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Sep 062015

water-based lubes

Lube is a many splendored thing.

You know I always suggest using lube for any of your sexy-time activities. Everything is better with lube. Even if you self lubricate very well, you can still benefit from using lube. There is a common misconception that if you need to use lube there is something wrong with you… or your partner just doesn’t have what it takes to turn you on. I hate hearing this and it’s usually from dudes and it’s dead fucking wrong. There are many reasons why a vagina might not self lubricate enough for comfortable, enjoyable sex. And none of those reasons mean you’re broken. So, get that out of your head right now.

Of course lube is a must for anal sex because the rectum/anus do not self lubricate and you can cause serious injury if you don’t use sufficient lube for anal sex or, using anal toys. Lube can also make blowjobs better, especially if you use a flavored one from a company like Sliquid. Although, theirs are about the only flavored lubes that I would recommend.

Silicone-based lubes are pretty straight forward. The fewer ingredients it has, the better and most of them usually have some of the same ingredients. Silicone molecules are not absorbed by the mucous membranes like those in water-based lube and silicone-based lubes usually don’t have the preservatives found in water-based lube that can be irritating to so many people.

Silicone-based lube is great and I highly recommend it because it lasts longer than water-based lube but some people might not like how it feels or you might need a water-based lube to use with your silicone sex toys. There’s a lot more to consider when choosing a water-based lube.

Lube science is cool.  No, really.

Osmolality is the measure of dissolved particles per unit of water in a solution or serum (sometimes referred to as the concentration).  The epithelial layer of the mucous membranes and the body’s natural mucous are constantly trying to maintain homeostasis or, an equilibrium of osmolality.  Therefore, a lubricant’s osmolality directly affects the integrity of these tissues.

A lube with a higher osmolality than the cells of the body is hyper-osmotic. You want to stay away from hyper-osmotic lube because it can cause irritation and the epithelial layer of the mucous membranes can slough off. This leads to some other nasty consequences like leaving the mucous membranes more susceptible to STIs.

Most widely available water-based lubes are hyper-osmotic. Anything with an osmolality of over 1500 mOsm/kg (milliosmoles per kilogram of solvent) is certain to cause cell death. One thing to look for: if your water-based lube’s first ingredients are water, glycerin and propylene glycol then it’s likely hyper-osmotic and should probably be avoided.

Hypo-osmotic lubricant can also cause problems by rupturing cell membranes. But since most widely available lubricants are hyper-osmotic, that’s what we tend to focus on.

An ideal lube would be iso-osmotic. This means it would have the same hydration levels as the cells of the body.  To minimize risk of epithelial damage, a personal lubricant’s osomolality should not exceed 380 mOsm/kg.  A couple of brands that fall into this range (or very close to it) are Sliquid and Good Clean Love. Both of which are brands that I use, adore and recommend.

Average Osmolality of:

  • Tap Water~ 3 mOsm/kg
  • Slippery Stuff® Liquid ~ 26 mOsm/kg
  • Sliquid® Organics ~ 106 mOsm/kg
  • Vaginal mucus ~ 260-290 mOsm/kg
  • Colon Lining ~ 920 mOsm/kg
  • Human Blood ~ 285-295 mOsm/kg
  • Human Semen ~ 260-380 mOsm/kg
  • Good Clean Love™ ~ 269 mOsm/kg
  • K-Y® Jelly ~ 2424 mOsm/kg
  • ID Glide® ~ 3429 mOsm/kg
  • Astroglide® ~ 6113 mOsm/kg
  • K-Y® Warming Jelly ~ 10,300 mOsm/kg1
Osmolality Graph

Click to enlarge.
Source: Lube! An In-Depth Look at Personal Lubricants
Presented by Sarah E. Mueller

Another factor that determines a lube’s compatibility with the body is pH. The pH of a lube directly affects the pH of the environment it’s going into. Imbalances of vaginal pH can lead to Bacterial Vaginosis and yeast infections. Vaginal pH can vary from around 3.5 -7 depending on various factors like hormonal changes.  Rectal pH is around 6. Unfortunately, pH levels aren’t usually specified but the pH levels of some common lubes can be found here and here.

Why would they put this stuff in lube, anyway?

In addition to osmolality and pH, there are some potentially harmful ingredients to consider:

Glycerin – is a sugar alcohol and nobody has proven that it directly leads to yeast infections but if you’re prone to getting them, you should probably avoid this ingredient.  It also greatly increases the osmolality of the lube making it hyper-osmotic and we’ve already discussed why that is a very bad thing.

Propylene Glycol – is a petrochemical and increases the osmolality of the lube.  For some people, the more they are exposed to it over time, it’s more likely that they can develop a sensitivity to this chemical. Again, if glycerin and propylene glycol are at the beginning of the ingredient list then you probably have a very hyper-osmotic lube and it should be avoided.

Nonoxynol 9 – is a spermicide. It makes cell membranes more permeable (easier for bad things to be absorbed), kills good bacteria and can cause irritation.

Chlorhexidine Gluconate – is a microbicide that is found in a few places – mouthwash, KY Jelly and Surgilube (the stuff they use for pap smears, etc.). Sure, it kills viruses and bacteria but it kills everything else too. You are actually more vulnerable to pathogen transmission for 2-4 days after using Surgilube. Maybe we ought to start bringing our own lubricant to our pelvic exams.

Petroleum Oils – can lead to overgrowth of bacteria.  Natural oils, like coconut oil, seem to be suitable for lubrication but still should not be used with latex condoms.

Polyquaternium-15 – is in Astroglide Liquid and Astroglide Warming Liquid. A study showed that this ingredient caused increased transmission of HIV-1.

Benzocaine – is a numbing agent and can cause irritation. It is found in some “anal relaxing” lubes and it’s a terrible idea. You need to feel what’s going on when you have anal sex or use an anal toy. Pain means something is wrong and you shouldn’t just push through it. If you numb the pain then you can potentially injure yourself.

Parabens – used as preservatives, they can be carcinogenic but it is thought that the small exposure through lubricants wouldn’t be enough to cause cancer. However, some people can have allergic reactions to parabens when applied to the genitals.

Phenoxyethanol – used as an alternative to parabens. It’s found in Astroglide Sensitive Skin Gel (and probably other lubes as well) and studies have shown that it’s an irritant to the eyes and skin. A nipple cream for nursing mothers (called Mommy’s Bliss) contained phenoxyethanol and the FDA issued a warning against it because they found that it can depress the central nervous system and may cause vomiting and diarrhea. I personally had a reaction to the Astroglide Sensitive Skin Gel that resulted in a burning sensation.

Never fear, healthy lube is here.

So, I know all of this must sound confusing and a little scary. The point is, most water-based lubes that you find in the drugstores are just not good for you. They are highly likely to be hyper-osmotic and contain potentially harmful ingredients. Although, there are some companies that are dedicated to making lube that’s more compatible with the body.

These are some water-based lubes that are generally considered safe and compatible with the body (I’m sure there are others I haven’t discovered yet). It doesn’t mean you won’t have a reaction to one of these lubes because we’re all individuals whose bodies react to chemicals in different ways.  Some of these lubes contain aloe which rarely causes irritation for some people.

A note about hybrid lubes: Hybrids are essentially water-based lube with a bit of silicone added to increase slickness and staying power. Sliquid Silk is one of my favorites. No studies have been done on hybrid lubes but it stands to reason that some of them could have the same issues and contain the same ingredients discussed in this post. So, it’s a good idea to take a look at the ingredients of hybrid lubes before you buy.

This is by no means a definitive guide to choosing a water-based lube and I am certainly not an expert. I simply wanted to share some things that I have learned. There are likely other potentially dangerous or irritating chemicals found in some water-based lubes that are not listed here.

*Most information was obtained from Lube! An In-Depth Look at Personal Lubricants, presented by Sarah E. Mueller at Woodhull’s SFS15 and Epiphora’s notes from that session. Click here for presentation slide show.  For more in-depth information go here.  Special thanks to the folks at the Smitten Kitten for helping me learn more about lube and all they do to promote sex positive education.

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 Posted by at 2:17 pm