One thing you’ll hear from many sex educators is how much they preach their love of lube. Lube is awesome! If your body’s natural lubrication isn’t sufficient, store-bought is great! Well…it’s usually great. Not all lube is created equal and people with vaginas can have a particularly tough time finding a lube that is compatible with their body. Not only do you need to find the right consistency of lube for your activities, and one that is compatible with your chosen sex toy material, it’s also important to be aware of the ingredients and pH of the lube on top of that. Needless to say, lube shopping can be daunting.
It can be a hard word to pronounce, and it’s definitely not a concept I learned about in high-school bio. Most lubes on the market today are hyper-osmotic, which isn’t a good thing. Basically, the lube has moisture and the cells of mucus membranes (vaginal and anal) have moisture. The best situation is iso-osmotic, where both have the same level of hydration, so to speak. True equals! Lubes that have achieved this will often advertise that fact because there’s no home-test for figuring out osmolality.
Hypo-osmotic lubes give your cells too much moisture…they give and give and give until the cells burst. This is usually only something that matters if you’re trying to get pregnant. Most lubes are not hypo-osmotic, so you should either choose one that you know is hyper-osmotic or buy one specifically labeled as being safe for conceiving.
Hyper-osmotic means that the lube feels very slippery at first (yay!) but it’s vampire lube. It retains its slippery by stealing moisture from your cells. Eventually, your cells have nothing left to give, leaving them dead and dry. The outer layer of cells will slough off and leave your mucus lining very vulnerable. Now, most people aren’t going to notice a problem. The people that will notice, however, are some of the people who need lube the most like diabetics, people undergoing chemo, people with compromised immune systems, and those with STIs as the osmolality situation can make both partners more susceptible to transmission of the STI.
If you can’t find the lube’s ingredients online, re-consider purchasing it.
Ingredients and pH
A lot of folks talk about “bad lube ingredients” and many people can be sensitive or allergic to some lube ingredients. In general a conscientious lube-seller will do their best to avoid carrying lubes with irritating ingredients such as: Glycerin(e), Propylene Glycol, Nonoxynol 9, Chlorhexedine Gluconate, Petroleum Oils, Polyquaternium-15, Benzocaine, Sugars & Sugar Alcohols, Ureas. This isn’t a complete list, of course. When researching one lube that creates sensation by warming or cooling, I looked up every ingredient and found that there was an abrasive ingredient in it – which is usually found in toothpaste! No wonder people were complaining of burning genitals! The manufacturer of that lube also doesn’t publish their lube ingredients on their website (which means their retailers don’t either) so I didn’t find that out until I read a blogger’s review. Still, others can find they’re reacting to the natural alternatives to parabens for preservation, like citric acid.
If you can’t find the lube’s ingredients online, re-consider purchasing it.
It’s also important to address “sensitization”, which means that irritation with some chemicals can build over time; you can be fine for awhile with the lube you have or an ingredient in your favorite lube and then one day…you’re bothered by it. It happens. So just because a lube served you well for years doesn’t mean it can’t turn on you. But what happens when you find a lube that passes all the afore-mentioned tests, and you still have reactions to it? Consider the pH. The pH of the vagina and butt region are different from each other and can vary from person to person AND from day to day!
Only water-based lubes have a pH. So if that’s what you’re using, the lube has a pH and your orifice has a pH. When the two don’t match up, you can have three scenarios:
- Burning – this means the pH of the lube you’re using is too low
- Itching – this means the pH of the lube you’re using is too high
- Itching AND Infection – the high pH can cause simple irritation or bring on infection especially if it’s also a hyper-osmotic lube and you’ve got some unwanted guests lounging in there already
There’s a small pH chart here, but you should also know your own pH. If you have a vagina, the pH there can change throughout the month. So if you’re susceptible to yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis, I would recommend grabbing some affordable pH test strips so that you know which lube to use! (Bonus: great for medical or school roleplay and great for geeks everywhere.)
Oil-based lubes don’t have a pH; if you use a straight plant oil, then there are also no chemicals to worry about, so some folks choose that route to avoid problems. Make sure your barrier protection is oil-compatible, which means sticking with polyurethane barriers and nitrile barriers. I would also recommend avoiding oil on any sex toy material that is PVC or TPR. There are other pros and cons to plant-oil lubes – they do expire and they are able to breed bacteria, so one has to use caution. I like to keep plastic utensils around to scoop out a little coconut oil versus using my fingers.
Hybrid lubes are water-based lubes which have the addition of a little silicone for extra glide, and it’s thought that the silicone “negates” any pH the lube may have had on its own as a water-based lube (but studies on this are scant.) Some silicone sex toys can see a permanent change in the material when some silicone lubes are used with them, while others don’t see permanent damage, but the silicone sex toy can temporarily absorb some of the silicone lube. Not good for anal play but, in my personal experience, not a problem in other areas. I’ve also not seen reactions on sex toys with hybrid lubes because of the small amount of silicone in the mix.
The FDA and Lube
Many people think that when the FDA gets involved, the product will be better. The person who did the extensive lube research that I’ve relied heavily on for my own page and education found that (as just one example) some FDA-approved lubes had polyquaternium-15 – an ingredient which actually increases the viral activity of HIV and HSV-2. And it’s FDA-approved.
I’ve seen KY lube, something that some sex educators and bloggers have dubbed “vagina poison” for its irritating ingredients and high osmolality, is also FDA-approved. The FDA thing is only to make sure that it’s non-toxic, compatible with condoms, or safe for use in a hospital. It doesn’t take into consideration the effect many of these ingredients can have on mucus membranes.
When something is made and declared to be used INSIDE the human body (like sex toys, condoms and other barriers, and lubes) the FDA says “whoa hold up, we call that a Medical Device and we need to certify it, please hand over your entire life savings” or something like that. They may ask for a little blood or a first-born, too, but that may just be ugly rumors. So companies that recognize how useless it is to invite the FDA to their party will do things like calling lube a “moisturizer” or tell you to only use that clearly-meant-for-insertion sex toy externally only. It’s not said to fool you or skirt lawsuits, it’s done to ensure their product can even be on the market.
Your Lube Arsenal
If you have anal sex (with others or with toys), you definitely will want a good anal-friendly lube. This generally means a long-lasting, slick lube with a pH no higher than 7. Many folks like oil-based lubes, many want a thicker gel-like water-based lube.
You may want a different lube just for external masturbation; those with a penis often like oil-based lubes like The Butters.
If you have a vagina, you may want to consider having two lubes on the pH scale – a healthy vag can have a pH range of 3.5 – 5.5 (and higher depending on menopause and hormones) so Good Clean Love Almost Naked (4) and Sliquid Sassy (5) could be a good combo.
If you don’t want to worry about pH then consider Sliquid Silk or Fuck Water, two hybrid lubes.