How to Choose a Lubricant
By Heather Edwards, PT, CSC, Pelvic Guru LLC Course & Content Manager
Personal lubricants for sexual penetration or external genital stimulation (either solo or partnered) can enhance pleasure and comfort. Though the vagina can self-lubricate, the amount of wetness and duration of its effectiveness will vary from person to person. It can also vary for one person depending on many factors such as variability in anatomy, hydration, hormonal levels, medications, and overall circulatory health. It is completely normal to need to add lubrication all of the time, occasionally, or at different points during a menstrual cycle or lifespan. Other structures like the clitoris, the penis, and the anus, do not self-lubricate, so adding lubricant creates less friction during stimulation which can increase pleasure and decrease the chance for injury to the tissue. For the anus, in particular, lubricant is critical in preventing tissue injury. To decide which lubricant is best for you, there are some important things to consider.
Types of Lube:
Water-Based (or aloe-based):
- Can be a thicker gel (may feel sticky, but also has more “bulk” to it which is sometimes desired)
- Some can be thin and more “natural” feeling (less sticky, less bulky)
- Compatible with all toys and condoms
- Relatively inexpensive
- Widely available
- May require re-application (or adding water) because it absorbs into the skin
- Watch for irritating ingredients (see below)
- Moisturizing (depending on the osmolality, see below for a brief explanation)
- “Iso-osmolar” means that the lubricant will not have a drying effect for the vulvar tissue (important if you have vaginal dryness)
- If a lubricant has an osmolality number that is higher than the vaginal’s osmolality of ~290 mOsm/kg, it can pull moisture out of the tissue
- Osmolality numbers lower than the vagina’s osmolality can hydrate the tissue
- These numbers are not typically found on the product information section and might require more investigation if you want to make sure your lubricant is non-drying (HERE is a helpful article and chart if you want to learn more)
- Thin (can feel “barely there” and doesn’t tend to feel sticky)
- Doesn’t absorb into the skin,
- Not compatible with silicone toys
- More expensive (but goes a long way)
- Might stain sheets/clothes
- Needs to be washed off of skin
- Does not absorb into the skin (does not add moisture into the skin)
- Can make an exceptionally slick place on the floor if spilled (that is difficult to get rid of on hardwood)
- Mixture of water-based and silicone
- Hydrating and long-lasting.
- Some have a cloudy appearance (for some this is a bonus, others prefer clear, but cloudiness is normal for this type of lube)
- See features of both above
Oil-Based (natural oils):
- Fantastic for external use and massaging
- These are frequently recommended as vulvar/vaginal moisturizers and lubricants, however, the research does not point to them being safer, or healthier than using high quality water-based or silicone-based lubricants and so we generally recommend not using oils on mucosal membranes (the genital skin that does not grow hair).
- Not compatible with condoms
- Not compatible with silicone toys
- May cause changes in the natural microbiome and these changes may increase your chance of infection (bacterial vaginosis, yeast, etc.)
- Widely available, as they are natural oils (coconut oil, almond oil, etc)
- Will stain sheets and clothing
Petroleum-Based (like Vaseline):
- Unless specifically, medically advised for a condition, petroleum-based lubricants are not recommended for internal use.
- They increase the risk for bacterial vaginosis and are generally advised for “external use only”.
- They can break down toys
- They can break down condoms
- They stain sheets and clothes
- Need to be washed off
These things may be irritating (so avoid them):
- Flavored lubes
- Heating or cooling lubes
- Propylene glycol
- Look for “iso-osmolar” on the labeling (that’s a GOOD thing)
Massage & Non-genital: Oils can be great for this! They stay slippery, but keep them off of the mucous membranes.
Use with toys: Silicone toys can be damaged with silicone lube. Water-based lube will be fine with just about any toy. Silicone lube is great with toys that are metal, glass, or plastic.
Use with a penis: If the penis is bare, then water-based or silicone are fine. If the penis is not penetrating an orifice, then oil-based can work. (see “condoms” below)
Use with condoms: Water-based or silicone-based lubes are less likely to damage condoms.
Anal Use: Water-based lube works great because of its thickness. Silicone is long-lasting. Hybrids have both features. The key is to use a generous amount and keep it close to reapply as needed.
Sensitive Skin: Make sure you’re avoiding the list of irritants. TEST your lubes with just a small amount externally before using a large amount internally. Find a water-based brand and a silicone-based brand that work for you and stick with them.
- Pick a good water-based lube to always have available.
- Keep the lube close by to easily reach and reapply at any time.
- Keep some water close to re-activate lubricants.
- A lube injector can be helpful to make sure there is more lube internally if that’s the place that there is more undesired friction
Are you interested in learning more?
Pelvic Guru Academy offers a course that goes into detail on lubricants, toys, and safety for use. It’s the first of two courses about all of the therapeutic uses and technical aspects of toys that you could want to know. It’s created for medical providers but is also appropriate for anyone who wants to learn more about how to make decisions for themselves when it comes to these topics. Both courses are instructed by Heather Edwards, PT, CSC and Alex Papale, PT, DPT.
- Clinical Blindspots: Sexual Health Toys Part 1 (Materials, Lube, and Safety)
- Clinical Blindspots: Sexual Health Toys Part 2 (Types, Clinical Applications, Cases)
Are you a medical provider or fitness professional?
If you found this blog handy, we have a multitude of other educational topics available along with anatomy illustrations (like the one above!) and webinars available to members of the Global Pelvic Health Alliance. Want to learn more? Go HERE to check it out!
Are you already a GPHAM member and you want the PDF formatted handout version of this blog?
You can grab this, and so many of our other handouts at the membership site! Go HERE to login.
We’ve got webinars and courses available that go into so much more depth on a variety of sexual health topics!
- To check out our entire collection of educational offerings, go HERE
I’m thrilled someone is speaking and writing on the osmolality of personal lubricants. Also, thanks for mentioning mucosal irritants, including oils, to avoid on vulva/vaginal tissues. The pH of lubricants is better understood and more lubricant manufacturers are making pH appropriate products. Now osmolality needs to become part of the conversation from medical providers and the media to consumers.
You may have discussed the topic of pH compatibility for vagina vs. anal intercourse in another article I haven’t read yet. Folks who engage in both need two lubricants. For vaginal penetration a pH between 3.8 – 4.5 will help maintain the natural acidity of the vagina, while a neutral pH of 7 is OK for anal penetration.
I’ve been talking about safety considerations and pelvic health to cancer survivors in support group meetings in central and western NC since I retired. Of course, as a passionate pelvic PT I’m talking about the “new normal” for these survivors. I have extra credibility as a gynecologic cancer survivor myself. As for you, Heather, I’m glad you are addressing healthy sex for all gender identifications.
Keep being excellent!
Glenna Sears-Brinker, PT
Thanks so much for this comment, Glenna! Yes, we’re doing our best to widen the conversation and I agree that this topic can go further and further! Thanks for reading and thanks for sharing your expertise! ~Heather