How to choose a lubricant

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Dear Dr. Myrtle,

I see ads for personal lubricants but they don’t explain much. What should I know about a lubricant before I buy one?

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Lubricants increase pleasure. Your genital skin is very sensitive. It cradles the nerve endings that allow you to experience touch and other sensations. And although skin is strong, it can be harmed by vigorous rubbing. Sexual intimacy usually includes friction, and often the body doesn’t have enough wetness or protection to last for an entire intimate episode. Lubricant can make sexual experiences more slippery, cushion-y, comfy, tasty and pleasurable.

Personal (sexual) lubricants:

  • Allow you the touch satisfaction you want while preventing skin abrasion and dryness; 
  • Allow you to have pleasurable stimulation of all your nerve endings, whether or not your body produces its own lubrication; 
  • Are lots of fun—our customers who are reluctant to try lubricants come back to tell us how much more pleasure they enjoyed after they tried out their lube samples;
  • Moisturize sensitive skin and increase circulation and skin strength with regular massage (see our Vaginal Renewal article and brochure for more information); 
  • Increase pleasure while using latex or non-latex barriers, making for a sexy, sensitive slide—a dime-sized dab of lube transmits heat and sensation and keeps the material from breaking.

Choices, choices. There are thousands of personal lubricants on the market, so choosing the right one for your needs can be tough. Every person has different behaviors, different skin pH (acid/base balance), different tolerance to friction, different biologic environment, and different moisture needs. It’s also hard, if not impossible, for manufacturers to formulate “the right lube.”

Our most-recommended lubes have the following features:

  • Reduces the friction of sexual play and stays slippery to touch.
  • pH : Between 4.4 and 5.5 (compatible with most skin types)
  • Water-base + silicone blend (moisturizes & seals) OR silicone-only base (seals in moisture)
  • Uses a genital-compatible preservative
  • Available in sample sizes (for testing & travel)
  • Pump-type dispenser (prevents bottle contamination)
  • Reasonable cost

Still, not all lubes are “good” lubes. Did you know that there are many lubricants that:

  • Were designed as medical lubricants, not sexual lubricants (KY jelly),
  • Were designed for rocket-ships but not the human body (AstroGlide),
  • Are very difficult to remove from the body (those with purified mineral oil like Replens) or
  • Actually increase friction when rubbed against the skin (warming sensation lubricants)?

Heavy advertising doesn’t make something good. Using bad lubricants on your genitals can lead to skin irritation, and hurting the skin’s natural barrier defenses can lead to unnecessary pain and disability down the road. Here are some lube ingredients and features to avoid:

  • pH less than 4 or greater than 7.5. Too extreme for skin health.
  • Polyquaternium 7, 10 or 15. This synthetic polymer (in all Astroglide products) is associated with severe irritation and disruption of skin surfaces; it also increases replication of viruses, including HIV.
  • Non-oxynol 9. This oil-dissolving spermicide severely irritates skin surfaces; increases transmission of viruses, including HIV.
  • Menthol. Often used either as a “cooling” or sensation enhancer, menthol is an alcohol that may severely irritate the skin causing long-term skin pain.
  • Lidocaine. This numbing product irritates skin surfaces, and because it lowers pain perception, lidocaine dramatically increases the risk of skin trauma and longer-term damage.
  • Capsaicin. Usually found in warming, sensitizing or “arousal-enhancing” lubes, capsaicin is the oil of very hot chili peppers. Once applied nerves begin reacting in pain that may last far longer than any intimate episode. Also may be difficult to remove from skin once applied.
  • Chlorhexidine. This preservative found in many medical lubricants (KY Jelly, Surgilube) completely destroys normal, protective genital bacteria that help fight infections and maintain genital health.

Other ingredients that might be a problem include:

  • Known allergens and skin irritants. For some people, herbal extracts and raw, unprocessed aloe gel can provoke allergic responses. For others, ingredients like propylene glycol, and preservatives like phenoxyethanol can physically irritate and disrupt the skin function. We recommend that anyone with known skin sensitivities test out any personal care product on the inside of their arms (easier to wash off and/or treat) before applying it to their genitals. 
  • Glycerin. Glycerin is a good lubricant ingredient for many people. But some lubricants containing glycerin—including KY Jelly, Astroglide, ID Glide, and flavored lubes—may act as a food source for yeast. If you or a partner are prone to yeast infections or crotch rash, avoid lubricants containing glycerin. 
  • Oils. Oils are fine for external use, and some men find that self-pleasuring with an oil or cream creates a slippery, cushiony experience. However, the vagina is a sensitive environment that cannot easily clean out oils, and so using them vaginally may cause irritation or infection. Also, petroleum-based oils (mineral or baby oil) break down latex products. If you enjoy the feeling of oils, silicone lubes are a vagina-friendly, barrier-compatible choice that still provide a slippery, long-lasting feel. 
  • Parabens. Parabens are found in nature, and have a weak estrogen in them. While there is no evidence of it, some people are concerned that this may cause problems for people with estrogen-sensitive cancers. We understand that some people will choose not to use products preserved with parabens, but when formulated responsibly, we think paraben preservatives are not a negative ingredient in sexual lubricants, and here’s why: While parabens are mildly estrogenic, their effect is only 1 / 1000th the effect of natural estrogen. When used in appropriately small quantities, methyl-paraben shows superior antibacterial and antifungal preservative abilities. This helps you avoid using a contaminated product that can cause skin infections. For anyone considering using topical estrogen, we think that a lube with parabens is better choice. The far lower effect of a paraben preservative is the least potentially harmful when choosing between the two. For others, we believe the long track record of safety & effectiveness of parabens outweighs a theoretical concern.

How to Use Lubricant

Here are our suggestions about how to put your lube to good use

When do I reach for the lube bottle?

Use a personal sexual lubricant:

  • For skin-to-skin contact involving rubbing or motion.
  • Any time—during solo or partnered play—when the friction of a hand, vibrator, or other toy is uncomfortable rather than pleasurable
  • When touching involves the genitals, including the opening of the vagina or anus (even if penetration is not the goal)
  • When you think you might prefer a more slippery feeling against your genital skin
  • Before putting on a condom or using other barriers
  • Before anal or vaginal penetration (with fingers, toys, or other body parts)
  • When you experience regular discomfort or pain from vaginal dryness, even if you’re not planning on having a sexual encounter

And where do I put the lube, exactly?

The easiest way to handle lubricant is to put some lube on your fingers first. After that, it depends on what you’re doing:

  • To put lube on a vulva, use a pressing or stroking motion with your lubed thumb and forefinger to massage the clitoral hood, the clitoris, the vulva lips, and the vaginal opening with lube.
  • To put lube in a vagina, rub or press your lubed fingers all around the opening of the vagina, then gently insert them. If you need more lubricant than your fingers can apply, use an Applicator, which is slimmer than one finger and can insert up to 3 ml deep into the vagina.
  • To put lube on a penis, wrap your lubed fingers around the shaft and use your hand to move the lube around. Apply a little directly to the head (and the foreskin, if the person is uncircumcised).
  • To put lube on an anus, use a finger to gently massage lube onto the anal opening and the perineum.

If you’re putting lubricant on someone else’s genitals, ask what feels good and how much is enough. Everyone is different, so don’t expect to know what works for your partner. Likewise, if someone else is putting lube on your genitals, tell them what you like. For ongoing penetration, apply generous amounts of lube to anything you want to penetrate your body or a partner’s body.

I know I’m supposed to use lubricant with barriers. How do I do that, exactly?

A little lube on both sides of the condom, barrier sheet, or glove increases sensitivity and prevent breakage. To keep things sliding along, be prepared to use more lube with barriers than you would otherwise.

Using condoms on a penis: Remove the condom from its package, and put a dime-sized drop of lube on the inside tip of the condom. This increases pleasurable movement and sensation for the wearer. Using your hand, put a little lube onto the head of the penis but not much on the shaft (too much on the shaft could help the condom slip off). Roll the condom to the base of the penis, then apply plenty of lube to the outside of the condom. This increases pleasure for the receiver. If the condom is slipping, try using a stretchy silicone erection ring at the base of the penis, over the condom. He’ll say “Thank you” for the extra hardness and security.

Using a condom or toy cover on a dildo, vibrator, or plug: Roll the condom onto the toy, then apply lube to the outside of the condom.

Using a barrier sheet over a vagina or anus: Using your fingers, apply the receiver’s favorite lube to the vagina or anus, then lay the barrier sheet over the lubed area. Apply more lube (a flavored one, or saliva if you like) to the outside of the barrier sheet, and lick away! 

Using gloves: Put a little lube on your hands and massage, slip the glove(s) all the way on, then apply more lube to the outside of the glove(s). Remember to reapply more lube on the outside of the glove if it soaks into the skin.

Okay, I’ve got the lube out and I’m ready to slather it on! How much am I supposed to use?

Because there are many different skin types, and diverse sexual uses, experimentation is your friend. Self-pleasure is a great way to try samples of different lubes and see how long a quarter-sized dab will last. You may like a different lube than your partner does, so communicate about how it’s working for you. It’s your pleasure. Lube is supposed to increase sensation and pleasure, not reduce it. If you slap on a handful and find that you can’t feel a pleasurable level of friction, don’t worry—just keep a small towel handy to wipe off the extra.

  • With water-based lubricants, start with a quarter-sized dab on your fingertips. Apply the lube to your genitals, and then put some on the genitals, hands, toys, or other body parts that will be touching you. If there is too much friction, add more lube. Because water-based lubes soak into the skin over time, you may need to reapply at different points during the experience, or use a little water or saliva to reconstitute the lube once it soaks into the skin. Some playful folks like to keep a plant mister or a water pistol handy to revive a water-based lube when it dries out. 
  • If you’re using a silicone lube, start with a few drops. Since silicone stays slippery for a very long time without soaking in, less is more. If there is still too much friction, add a little more. 
  • Touch that involves a lot of friction—like a hand-job on a vagina or penis—may feel better with more lube. 
  • Oral-genital contact might not require much lube, but sometimes it gets a little dry when saliva dries out. Some people like to put a dab of silicone lube on the surface receiving attention to keep things moist. You can also choose flavor (or not): select a tasty or taste-free lube to add or change up the taste. If you’re using condoms or barrier sheets, remember that the level of friction can be uncomfortable on the mouth-side, so add as much as you want.
  • For vaginal penetration, use enough lube for comfort. No matter how much natural lubrication a person produces, lube can make the experience more slippery and pleasurable for all involved, and reduce the chance of irritating the vulva and vagina. Use less if you want to feel more friction. 
  • For anal penetration, use lots of lube! Unlike the vagina, the rectum doesn’t make its own lubrication, so friction against those tissues can cause irritation, pain, or even long-term damage. 
  • If you’re using toys made of soft materials such as silicone or elastomer, use more lube. These types of toys can drag against the skin and create more friction than toys made of hard plastic, glass, ceramic, or metal. If your toy is silicone and you want to use a silicone lubricant—know that silicone lubes can ruin the surface of silicone toys. Just cover your toy with an unlubricated condom and apply the silicone lube to the outside. If you only use toys externally, experiment to see if you like the feeling of lube, or not. 
  • If the lube you choose soaks into the skin quickly, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the wrong lube for you. It may mean that your skin is dry, or that you didn’t apply enough at first to get you through a whole session. If you’re choosing a moisturizing lubricant for vaginal dryness, use enough lubricant to coat your skin and to ease the irritation caused by dryness.

Avoid the Lubricant Blues

I don’t like using lube because it’s cold and kills my mood. What can I do about that?

We agree. Especially in the cold months, there’s no need to experience cold lube on tender skin. Try these tricks from here in Wisconsin:

  • Put a dab of lube in your palms and rub vigorously to warm your lube (and your hands) up. If moisturizing lubes soak into dry hands, add more before continuing your play.
  • Try putting a bit of lube on the back of your hand and let it warm up while you are doing other things.
  • Fill a bowl with warm tap water, place it near your romping place, and let your sealed bottle or (waterproof) packet of lube go swimming for ten or fifteen minutes. This does take a little planning, but it makes using lube a more friendly and luxurious experience.

Where should I store my lube? Does it go bad?

Check for an expiration date. Some brands print a “Best Used Before” date right on the bottle, but it’s safe to assume that an unopened container of commercial lubricant will be good for several years. Once you open a bottle, it should be good for six months to a year (longer for silicone). It’s time to throw out your lube container if: your bottle has been opened and hanging around for more than a year; you notice that it has changed color or taste; it starts to cause irritation, though it didn’t before. If you only use lube occasionally, consider getting a few smaller bottles instead of a large one.

Choose your dispenser wisely. A pump top or “hands-free” dispenser is best for home use, since it’s easy to use and won’t allow flow back into the bottle after touching your hand. A reclosable flip-top container is good for travel; however, lube can flow back in, contaminating your bottle. Single-use sample packets are great for times when you’re on the go, or for people who only use a little lubricant occasionally.

Put your lube away carefully. If you use silicone lube, or if your bottle doesn’t close, protect your other belongings by storing the container(s) in a zippered plastic baggie. There’s nothing worse than opening the drawer of your night stand and finding a slippery mess. Store sample packets away from sharp objects. Shade and cool conditions are always a good idea. Although lube isn’t usually affected by light or heat the way that barriers are, it is best not to expose your lube to extreme conditions.

What if I’m away from home and don’t want to carry a big bottle with me?

  • This is the perfect time to stash a few sample packets in your bag, preferably inside a protective case so they don’t get punctured and leak. If you also carry condoms or barriers, bring enough lube samples to match.
  • Be prepared for the unexpected; consider the Sex On The Run Kit when you want to be safe and spontaneous, or make your own kit with your favorite components. Our kit contains some male condoms, a stretchy silicone cock ring for pleasure (and to keep the condom in place), and a lube packet, all wrapped in a handy satin pouch with a zipper and snap.
  • Take your own lubricant packet when you go to the clinic for a physical exam. Don’t let your provider use something that you would not choose for yourself.