September marks Sexual Health Awareness Month. While much of the month’s focus surrounds HIV and STI prevention, this month is also about highlighting positive sexual health practices and pleasure, whatever your sexual orientation, gender, or body might be. With that in mind, one topic that arises particularly in queer spaces and workshops is lube – the many different kinds, and how/when to use them.
A lot of Sexual Health Educators and providers strongly recommend using lube for sex (especially penetrative sex) – not only because it can make sex feel better, but because it actually makes it safer, reducing the risk of cuts, rips, or tears.
As a general rule we always tell people when it comes to lube and sex, the wetter the better! Some vulva-owners rely on natural lubrication when they engage in vaginal sex, but also remember that many vulva-owners experience some level of vaginal dryness and using additional lube can make things better. It is also just as important to keep in mind that wetness is not necessarily correlated with arousal. It can be, but it is not true for everyone. Someone could be very aroused and turned on but be completely dry, which is another reason we encourage using extra lube for any penetrative/bottom sex.
For people that engage in anal sex, keep in mind that the skin of your anus and rectum are about as half as thin as vaginal tissue, which can make the chances of a cut or injury higher. Whether you’re using a strap-on, toys, fingers, or a penis, using lube is going to significantly lessen the chances of ripping or tearing – which is not only uncomfortable for the person on the receiving end, but increase the chances of transmitting HIV and other STIs.
To sum it up: Using extra lube can make penetration safer, and feel better. If you and your partner(s) have penetrative sex with condoms, using lube will make it less likely that the condom will tear or break. If you and your partner(s) engage in penetrative sex without condoms, using lube will make things like skin tearing and cuts less likely. No form of sex should be painful. If any type of sex is painful or uncomfortable in a way you don’t like, this is your body’s way of telling you to stop and check-in.
Now on to types of lube. Which one is right for you depends on your body, your partner(s)’ body (if you are having sex with another person) and the activity. For example, if you have any allergies or sensitivities it is extremely important to read ingredient lists and do a spot test in a small part of the skin before fully using them. There are six different kinds of lube we discuss below, each with unique properties that make them ideal for different people and situations.
Silicone and Water based lubes are the two we often talk about the most. Silicone lube can be used with condoms, and it doesn’t have a scent or a taste. Another benefit of silicone based lube is that it doesn’t dry out or evaporate like water based lube does. That means that for long sessions, or sessions involving water (like in a hot tub or shower) silicone based lube might be ideal. One the flip side, silicone based lube can also be difficult to wash off – but you generally need less, so there may be less of it to make a mess.
A word of caution—Silicone lubes are not recommended to be used with silicone toys (though are fine with glass, wood, ceramic, etc.) The silicone molecules in the lube can bond with the silicone molecules in your toy and ruin it. If you are unsure if your lube is going to damage your toy, do a spot check. You can do a spot check by taking a small dab of lube and putting it on a non-essential part of your toy, keep in mind that sometimes the damage is done over time and a single time spot test might not show damage. The best way to protect your toy is to put a condom on it before using.
Water based lube comes in many forms and consistencies, it can be thin and slippery or thick like a gel. The best way to tell what the consistency of the lube will be is if you shake the bottle a little or tilt it from side to side. If the lube moves easily like water, it will be thin and slippery, if it doesn’t move much, then it’s probably thick and cushiony. One of the main issues with water based lube is that it “dries out” or evaporates as you are using it. If this is an issue for you, you can make it last a little longer by using a little dab of water as it dries out or if you’re into it spit on it!
Hybrid lube, as you might guess by the name, is a combination of a water based lube with traces of silicone or oil in it. Hybrid lubes were created and intended to be used by vulva owners who experienced high level of vaginal dryness, as such they are supposed to resemble vaginal secretions. Hybrid lube is often called the “silk lube”, though their texture is often more oily or creamy than your regular water or silicone based lubes alone. Because of their combinations, they can last longer than water based lubes, and can be good for anal play or longer sessions.
Before we start talking about oil based lubes note that oil-based lubes and latex condoms are NEVER compatible. If you use oil-based lube or it was cause a latex condom to break. Oil based lube is also NOT recommended for vaginal penetrative sex and vulva owners as it can upset the pH levels in the vagina and irritate the skin lining of the vulva. Oil based lube can also be pretty hard to clean out which can increase the chances of infection with use. Oil based lubes can be ideal for external activities like massages, hand jobs, anal sex without a condom, fingering and fisting. For fisting, make sure they are also non-latex gloves (like condoms, they will break.) Try nitrile powder-free gloves.
Some people like to use warming or cooling lubes because of the sensations they provide. They can certainly add a little bit of spice and everything nice, but be mindful of how often they are being used. Some of the ingredients used to achieve the cooling or warming sensation can cause irritation if used every day (or very often.) Most quality warming lubes will contain an ingredient called capsaicin, the same ingredient that makes peppers hot. Some warming lubes do not contain capsaicin, instead they contain L-Arginine.
Word of caution: People who have genital presenting herpes be cautious of L-Arginine as it can trigger a herpes outbreak. Always read ingredients!
Cooling lubes usually contain peppermint oil or menthol which is a non-natural form of peppermint oil. Overall most cooling and warming lubes are pretty safe to use, we advise to always read the ingredient list as the lubes might contain additional ingredients that could irritate you. We also advise to try to avoid any lube that might have parabens, glycerin, or propylene glycol.
Some lubes contain lidocaine or benzocaine, which are used to numb or desensitize the part of the body, or are sometimes used by penis owners to “last longer”. In most of the cases desensitizing and numbing lubes are “recommended” for anal play. However, being in touch with your body is important during sex, so something that numbs or desensitizes you is not necessarily a good idea. For this reason, we don’t recommend these types of lube.
Flavored lubes, like the name implies, comes in a variety of tastes. Flavored lubes are mostly intended for external use, particularly to make oral play tastier. Because they often contain ingredients like glycerin and glycol, we don’t recommend them for penetrative purposes, and like oil based lubes, they can throw off a body’s pH – so they should not be used for vaginal sex. They can cause irritation, and carries a high likelihood of yeast infections.
Addressing Sensitivities and Allergies
Keep any allergies in mind as you shop for your lube. Always read the ingredient list and spot test before fully using a new form of lubricant. The most common ingredients that typically cause irritation for folks are: glycerin, propylene glycol, and parabens. Glycerin in particular is found in most common lubricants, unless otherwise specified. Glycerin is what we called a humectant, which means it absorbs water and keeps things moist, it’s also safe to ingest, but most importantly it’s relatively cheap. It makes sense why it would be good for lubricants, still people who are prone to irritation, allergies, and yeast infections, might want to steer clear of this ingredient. This doesn’t mean lubes with glycerin are bad or harmful, it just means they are right for some bodies and not for others. Propylene glycol too is a humectant and like glycerin can cause damage and irritation for folks. Parabens are found in a lot of beauty and personal care products. Recent research has shown that parabens might be harmful to the body and the environment. Luckily, most lube manufacturers have taken note of this and are now making lube without parabens. At the end of the day, the recommended lube is the one that works for your body and your partner(s) – one that makes it feel good, makes it safer, and ultimately leads to more healthy and satisfying sexual experiences.