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When venturing into the world of personal lubricants, most people have one thing in mind: sex. After all, it’s no secret that lube makes almost every type of sex—even solo sex—better.
That said, buying lube for the first time can sometimes feel overwhelming. There are many options to choose from, and not every type of lubricant is safe or comfortable for every type of sex. Some types of lube can actually make sex less comfortable or less safe.
But what exactly is lube? And what type of lube should you buy? Read on to find out.
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What is lube?
Lube, aka personal lubricant, is a gel or liquid meant to prevent friction and irritation during sex. That can mean vaginal penetration, anal penetration, sex toy play, or masturbation.
Yes, the vagina can produce its own lubrication, but sometimes more moisture makes for an even better sexual experience. In fact, even if some women have no problem with vaginal dryness in their sex lives, many still use lube.
And lube can be helpful with other types of sex, too, especially anal sex, because the rectum doesn’t produce its own natural lubrication the way the vagina does. Also, the anus isn’t as stretchy as the vaginal canal, meaning lube can make anal sex a lot easier and even help alleviate discomfort.
Lube can really up the pleasure quotient for masturbation and sex toy play, too.
What are the different types of lube?
Lube falls into three main categories: water-based, silicone-based, and oil-based products. There are also hybrids, which mix different types of lube together, as well as alternatives to commercial lubes.
Water-based lubes are popular because they’re versatile and won’t harm condoms or silicone sex toys. They also won’t stain sheets, are generally safe for all but the most sensitive skin, and wash off easily with water.
That last feature can be a problem, though, if you like to have sex in the shower. Because water-based lubes have a thin consistency, they might need to be reapplied during sex.
Also, water-based personal lubricants may contain glycerin, which can promote yeast and even bacterial infections because glycerin breaks down into sugars that some yeasts and bacteria can feed on (Van Ende, 2019; Hung, 2020). If you’re prone to getting yeast infections, check the label to make sure glycerin isn’t an ingredient if you plan to use water-based lube for vaginal sex.
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People with extremely sensitive skin or those who want something more long-lasting that won’t wash away in the shower may want to use silicone-based lubes.
Silicone is hypoallergenic, so it won’t cause a skin reaction (though additional ingredients, like fragrances, might). It has a silkier feel than water-based lube with a thicker consistency, so it lasts longer. But, oddly enough, silicone lube can damage silicone sex toys, so avoid using them together.
Oil-based lubes are heavier than water-based and silicone-based lubes, so they have real staying power—once applied, you probably won’t have to apply them again. But oil-based lubes are associated with a higher risk of yeast infections. If you’re prone to those or want to avoid them, choose a different type of lube.
Also, oil-based lubes degrade latex condoms and can cause them to break, so don’t use the two together.
Hybrid lubes combine some of the above ingredients to obtain the best attributes of both. For instance, some lubes blend water-based and silicone-based lubricants for the easy cleanup of water-based options and the silky quality of the silicone-based ones.
What can you use instead of lube?
If you’d prefer to avoid using a commercially-available lube, there are several alternatives, including:
- Water-based alternatives like aloe vera gel, egg whites, and saliva. Keep in mind that some sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, can be passed through saliva (Hook, 2019; Cornelisse, 2018). And while egg whites might seem similar to vaginal secretions, they aren’t, so it’s probably not a good idea to use them as lube.
- Oil-based alternatives like edible oils (coconut oil, grapeseed oil, sweet almond oil), hand and body lotions containing oil, and massage oil. Many people like coconut oil because it smells and tastes pleasant and works well. And be aware that any oil-based lube, even natural ones, can degrade latex condoms and stain sheets and clothing.
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What kinds of lube should you avoid?
There are all sorts of lube for sale that offer a heightened experience with flavors, scents, and warming ingredients. For instance, lubes with CBD, which claim to increase sexual pleasure, have become popular.
But enhanced lubes may contain ingredients that can irritate sensitive areas, and some of those ingredients (such as glycerin and petroleum) can lead to infections. Check the labels. It’s best to avoid lubes that contain the following ingredients:
- Glycerin may promote yeast and bacterial infections (Van Ende, 2019; Hung, 2020)
- Propylene glycol can sometimes cause allergic skin reactions (Jacob, 2018)
- Petroleum jelly and other petroleum-based products can promote an imbalance of bacteria in the vagina resulting in bacterial vaginosis, while the use of oil-based products is associated with candida in the vagina (the source of yeast infections) (Brown, 2013)
- Chlorhexidine gluconate is a preservative that can alter the normal vaginal microbiota, possibly leading to infection (Hung, 2020)
What types of lube can you use with condoms?
It’s important to know what types of lube to use with condoms. While you can use water-based lubes with any type of condom, some types of lube can break down condoms made from latex, polyurethane, or polyisoprene.
Here are the types of condoms on the market and the varieties of lube they’re compatible with:
- Latex: The vast majority of condoms are made from latex. For them, pick a water-based or silicone-based lube. Avoid oil-based lubes because they can cause latex to tear.
- Polyurethane: Use water-based or oil-based lubes. Avoid silicone-based lubes because some types of silicone can break down polyurethane.
- Polyisoprene: Use water-based or silicone-based lubes. Avoid oil-based lubes. Polyisoprene is a synthetic rubber, and like latex, it can tear when used with oils. (However, it’s safe to use if you have a latex allergy.)
- Lambskin/sheepskin: These can be used with any type of lube.
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How to apply lube
First, don’t ruin the mood with cold lube. Squirt a quarter-sized amount into your palm and rub it between your hands to take off the chill, or let the bottle or tube sit in warm (not hot) water for a few minutes before you get started.
You can apply lube to the vulva, in and around the vagina and anus, on the penis, on a vibrator (but remember not to use silicone lube with silicone toys), or all of the above. You can also use it right from the beginning—during foreplay or masturbation.
And when you’re ready for vaginal or anal penetration, lube can help heighten the experience, whether or not you’re using a condom. But if you are using a condom, apply the lube before penetration, and put a little bit inside the condom, at the very tip, to ease friction.
No matter your age, gender, or sexual preference, one thing is for sure: wetter is better. So lay on the lube and have some fun!
- Brown, J. M., Hess, K. L., Brown, S., Murphy, C., Waldman, A. L., & Hezareh, M. (2013). Intravaginal practices and risk of bacterial vaginosis and candidiasis infection among a cohort of women in the United States. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 121(4), 773–780. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0b013e31828786f8. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23635677/
- Cornelisse, V. J., Fairley, C. K., Read, T., Lee, D., Walker, S., Hocking, J. S., et al. (2018). Associations between anorectal chlamydia and oroanal sex or saliva use as a lubricant for anal sex: A cross-sectional survey. Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 45(8), 506–510. doi: 10.1097/OLQ.0000000000000800. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29465648/
- Hook, E. W., 3rd & Bernstein, K. (2019). Kissing, saliva exchange, and transmission of Neisseria gonorrhoeae. The Lancet. Infectious Diseases, 19(10), e367–e369. doi: 10.1016/S1473-3099(19)30306-8. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31324518/
- Hung, K. J., Hudson, P. L., Bergerat, A., Hesham, H., Choksi, N., & Mitchell, C. (2020). Effect of commercial vaginal products on the growth of uropathogenic and commensal vaginal bacteria. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 7625. doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-63652-x. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7203152/
- Jacob, S. E., Scheman, A., & McGowan, M. A. (2018). Propylene glycol. Dermatitis, 29(1), 3–5. doi: 10.1097/DER.0000000000000315. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29059092/
- Van Ende, M., Wijnants, S., & Van Dijck, P. (2019). Sugar sensing and signaling in Candida albicans and Candida glabrata. Frontiers in Microbiology, 10, 99. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2019.00099. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6363656/