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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
  • disqus_POkIT4ZETz

    Why not use pure aloe as a baseline comparison?

  • Tzipora

    I feel like people should talk more about the citric acid thing mentioned in Epiphora’s notes. I just bought some sliquid organics and it has citric acid. Now I have a lot of issues with severe dryness due to my health and having an autoimmune condition that attacks my mucus membranes. And I’m super sensitive. It seems I get microscopic tears (as in I’ve checked and checked in mirrors but can’t actually see them at all!) And citric acid on those, at least I’m guessing it was the citric acid feels like the most horrific burn, oh my flipping gosh!!! I used Sliquid organics fine vaginally but was feeling dry and irritated around my vulva and I pretty much went running screaming to wash it off. Bummer because those irritated bits probably need lube the darn most. Maybe I’m just more sensitive but really didn’t burn vaginally and I went and tried it again with water nearby and patch tested. Same deal. So I’m still on the hunt unfortunately. 🙁

    • Sorry to hear you had a bad reaction. A lot of these “natural lubes” have citric acid.

      The Sliquid Organics Natural also has aloe, which can be irritating for some. Unfortunately aloe is another common ingredient.

      It looks like Sliquid Sea doesn’t have aloe or citric acid.

      And you might also consider a silicone-based lube.

      • Tzipora

        Thanks. I hadn’t thought about the aloe. I don’t know if I’m sensitive to it or not. Used to have an aloe plant that I used on cuts and burns and I think I even used it on my outer vulva after shaving irritation so I don’t know, wasn’t think it was that but possibly. Makes sense though that citric acid burns.

        I actually really want to try Sliquid Satin as that one seems recommended by Sliquid for daily use too which is something I need given the constant dryness. Though the Sea was my second choice and I’ve heard lots of good with that kube and women with dryness issues. So frustrating though. Dryness causes irritation and the irritation makes me mroe sensitive to the lubes yet I need a lube to help the dryness. It’s like a circle of vulva hell. 😛

        I ordered a bunch of stuff from a Labor Day sale and the website I ordered from only had Sliquid organic so I was stuck and I figured since I was getting new toys I might as well get a lube at the same time.

        I’m positive I have a small bottle of Slippery Stuff somewhere and liked it but I can’t seem to find it. May give that another go too and it’s so affordable too. Honestly the site I did order the Sliquid from is a big Midwestern based retailer that sells a lot of absolute crap in addition to high end but happens to have some unbelievable sales so it was a case of, eh, don’t really want to support them but wow, these prices are awesome. So that carried Sliquid at all was nice to see. Most of their lubes were glycerin and paraben based crud! So looks like more people are requesting better products all around and that’s awesome!

    • Come Heather


      Also there’s some debate about citric acid mixing with sodium benzoate in lube to create carcinogenic benzene.

  • topique

    Hi, i’m currently using slippery stuff which falls under the hypo-osmotic category according to the data you’ve provided. Would you say that it is as “harmful/ negative” as compared to those brands that are hyper-osmotic?

    • Let me start by saying I’m no expert and I really don’t know the true answer to this but…

      I’m gonna guess that it’s better than using the extremely hyper-osmotic lubes like Astroglide and KY.

      I looked at the ingredients for the Slippery Stuff Liquid and it lists propylene glycol, which typically makes a lube hyper-osomotic (based on my understanding) so, I’m not sure why the data I referenced lists it as hypo-osmotic. Maybe there’s just not enough of the Propylene glycol to push it into the hyper-osmotic category. I really don’t know. However, propylene glycol is a petrochemical so that might be reason enough to avoid it. The Liquid also has parabens in it which, I personally think it’s a good idea to avoid.

      The Slippery Stuff Gel does list Phenoxyethanol as an ingredient and some people can be sensitive to it but if you’re not having a reaction then I guess it’s OK. Just be aware that you can develop sensitivities or allergies to chemicals at any time, even if you’ve been using the product for a long time with no problems.

    • I wanted to add…
      If you want a better answer than I can give, you might contact the Smitten Kitten. They are where I got all this lube info and they’re always happy to educate folks.

  • A bit disappointed. I know my fiance likes Liquid Silk for masturbation. Even though I’ve bought him another brand of water-based lube, he reaches for the Liquid Silk first every time. We also use it for anal sex because it’s a hybrid lube and lasts longer than water-based lubes we’ve tried for anal sex. The disappointing thing is that its osmolality seems to be just out of control. Just reinforces what I keep saying and not doing, which is that I really need to switch to Sliquid everything.

  • Mike

    Good information as far as it goes, but no in-depth discussion of personal/sex lubricants should ignore current research into the potential health risks associated with many of the products currently on the market. See, for example, http://cen.acs.org/articles/90/i50/Studies-Raise-Questions-Safety-Personal.html

    • Thanks. I believe my post covers much of that.

      • Mike

        Really? If I agreed, I wouldn’t have posted my comment in the first place.

        • I touched on the subjects presented in the article you linked to. This isn’t a be-all end-all “in-depth” discussion of personal lubricants. It’s to give people basic information as I know it to be.

          Thanks for your input and maybe folks will find your link useful.

  • Camryn Jones

    Thanks for this! It raises several points I hadn’t considered in my lube explorations.

    • Well, as you know Sliquid anything is pretty much OK. But if you’re sensitive to Aloe then stick with the original line and not the Organics.

  • meringue

    This is interesting. Unfortunately I’ve only found information in English, on some (I presume) American brands. Is this something that’s hard to measure? Like pH for example is pretty easy, all you need is some strips from the pharmacy that will at least give you some idea. But osmolality? I assume if it’s something checked when you have your blood tested, it’s laboratory-level testing, with more advanced equipment/substances. Do producers know this about their products, but just don’t care to mention? What I’m really wondering is will they tell me when I ask.

    • I’m not sure that you could get that information from manufacturers. I actually haven’t tried asking any.

      I imagine that they don’t mention this information because nobody is asking about it but that’s mostly because people don’t know why it’s important.

      I was impressed to recently find a lube being advertised with its osmolality. So, maybe we’ll start seeing more of that.

      • meringue

        Wow, that’s great. Yeah, we should raise awareness so that more people ask about it and they start actually giving us this information. At least the ingredients are listed. There are lubes like Durex and Unimil (the most popular! on the shelves in every shop!) that don’t even bother with that. Unbelievable.
        I wrote a message to Pjur, I wonder what they say.

      • meringue

        Oh yeah, I wanted to ask – where is the information on the osmolality in the Smitten Kitten brochure from, did they do tests on their own?

      • meringue

        Well turns out that they do know and can tell, at least to some extent. The response from Pjur: “The pH-value of our water-based lubricants is 4,0 – 4,5 and complies with the physiological level of a healthy mucous membrane of the vagina. The Osmolality is between 800 – 2000 mOsmol/kg.” It’s very nice that they told me and gave a range of values, although it would be very cool if they had a table with all the interesting parameters of each product. Well, they probably do have this sort of technical sheets, but only for their own use. And well, it’s still way too high. I asked which lubes have the lowest osmolality though, so if they tell me, that’s a little plus point for PR.

        • Interesting that they gave you some information. Thanks for sharing.

          • meringue

            I expect they would, this isn’t something that should be secret. But this reply surprised me: ”
            The majority of water-based lubricants have an osmolality of 800 mOsmol/kg.
            It is very important to know that by using lubricants with a lower osmolality possible skin impurities might flush through the skin/mucosa into the body.
            To provide a better quality and product safety we always keep the standard osmolality of 800 – 2000 mOsmol/kg.” so I guess the QUITE WIDE range between 800 and 2000 is what each product should have, anywhere on the scale. But that middle paragraph, uhh…what…what even can I say to that. Isn’t it very important to know that such high osmolality can be harmful? How can skin impurities “flush through”, instead of water just flowing out of our cells? Are they just blatantly lying for marketing purposes or what?

          • 800 -2000 mOsm/kg is really still too high in my opinion. At that range it can damage the tissues of the muscous membranes.

            It’s why I stick with just a few brands of water-based lube that I know are the most compatible available.

            I would never endorse a lube with 2000 mOsm/kg.

            We really have more of a problem with lube osmolalities being way too high rather than too low.

            It’s why I recommend staying away from lube that contains glycerin and propylene glycol as these ingredients tend to contribute to hyper-osmolality.

          • meringue

            I know, 2k is almost ten times the osmolality of vaginal mucus. I thought that maybe one product is about 800, then another 1500 and so on, but apparently maybe not. Pjur is pretty expensive anyway so I’m not worried about not using it, but, still.
            But what do you think about this weird explanation, with impurities supposed to cross the skin barrier because of “too low” osmolality? I guess if it’s close to zero, which isn’t even what we’re talking about, then water would flow into the cells. But other stuff than water?
            Easy for you to stick to the brands that are available – I’m only beginning to ask the manufacturers and so far with this one – hasn’t gone very well.

  • meringue

    I got an extended reply from Pjur, from their Quality Management Department, on why they actually actively keep their osmolality higher – they don’t agree with WHO’s ~380. Here’s what they said (typos original):

    “Your quetsions are not easy to answer. You refer to the official opinion of WHO to back your position. The problem with this official position is, that the underlying model is the model of a chemical equilibrium to avoid damages to biological systems like a vaginal mucosa. Modern scientists like Prigogine have discovered, that living systems have to be in a steady state and not in equilibrium with their environment to be able to live (described in Prigogine, Kondepudi, Modern Thermodynamics). Our specialists follow the test results, that only if a gradient exists, the biological structures can stay intact. Without a gradient as source for energy the biological structures will not be able to fight the constant degradation, caused by slowly oxidizing of the biological structures (reference; Dr. H. Widulle; “Was das Leben antreibt”, Verlag für chemische Industrie, 2011).

    Only if a gradient exists from the inside of the vaginal mucosa to the outside, an effective barrier will be built up across the mucosa to protect the body against potentially harmful substances. The barrier will be the water flux from the inside to the outside across the mucosa. To create the water flux from the inside of the body across the mucosa to the outside, the partial water pressure has to be higher inside than outside. The water flux across the mucosa will hinder any diffusion across the mucosa or any penetration of potentially harmful substances through the mucosa. Because of this, most personal lubricants have a partial water pressure below that one in a healthy body, or to word it the other way round, a higher osmolality. Water based personal lubricants with an osmolality below the osmolality of the serum of about 250 to 290 mOsmol/kg will create a water flux from the outside to the inside across the mucosa and thus enhance penetration of potentially harmful substances. The conclusion is, that an osmolality of the lubricant below the said osmolality of the serum will promote penetration into the body. An osmolality of the lubricant as high as the osmolality of the serum, as WHO recommends, will not hinder penetration. Only water based lubricants with an osmolality higher than the osmolality of the serum will protect the female body against penetration of harmful substances through the vaginal mucosa. Personal lubricants of pjur have an osmolality higher than the osmolality of the serum and are tested against cytotoxicity to ensure, that they are compatible with the vaginal mucosa.”

    What do you think about this? Sure, 250 mOsm/kg might be too low, all I’m asking is why are they going as far as 800 to 2k, instead of 400, for example. All of this seems to be completely opposite to the WHO’s recommendations, and the whole theory of keeping the osmolality the same as the natural mucus. Well, it’s basing on a whole different assumption. Have you heard about this before? Do you think it’s any good?

    • Honestly, I have no idea about this. I am going off of what I learned from a workshop at a sexuality conference presented by someone from a respected, sex positive sex shop.

      It sounds almost as though they are just trying to make a case for why their hyper-osmotic lubes are OK. I’m not sure any of it is actually true.

      It would be interesting to run this past the folks that presented the information that this post is based on.

      Also interesting that if a lube with an “low” osmolality is bad, that System JO is advertising their AGAPE lube as 250 mOsm/kg (as shown in the pic I posted). Why would they be bragging about that then?

      And also, why are such great lubes like Good Clean Love and Sliquid iso-osmotic?

      And they’re like basically saying that WHO is wrong.

      I can’t answer these questions.

      • meringue

        I know, it sounds weird. Although just because a source is sex-positive, doesn’t mean that they know everything, and the WHO has been wrong in the past, so I don’t know – maybe it’s true? Have you tried contacting the people who presented the information to see what they say?

        I’m trying to find out more about the stuff they said in the email. Here’s a little pamphlet written by the Dr. H. Widulle that they mentioned, although I found it very hard to read and I don’t think I quite understood a lot from it. http://www.pjurmed.com/fileadmin/Newsletter/pjurmed/material/silicones-in-lubricants_MW.pdf
        And this: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3334944/ is from the book they mentioned, I think, but I’m not sure there’s anything pertinent in this part.

        The book they mentioned was published in 1998, and the WHO conference with the advisory note happened in 2011. Shouldn’t they know about this thing that is completely opposite to their theory? I’ve googled some osmotic and gradient searches, and I’m also trying to find something on this “steady state and not in equilibrium”.

        • Honestly, my first thought was they’re trying to baffle with bullshit. I don’t think the WHO is wrong. I shared their response to you with the person who presented the information this post is based on. She says she’ll dig deeper into it but it doesn’t sound right to her.

          Maybe their lube shouldn’t be so full of impurities that they have to worry about this absorption they say will happen if the osmolality is too low.

          I can understand that if a lube is extremely hypo-osmotic, it may cause problems. There is far less information to be found on that subject as there is on the effects of hyper-osmotic lubes.

          I don’t care what they say, I’ll continue to use lube that is as iso-osmotic as possible. Anecdotally, one such brand of lube, Sliquid, just happens to have a cult following and that’s in large part because people don’t have bad reactions to it.

          Perhaps it’s easier and/or cheaper to produce hyper-osmotic lube and they’re just trying to defend their products.

          I do know that if a lube has glycerin and propylene glycol in it, I want nothing to do with it. How many of their lubes contain those ingredients?

          • meringue

            I wonder what she says. So far from a few things I’ve read all were talking about hyperosmolality being bad. This is a good one: http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0256-95742014000100023 there’s a comparison of a few lubricants, and the one with the highest osmolality (9k!) is produced by System JO. Who so far haven’t given me any information about their products’ osmolality, apart from Agape.

            I’m the same with glycerin. I’m checking their ingredients and I think all of them have at least either glycerin or propylene glycol, but most/a lot have both. Tbh it’s not easy finding lube without them, in general.

          • That’s a really good article. Thanks for finding it. I think it backs up our thinking on the subject.

            One way I look at it is – yes, they could be mistaken but who are you going to believe, folks from a sex positive shop who have done the research and really have nothing to gain by putting the info out there or, a company trying to defend its products?

            It would make more sense if the Smitten Kitten didn’t put this information out there because then they could sell all these bad lubes but they’re not that kind of shop.

          • As far as lubes without those chemicals, all things Sliquid is good. I also like Good Clean Love Almost Naked.

            I just tested that System JO Agape lube last night and had a good experience with it.

            More companies are starting to offer lubes that are free of those chemicals, which is good. Yet, they still sell the other stuff.