll right in. Below are four images from a 2018 study comparing the effects of different lubricants on epithelium. Iso-osmolar lubricants like Aloe Cadabra had no effect on barrier integrity, while hyperosmolar lubes like K-Y and Astroglide caused significant tearing.
The effects of different lubricants on vaginal epithelium
Mucous membranes are moist skin inside orifices like the nose, mouth, vagina and rectum. The mucous they produce washes away foreign matter and adds lubrication for things coming in and out of the body. The epithelial layer we just talked about is the first layer of the mucosa.
The vaginal mucosa absorbs chemicals very easily. Absorbtion is so effective, that scientists have even been experimenting delivering drugs vaginally instead of orally. This is another reason why it's important to be careful of what you put inside your vagina. No one knows the long term effects of absorbing risky ingredients like petrochemicals and xenoestrogens into the blood stream.
The vagina has its own ecosystem of bacteria called Flora. In a healthy individual, the prevalent species is Lactobacilli and the Lactic acid they produce lowers vaginal pH and prevents infections. Lactobacilli also attach themselves to the epithelial layer cells, preventing bad bacteria from having a place to set up shop.
If a lube with strong preservatives kills off the lactobacilli the gates to the vagina are left unguarded; pH increases and bad bacteria swoop in and take over, causing infections like B.V. and yeast infections.
K-Y Jelly kills all three species of Lactobacillus it's applied to, which researchers believed this was caused by the ingredient Chlorahexidine, a strong preservative. In the same study, silicone lubricants, plant-based lubricants, and water-based lubricants using citric acid as a preservative did not kill lactobacillus.
Unpleasant lube reactions either happen quickly, within a few minutes to a few hours after using them, or gradually, taking weeks of regular use to show up.
These happen after a few minutes of exposure and cause stinging, burning, and rashes.
Contact Dermatitis includes rashes, bumps, and redness, along with itchiness or pain. It's been known to be caused by lube chemicals like N9, Glycerin, and Chlorahexidine. The risk of having a reaction depends on how sensitive your skin is, and how much lubricant you use.
Allergic reactions are when your body has an auto-immune response to a chemical. These are rare and risk varies from person to person. Some ingredients that are more likely to cause an allergic reaction are chlorhexidine and benzocaine.
Gluten Intolerance - If you suffer from celiacs disease, avoid ingesting lubes with oat beta gluten and vitamin E tocopherals, which can cause gluten intolerance symptoms.
These happen after using a lubricant regularly for weeks. Over constant exporsure, a harsh lube disrupts the vagina's natural environment leading to Bactera infections, yeast infections, and an increased chance of contracting STIs. The worst part is that most people blame their body, diet, or their partner for infections and go right on using harmful lubricants.
If vaginal flora becomes unbalanced from Lactobacilli death, then harmful bacteria like Gardnerella Vaginalis and Mycoplasma multiply out of control and can reach 1000 times their normal level.
The heightened bad bacteria count causes discolored discharge, a strong fishy smell, itching, and burning after peeing, increased STI risk, and premature births. Bacterial vaginosis has also been found to be associated with cervicitis, endometritis, salpingitis, and tubal factor infertility. B.V. can go away on its own, but in serious situations requires anti-biotics for treatment.
Another member of vaginal flora is a yeast called candida. It's also kept in line by Lactobacilli, and it also, grows out of control if Lactobacilli is missing. Too much candida growth leads to Candidiasis, a yeast infection that shows up as a visible white fungus and feels itchy and uncomfortable.
Candida can also have a grow out of control from feeding on water-based lubes containing glycerin, or maltodextrin, and on flavored lubes with sugar or honey.
Harsh Lubes increase the risk of STIs in more way than one. First, when hyperosmolar lubes damage the epithelial layer, susceptibility to STIs like HIV and Herpes increases[6-13]. Second, Lactobacilli kill-off lowers vaginal acidity, a natural defense against pathogens. In addition, conditions caused by the lack of lactobacilli, like BV and Candidiasis, even further compromise defenses.
Other studies have found that polymer Ingredients like PQ15, can aid the viral infection processes by increasing viral attachment[22-25] PQ15 is an artificial preservative found in Astroglide Liquid.
It's been since 7 years since the United Nations' WHO announced that hyperosmolar lubes have big risks. So why are they still on the shelves in the USA? It all comes down to the FDA approval process for personal lubricants, which some scientists aren't very happy with it.
For starters, a new lube is tested on rabbits and not people. Not only is it cruel to put K-Y warming jelly on a rabbit, but their vaginal environment is very different than a person's. Lube Researcher, Richard Cone, argues that this difference makes safety tests inaccurate.
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. Considering that 89% of MSM relationships use lubricant, and the damage of hyperosmolar lubes to colorectal tissue, a large group of at risk people are ignored.
The FDA also has GRAS, a list of chemicals that are "Generally Recognized as Safe" and products containing GRAS ingredients do not need to be tested. Richard Cone argues that GRAS chemicals are tested on the skin, NOT vaginal tissue, which is a very different environment. Once these not-so-safe lubes are approved, a company doesn't have to list the ingredients on the label, which makes self-regulation difficult.
Every lube ingredient falls into a category: some add thickness, some help disperse the ingredients evenly, and some are preservatives to prevent mold and bacteria from growing.
Glycerin thickens water and works as a humectant to prevent K-Y from evaporating.
Found In: K-Y Jelly, Astroglide Liquid
Carrageenan - A natural thickener derived from red seaweed.
Found In: Waterslide
Chlorhexidine is a synthesized chemical used as a disinfectant and anti-septic.
Found In: K-Y Jelly
Citric Acid - If your lubricant smells like lemons, it probably contains citric acid, the most common preservative used in organic water-based lubes.
Found In: Waterslide
Sodium Hydroxide is used in soap, detergents, and drain cleaning fluid. Also known as caustic soda or lye.
Found In: K-Y Jelly
Polyquaternium-15 - Polyquaternium, abbreviated PQ, is a family of synthesized chemicals that comes in 55 different numbers. Each number is a a different variation of Polyquarternium, and shows the chronological order that it was registered with the International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI). The newest at the time of this article's writing is PQ-55.
Found In: Astroglide Liquid
Organic Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice is made from the aloe vera plant and also called aloe vera juice. It's mostly water, but contains minerals that strengthen, soothe, and repair tissues, instead of harming them.
Found In: Good Clean Love
Methylparaben / Propylparaben - Parabens are synthetic preservatives and weak xenoestrogens.
Found In: Astroglide Liquid
Potassium Sorbate - A potassium salt that occurs naturally in berries, but is usually created synthetically. It works as a preservative and keeps mold and fungus from growing inside a lubricant.
Found In: Good Clean Love
Propylene Glycol - A substitute for glycerin that works as a humectant to prevent water from evaporating.
Found In: Astroglide Liquid
Sodium Benzoate - This is a preservative produced by reacting sodium hydroxide and benzoic acid.
Found In: Good Clean Love
Propendiol (Natural)- Naturally derived propendiol is a clear viscous liquid and a natural humectant used to prevent water-based lubricants from evaporating.
Found In: Waterslide
Since every body is different, there's no guarantee that any one lube will work perfectly for everyone. We can get pretty accurate, though, just by searching for lubes that meet our own personal criteria and needs.
Anal Lubricants should be...
Thick and long lasting; extra cushion for the pushing
Silicone-based (unless using silicone sex toys)
If water-based, anal lube should be iso-osmolar with a pH of 6-7
Here are some good anal lubes that meet the above requirements.
Sliquid Silver - silicone based
Uberlube - silicone based
Pjur Back Door - silicone based
Sliquid Sassy (Thickest Iso-Osmolar Water Lube)
Aloe Cadabra (Water)
Ride H20 (Water)
Southern Butter Bliss-on
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.
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. They contain small amounts of citric acid, which is a preservative found in foods and completely edible.
Warming and stimulating lubes contain different herbal extracts. Some contain small amounts of Capsaicin which is also in chilli peppers.
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.
And here are some of our other posts about lube:
 World Health Organization. "Use and procurement of additional lubricants for male and female condoms", 2012, http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/76580/WHO_RHR_12.33_eng.pdf
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Herbenick, Debby, et al. “Women's Use and Perceptions of Commercial Lubricants: Prevalence and Characteristics in a Nationally Representative Sample of American Adults.” The Journal of Sexual Medicine, vol. 11, no. 3, 2014, pp. 642–652., doi:10.1111/jsm.12427.
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Thomas, Pat. “Behind the label: K-Y Jelly” The Ecologist, Oct. 2007.
Wolf, Lauren. “Studies Raise Questions About Safety Of Personal Lubricants.” Chemical & Engineering News, vol. 90, no. 50, 2012, pp. 45–46.
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Adriaens, Els, and Jean Paul Remon. “Mucosal Irritation Potential of Personal Lubricants Relates to Product Osmolality as Detected by the Slug Mucosal Irritation Assay.” Sexually Transmitted Diseases, vol. 35, no. 5, 2008, pp. 512–516., doi:10.1097/olq.0b013e3181644669.
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Ayehunie, Seyoum, et al. “Hyperosmolal Vaginal Lubricants Markedly Reduce Epithelial Barrier Properties in a Three-Dimensional Vaginal Epithelium Model.” Toxicology Reports, vol. 5, 2018, pp. 134–140., doi:10.1016/j.toxrep.2017.12.011.
Samuel Mettler, Department of Agricultural and Food Sciences, ETH Zurich, et al. “Osmolality and PH of Sport and Other Drinks Available in Switzerland.” Osmolality and PH of Sport and Other Drinks Available in Switzerland, 2006.
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Paimela, Tuomas, et al "The preservative polyquaternium-1 increases cytoxicity and NF-kappaB linked inflammation in human corneal epithelial cells" Molecular Vision, 2012.
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