Primer on Sexual Lubes

© Andrew Zaeh | ZAEH, LLC
© Andrew Zaeh | ZAEH, LLC

by Randall S. Frederick

The first time I tried lube, I was alone. It’s difficult to remember how the little bottle came into my possession, where I might have stolen it from, but I was terribly curious about its contents and how it could be used. Could guys use this too, maybe to masturbate? I wondered. Or is it just for vaginas? Aren’t women naturally wet? Why would they need this? Assembling a series of casual questions over the years, I think there was a glaring oversight in my sexual education about the purposes and safety of lube. During college, I was vaguely aware of a friend who was “disgusted” that his roommate had lube and sex toys “for himself, can you believe? Ugh!” Though I barely understood how and why you used lube, it made sense. Of course. Guys use it too – anyone can use it! When I later bought a sample pack with four different kinds to try out, a girlfriend was insulted. She was hurt, feeling that I was telling her something was wrong with her body. We eventually tried it, but hesitantly. Her mother had told her “you only need a drop – and even that is almost too much.” Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who missed that lesson in Sex Ed.

Today, I’m a big advocate for lube. Lots of it. Whatever helps make things fun, slippery, and easy in the bedroom gets my vote. Even now, in my thirties, there are friends who are reluctant to talk about “that stuff” but will, just like I did as a teenager, ask questions about what kinds of lube are good, which ones are safe, and (once) “Who uses lube? Perverts like you, or normal people?” In my experience, both. Perverts, “normal” people, men, women, couples, singles, gay and straight.

Still, no matter what your age or sexual preferences, it can be kind of confusing when you first start exploring or overwhelming when you first start experimenting with new things in your private repertoire.

Before comparing types of lube, let’s go over some general pointers.

  • Thicker is Better. Most people find that they prefer a thicker lubricant for anal play because it gives some extra cushion to protect delicate body parts. Look for a product that has a gel consistency, rather than the thinner liquids that are often preferred for vaginas.
  • Lubricant Ingredients. There are a few general types of lubricant available: water-based, silicone-based, hybrids, and oils. Most of them come in a variety of consistencies, which we’ll get to momentarily. Just know that if you squirt some in your hand and between your fingers and it feels different or unfamiliar, that’s normal and nothing to stress over. It’s probably because of the ingredients.
  • Kinds of lubricants. There are basically four different kinds of lube – water based, silicone based, hybrids, and oils. Pay attention here, because these differences are important for your health, safety, pleasure, and some may stain based on the chemical makeup.
  • Picking the Best One for You. It might take a little experimenting to find the right lube for your body, just as it can take a little trial and error to figure out what hand lotion or shampoo works best for you. Most companies make small bottles or sample sizes, so pick a few of them up at your local sex toy store or website, so don’t be afraid to ask for samples – lubricant companies make samples available because they want you to buy bigger bottles of your favorite kind. It’s totally fine to ask, so don’t be shy. Most adult shops will either have free or very cheap samples next to the register, so don’t be afraid to ask questions!



Water-based lubricants are easy to clean since they rinse away. However, your body will absorb the water out of them, which means you’ll need to add more lube every so often. That can make them a bit more work for anal play than some people want.

Silicone-based lubricants. Silicone-based lubricants never dry out, so they’re excellent for anal play. However, they do require soap and water to clean up and if you spill some on the bathroom floor, be sure to wipe it up with a paper towel and spray cleaner or it’ll be slippery for days. Some silicone lubes can damage silicone toys, so I don’t recommend using them with our products unless you cover your toy with a condom all the way over the base. Don’t use silicone lubricants in a pool or hot tub because they’ll damage the pump.

Hybrid lubricants. Hybrid lubricants are a blend of water and silicone. They give you the best of both worlds: long-lasting and easy to clean and are definitely worth trying.

Oils. Oils such as coconut or almond oil are excellent for anal play, but not if you’re using latex condoms. Oils will make condoms break in about 30 seconds, so if you use them, be sure to go with a different option. Note that using an oil based lubricant with a silicone sex toy will change the texture of the item and it will become “slick”. Mineral oils such as baby oil or Vaseline will actually dry out the tissues, so we don’t recommend them. Go with a food-grade oil like coconut or almond for a better experience. You can also purchase oil-based lubricants at many sex toy shops. Avoid products with scents or dyes. The anus is sensitive to ingredients and scented or dyed products can cause irritation or pain.

Which one is best? Honestly, it depends. Personally, water-based is the first thing I look for. Silicone is better for anal, but I know a few people who swear by natural oils. Then again, I know a few people who think using an oil for lube is a dangerous health risk. I would recommend starting with a water-based lube first so you can get the general feel of lubes in general, then stair-step your way through different kinds. Experiment. Have fun. You’ll quickly find something that works (or doesn’t) that way.

No discussion of lube is complete without a discussion of what lube chemicals. Sure, some are water based and some oil based, but what other chemicals are in this stuff? Health professionals and even prominent politicians are voicing concern. California Senator Diane Feinstein and Senator Susan Collins of Maine introduced a bill (check the status on S.1014-the Personal Care Products Safety Act on the Congressional website) that would require FDA review of some ingredients to “help ensure a safe marketplace for personal care products and reduce harms from exposure to toxic chemicals.”  Some ingredients were originally made for industrial or commercial use such as rocket ships, anti-freeze, insect repellants, and even oven cleaners. Check the label before using any product sexually, because you may have allergies to something or there may be a chemical that is dangerous to your sensitive bits, even toxic, because they were never intended for the human body. Other products like Aloe Cadabra contain “100% food-grade natural ingredients” (and of course aloe), but “food-grade” isn’t the first qualifier I look for in a sexual product. Their website offers a really good comparison of products with a visual chart, but keep in mind their information favors their product, arguing that aloe and “food ingredients… can help keep your vaginal and vulvar tissue well nourished, moisturized, and healthy.” Take it with a grain of salt. Ellen Barnard, co-founder and co-owner of A Woman’s Touch, in Madison, WI, says, “Poison ivy is natural, and you wouldn’t want to put that on yourself. Just like some of us are allergic to some foods, some of us are sensitive to certain natural plant products and the last place to put those products is on our genitals!” The important thing to remember here is that some chemicals are harmful so keep your eyes open and do your homework. Reading a label takes a minute or two, but can help you stay safe and healthy.

Partial List Of Unhealthy Ingredients

  • Parabens If an ingredient ends with the suffix “paraben,” stay away! These are synthetic preservatives that extend the shelf life of common household products. In vaginal lubes, they mimic the effects of estrogen and have been found in breast tumors. The Feinstein-Collins bill highlights propylparaben “as an endocrine-disrupting chemical…that is linked to a wide range of health effects, including reproductive system disorders.” Parabens may also have links to higher risks of breast cancer.
  • Mineral Oil Sounds safe enough, right? But it is a petroleum by-product just like motor oil and it clogs the pores. Skin care consultant, Carol Lee, warns that “by coating and clogging the pores, mineral oil and its derivatives interfere with your skin’s ability to eliminate toxins, or even perspire.” Untreated mineral oil has been proven to cause cancer.
  • Phenoxyethanol Dr. Laurie Steelsmith tells us that phenoxethanol “can be harmful when absorbed through your skin, causes reproductive damage, and according to the FDA, depresses the central nervous system in newborns.” It can also adversely affect your immune system. Thankfully, this ingredient is not in Aloe Cadabra®!
  • Glycerin A form of sugar, glycerine is a drying agent and may increase the incidence of candida, which can result in vaginal yeast infections. The pain, discharge, and itchiness that accompanies this fungus is not something you want to deal with.
  • Benzoic acid Here is a preservative usually derived from trees but sometimes from animal urine! You’ll also find it in insect repellant. Need we say more?
  • Polyquaternium This is a synthetic polymer (polymers are compounds used to make plastics, concrete and glass) associated with severe irritation and disruption of skin surfaces. It also increases reproduction of viruses, including HIV.
  • Non-oxynol 9 This ingredient is an oil-based spermicide! It severely irritates skin surfaces and increases transmission of viruses, including HIV. Do NOT use it if you’re trying to conceive. And do not use it rectally. Better still, don’t use it at all!
  • Lidocaine Your dentist uses this to numb your gums before a procedure. In a vaginal lube, it irritates skin surfaces and increases the risk of skin trauma. Besides, who wants to feel numb in the vaginal area when you want to have pleasurable sex!
  • Capsaicin Better be ready to sink into a tub of cool water if you use this one. It’s the oil of very hot chili peppers and it’s used in warming lubes. It triggers a pain reaction in the nerves-which is bad enough—but then may last longer than the intimate experience and can be difficult to remove from skin once applied.
  • Chlorhexidine This preservative found in KY Jelly® and Surgilube®, destroys normal, protective genital bacteria that help fight infections. Ellen Barnard, co-owner of “A Woman’s Touch,” warns, “No way! It kills all your healthy vaginal bacteria.”
  • Propylene Glycol This component lets chemicals penetrate the body and get to the blood stream. It’s been linked to cancer, developmental problems, and toxicity of the human organs. It’s also used in some oven cleaners and antifreeze products. We can’t even imagine putting a substance that is used for automobile maintenance on your sensitive vaginal tissues. And why would you want to use a chemical that allows other chemicals to get even deeper under your skin?
  • Petroleum or petroleum-based ingredients It sounds harmless, but for vaginal use, this component can coat your skin and interfere with its normal functions. Some studies show links to cancer.
  • Silicone-based ingredients also function like petroleum-based ingredients.

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