“Lubricant”, as defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “something that lessens or prevents friction or difficulty” and “a substance…capable of reducing friction, heat, and wear when introduced as a film between solid surfaces” (1). When it comes to sexual activity, whether between persons or solo play, personal lubricants can enhance one’s experience by doing just that – lessening friction between “moving parts”, ultimately reducing “wear” and “difficulty”.
Females naturally produce vaginal lubrication, particularly when they become aroused. How much lubrication is produced varies from individual to individual and from one situation to another. Lubrication occurs as blood flow to the vagina increases and special glands release a clear fluid that coats the vaginal walls, making the woman feel “wet”. This lubrication process is closely linked with estrogen; therefore, a female may experience less fluid production at times when her estrogen levels are lower, such as during breastfeeding, perimenopause and menopause (2). Other factors which may influence lubrication production include medications such as antihistamines or medication for ADHD or depression, hormonal forms of birth control, different times of the hormonal cycle such as before and after ovulation, or chemotherapy. Females may also experience less lubrication if they are dehydrated (3), not fully aroused, or with insufficient foreplay (2).
Vaginal dryness may lead to discomfort during intercourse, but this does not have to be the case. Use of a personal lubricant in these situations may be of great benefit. (Note: if a women is experiencing chronic vaginal dryness, she may benefit from a vaginal moisturizer, different from a personal lubricant that is used specifially during solo or partner play in the bedroom. It is recommended she speak with her primary caregiver for more information about which product may be best.)
Today’s market offers a wide variety of person lubricant options and it can be hard to decipher which lubricant is best in which situation, for which person. Furthermore, many mainstream lubricants contain potentially irritating and harmful chemicals. Three of these include petrochemicals, parabens, and glycerin. Petrochemicals are derived from petroleum products and are commonly called propylene glycol and polyethylene glycol. Petrochemicals can damage sensitive vaginal and rectal tissues. Parabens are a widely used preservative commonly called methylparaben, propylparaben, and ethylparaben. Parabens are known to disrupt natural hormonal function and have been found in cancerous breast tissue. Synthetic glycerin is a by-product from soap manufacturing and is commonly called glycerin and glycerol (4). Glycerin can be a skin irritant and can increase the chance of yeast infections (5).
And if these chemicals are not enough to potentially irritate tissues, one has to also factor in personal allergies, sensitivities or conditions associated with pelvic pain, such as vulvodynia, vestibulodynia, dyspareunia, or vaginal atrophy, which may influence one’s choice of personal lubricant. Thus, what follows is a guide of the pros and cons of the four main types of lubricants available in today’s market, including water-based, silicone-based, oil-based, and others.
Water-based Lubricants (5)
-The most common type of lubricant and therefore easily accessible
-Safe for use with condoms and sex toys
-Washes off the body, toys, and sheets easily
-Come in a wide variety of consistencies, ranging from liquid to gel
-Many common, well-marketed brands may include glycerin, which may not only feel sticky, but may also cause skin irritation or contribute to yeast infections particularly in women who are prone to these infections
-Many brands include parabens and other potentials vaginal irritants, particularly if they have warming effects or are flavoured
-Can dry out during use, so repeated application may be necessary
Silicone-based Lubricants (5)
-Better Sex Essentials
-Most are hypoallergenic, as they are not absorbed by the body
-Longer lasting/stays slippery for longer, so reapplication may not be necessary
-Can be used in water
-Most are safe for use with condoms (but read the package to be 100% sure)
-Can degrade and damage silicone sex toys, as silicone binds to silicone
-May require a stronger soap to clean toys
-May stain sheets
-May leave an unpleasant film in the mouth if used for oral sex
Oil-based Lubricants (5)
-Often available in organic form- free of preservatives and parabens
-Easily available in grocery stores
-Doubles as massage oil
-Not safe to use with latex condoms- can make them porous or cause the condom to rip or tear
-Harder to wash off body/toys
-May stain sheets
-Good Clean Love
-Often organic- free of preservatives and parabens, and may therefore be less irritating to tissue
-Often compatible with condoms and toys
-Easy to clean off body/toys/sheets
-May be more expensive
-May only be available online or in specialty stores
Unique situations such as when trying to conceive will also dictate which lubricant is best. Most regular lubricants are not sperm friendly, as they are designed to match the vagina’s pH, which is naturally acidic. Thus, one might want to consider sperm-friendly lubricants, such as Preseed, Conceive Plus, or Yes Baby when trying to conceive (6).
Choosing the best lubricant for a given situation is certainly an individual decision and many factors should be considered. A great way to test out a product before placing it on the sensitive tissues of the vulva and vagina is to place a little bit on the skin inside ones elbow, wait a few hours, and observe for any negative reaction such as redness or itchiness (7).
Although choosing the best lubricant is an individual process, some of my favourites include Slippery Stuff, Uberlube, and Sliquid, as they are paraben and glycerin-free lubricants readily available online and in specialty stores. If you experience and discomfort with partner or solo play and have questions about appropriate lubricants or the discomfort your are experiencing, talk to a pelvic floor physiotherapist today!