Part one of our lube guide covered the different types of personal lubricant and how to choose between them. But there’s a lot more to choosing a good lube than just picking the right type! Unfortunately there are many lubricants on the market that can cause anything from irritation to increased STI transmission risk to increased cancer risk. Yikes! Luckily, we’re here to help you navigate this minefield. We’ll highlight some of the main issues you’ll want to consider when determining if a lubricant is safe, as well as the most important ingredients to steer clear of.
Wait - aren’t personal lubricants regulated by the FDA?
Yes! The FDA classes personal lubricants as medical devices and regulates their ingredients. However, there are many lubricant ingredients that are FDA approved but that have been shown to cause harm, so unfortunately having the FDA ‘seal of approval’ is no guarantee of actual safety. We’ll go over some of the most common ingredients to watch out for below. Once you start looking at lube ingredients, you’ll see many popular lubricants contain some of these ingredients.
Another concern with FDA-approved lubes is that they are not required to list their ingredients. This is especially a concern for those with allergies, so we recommend never buying a lube that doesn’t list all its ingredients.
Water based lubes are especially tricky: osmolality and pH
For water based (and hybrid) lubes, two factors we have to worry about are osmolality and pH. Osmolality can be understood as the relative ‘concentration’ of water in a substance (see here for an explanation). When it comes to lube, what matters is how similar the osmolality of the lube is to that of our genitals. Iso-osmotic liquids are those which contain water in very similar proportions to our cells. An ideal lube is iso-osmotic because it just sits there happily in equilibrium with our cells, neither stealing water from them nor forcing water into them.
Hypo-osmotic liquids are ones that have more water than our cells, meaning they force water into the cells through a process known as osmosis. It’s rare for personal lubricants to be hypo-osmotic - it’s much more common for them to be hyper-osmotic, meaning the amount of water in the lubricant is lower than in our cells. Water gets drawn out of the cells, which initially increases the overall ‘wetness’ of the lubricant, and everything feels great! However, your cells can only lose so much water before they dry out, die and slough off. This leaves the delicate mucous membranes of your genitals more vulnerable to infection and can cause irritation and dryness. It’s also partly why some water based lubes get that tacky, sticky feeling as you use them.
The other concern with water based lubes is the pH, which is a measure of how acidic or alkaline something is. If a lube has a pH that is very different from the pH of the tissues it is coming into contact with, it can alter the pH of those tissues, causing irritation. And for vaginas in particular, an upset pH can cause yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis (BV). Vaginal pH does vary from person to person and with hormone levels, but it is generally fairly acidic with a pH somewhere between 3.8 and 4.5. Anal pH is closer to neutral or slightly alkaline at around 7-8. Ideally, you want to match the pH of your lube to the pH of the body parts involved. Most lubricant manufacturers don’t put the pH of their lubes on the bottle (and beware of those that claim their lubes are ‘pH balanced’ without actually quoting a pH value). Fortunately, the great folks at Phallophile have tested and documented the pH and osmolality values of various lubricants on the market, so take a look if you’re curious.
Some good news: osmolality and pH are only a concern for lubes with a high water content - i.e. water based and hybrid lubes. Silicone and oil lubes don’t contain water and so don’t affect the water balance or pH of your cells, so if you have a hard time finding a water based lube that doesn’t cause irritation, you might want to consider using a lube with a different base.
A note about personal preferences
The way our bodies respond to different substances is highly individual. This means that a given lube ingredient could cause irritation, discomfort or even a severe reaction for some users, but others might tolerate it perfectly fine. So we’re not telling you to throw out your favorite lube if it’s not causing you problems - unless it contains one of the ingredients we’ve labeled below as hazardous, as those aren’t good for anybody.
To err on the side of caution, at Aphrodisia we only stock lubes that are free of all of the problematic ingredients in the table below. We want everyone who shops with us to feel confident that they are choosing a lubricant that has the lowest possible chance of causing health issues, regardless of how sensitive their bits might be.
Ingredients to watch for
Let’s get into it! Here’s a list of some of the most common problematic lubricant ingredients you’re likely to come across and why we caution against them.
These ingredients are carcinogens, toxins, or make it easier to spread HIV. If you have lube with these ingredients listed, we urge you to chuck it in the trash and treat yourself to a bottle of something safer.
Other names: 1,2-propanediol
Use: It is used as a humectant (a substance that attracts water and gives lube that ‘wet’ feeling)
What’s the problem? It can be drying, irritating and is particularly good at penetrating through the protective epithelial barrier of the skin. It is also potentially hazardous and has been linked to hormone disruption and increased cancer risk.
Other names: methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben
Use: As preservatives
What’s the problem? Parabens are hazardous and may cause hormone disruption, irritation, and increased cancer risk, especially breast cancer.
Other names: benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride, quaternium-15, cetrimonium bromide, polyquaternium-n (where n = any number)
Use: As a preservative
What’s the problem? Polyquaternium-15 is very hazardous and has been shown to increase HIV replication rates and increase viral attachment (i.e. it increases HIV infection risk). NO THANK YOU.
Other names: N-9
Use: A common spermicide
What’s the problem? Nonoxynol-9 is hazardous as it increases risk of HIV and other virus transmission by a factor of two(!) and is also frequently an irritant.
Other names: urea
Use: Used as an antimicrobial preservative, it works by forming formaldehyde
What’s the problem? Formaldehyde is commonly an irritant that some people get even more sensitive to over time. Formaldehyde has also been associated with increased cancer risk so we’re labeling it as hazardous. And if that weren’t enough, its antibacterial properties can interfere with the natural ‘good’ bacteria in the vagina (and anus), increasing the risk of yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis.
These common lube ingredients aren’t as concerning for health as the hazardous ones above, but they are known to be irritating and problem-causing for many.
Other names: glycerine, glycerol, 1,2,3-propanetriol, glyceryl stearate, or polyglyceryl-2 stearate
Use: One of the most common ingredients in water based lubes, glycerin is a sugar alcohol that comes from plants. It is used as a humectant.
What’s the problem? It is hyper-osmotic, meaning it sucks the water out of your cells, which can cause irritation, dryness, and increased susceptibility to infection. It also breaks down into sugar, which can cause yeast infections in the vagina/vulva
Other names: 1,3-propanediol
Use: Another very common water based lube ingredient that is used to thicken the lube and act like a humectant. It is structurally similar to propylene glycol.
What’s the problem? Like glycerin, it is hyper-osmotic and some people find it irritating, plus it increases susceptibility to infection.
Other names: butylene glycol, polyethylene glycol, PEG-n (where n = any number)
Use: These polymers are derived from petroleum and added to increase stability of a lubricant.
What’s the problem? They can cause irritation and dryness.
Other names: chlorhexidine, chlorhexidine digluconate
Use: as an antimicrobial preservative
What’s the problem? Like diazolidinyl urea, this can kill good bacteria and increase the risk of yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis.
Other things to consider
With hyper-osmotic ingredients like glycerin and propanediol, it can be the dose that makes the poison. This means that lubes that only contain a small amount of hyper-osmotic ingredients (i.e. it appears far down on the ingredient list) may be safe enough to use without drying out your cells. However, it’s hard to know whether a lube will cause problems for you without some trial and error, so we advise not using lubes with hyper-osmotic ingredients unless you know your body tolerates them well. Even then, we advise caution because of the increased risk of infection these lubes present.
You should know that lube can expire - and body-safe lubes that don’t contain any of the unpleasant preservatives we listed above will tend to expire a bit faster. Lube that’s going bad will change in its color or odor, as this is a sign that the lubricant is breaking down in the presence of microorganisms. If this happens, it’s time to toss it out!
On a similar note, if you are using lube that comes in a tub rather than a squeeze bottle or pump, you’ll want to scoop out the lube with a clean spoon each time to avoid contaminating the lube with bacteria, which will help keep you safe and lengthen the lifespan of the lube.
Some lubricants contain numbing agents like benzocaine or lidocaine and are often sold as aids for premature ejaculation. We don’t generally recommend using numbing agents during sex because if you’re numb, you’re not going to feel it as easily if something is going wrong and causing you damage. There are some appropriate medical uses for numbing lubricants, such as for some folks who have painful scar tissue on their genitals. But this is something that should always be discussed with your doctor first.
If you have food allergies, always check the ingredient list of any lubricant you buy. Some lubes contain soy-derived vitamin E, or oat beta glucan which contains gluten, for example.
We recommend staying away from powdered lubes (ones that you mix with water). You have to mix them up juuuuust right to avoid any issues with osmolality, and many powdered lubes such as fisting powder contain sugar, which is a yeast infection waiting to happen.
Flavored lubes are designed for use during oral sex, but many are flavored with sugar or glycerin and are best avoided. Flavored lubes can be a useful aid for people who have difficulty producing enough saliva during oral sex, but look for ones with body safe ingredients and that are flavored with sweeteners such as aspartame rather than sugar, such as the Sliquid Swirl range.
Finally, please don’t buy your lubes off amazon. As with sex toys, buying off amazon is risky as counterfeit products are common, and lubes may be stored in conditions that cause them to go off much faster. Instead, buy from a trusted retailer to ensure you know what you’re getting.
Whew! Who knew there was so much to consider when buying something as seemingly straightforward as a personal lubricant? We know it’s a lot to worry about, so at Aphrodisia we have done the legwork for you. We are committed to only stocking body-safe lubes so you can shop here with confidence.
DangerousLilly’s Big Lube Guide - explains some of the science behind bad lube, and has their own lube recommendation list
Phallophile Reviews’ Lube Ingredient List - a great rundown of various ingredients found in different lubes, why they’re problematic, and which lubes contain them
Phallophile’s pH and Osmolality data - a detailed explanation of pH and osmolality in lubes, and actual pH and osmolality values for many commonly-available lubricants