Lubricant is essential to good sex—vaginal play, anal play and play with toys. Lube reduces friction and makes sex feel more pleasurable. Some people think that using lube is a sign of deficiency—that they’re not arousing their partner enough or that there’s something wrong with their bodies if they need lubricant. This is NOT true! The anus does not produce its own lube, so lubricant for anal play is absolutely necessary. Toys slide into position much easier and feel better against the skin with a layer of lubricant. And as for vaginal play, the amount of natural lubrication produced by the vagina is affected by the menstrual cycle, childbirth, menopause, hormonal contraception and other medications, and many other factors.
There are four basic types of lubricants available: water-based, silicone-based, water/silicone hybrids, and oil-based. Within those categories, you will find some that are thinner and some that are thicker in consistency, some that are flavored, and some that are cooling or warming or otherwise add sensations.
Water-based lubes are the most common and have the most variety, because they are compatible with condoms and other safer sex methods, as well as with all types of sex toys. However, it's important to look at the label of your water-based lubricant, because they can contain some potentially irritating ingredients, most notably glycerin or parabens.
Glycerin is added to many water-based lubricants to make them more slippery. Found on ingredient labels as “glycerin” or “glycol,” glycerin is a type of sugar, and since vaginal yeast feeds on sugar, people who are prone to yeast infections may find that lubes containing glycerin cause them. Some people think that vegetable-based glycerin is less likely to cause infections.
Parabens are added to many lubricants (and other bath and body products) as a preservative. Found on ingredient labels as “methylparaben,” “propylparaben” and “butylparaben,” parabens cause an allergic skin reaction in some people. In addition, there is some inconclusive evidence that parabens may be linked to breast cancer, so some people choose to avoid them to minimize any potential risks.
Most people will be able to use lubricants containing glycerin and parabens with no problems, but others might be mystified by the recurring yeast infections or rashes they seem to get when they have sex, so I think it's important for people to be aware of what's in their lube.
A common complaint about water-based lubricants is that they eventually dry up and become sticky or tacky. This can be remedied by adding water or more of the lubricant you're using. If you don't want to do this, I'd recommend checking out hybrid lubes, which are water-based but have a bit of silicone added. These lubes usually have "silk" somewhere in the name, and tend to have a lotion-y appearance and feel. They last a bit longer than water-based lubes and tend to absorb into the skin like a lotion rather than become sticky. This type of lubricant is a best seller in our store for these reasons.
Silicone is a synthetic substance that stays slippery longer than the ingredients in water-based lubes. Found on ingredient labels as “dimethicone,” “dimethiconol” or “cyclomethicone,” silicone does not dry out when exposed to air and sits on top of skin rather than being absorbed into it like water-based lubes. Silicone is typically safe for people with sensitive skin and does not cause allergic reactions, especially in pure silicone lubes with no other ingredients than the three listed above. Silicone lubes are safe to use with condoms, but should not be used with silicone toys, as they will degrade the surface of these toys over time (hybrid lubes are safe to use with toys, as the amount of silicone in them is not enough to cause damage). Because silicone is water-resistant, it’s great to use in the water (hello, shower sex!), but can also be harder to wash off of bodies, clothes and sheets and can cause stains. Silicone lubricants are typically more expensive than water-based, but you use much less of them since they last longer, so the cost per use is generally similar for most people.
Oil-based lubricants are typically made with a base of vegetable oil and often come in a thick cream formula. Some of our customers report using coconut oil or other household oils as lubricants. Sex educators hold different views about oil-based lubes; some think that they should not be used vaginally, as the oil can serve as a medium for bacterial growth and lead to infection. In addition, oil-based lubricants are not compatible with condoms and other latex products—they degrade the latex and can cause condoms to break. For that reason, many oil-based lubes are marketed as male masturbation aids and are not recommended for use during sex with a partner.
So, that's my quick lube rundown. As a final note, there's been an explosion recently in "sensation" lubricants—ones that are designed to be warming or cooling or to produce some other effect besides simple lubrication. We sell only one of these at the Tool Shed, because customer feedback tells me that most of these lubricants are too harsh or irritating for many people. As one of my sex educator colleagues says, "Who wants burn-y lube?" So, if you're interested in experimenting these, apply with caution and use a little at a time first. You can also put a dab of "sensation" lubes on your gums to get a taste of how they might feel on your genitals—better to have stinging gums than pubes on fire!
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Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side.