Personal lubricants (also known as “lube”) are natural or artificial lubricants used to reduce friction between body parts during various sexual activities such as masturbation, anal sex, vaginal sex, oral sex, and rubbing, etc. Personal lubricants can also be applied to sex toys for easier insertion. Personal lubricants lower friction by creating a wet feeling that can help extend the duration of sexual activities and reduce the chances of condom slippage and breakage.1 Lacking proper lubrication may lead to painful intercourse, which often creates complications for sexual partners. Although personal lubricants are often used as supplements for insufficient lubrication during sex, they can also be used to enhance certain sensations or create novelty. For instance, some lubricants are flavored, while some offer warming or cooling sensations that add to the sexual experience.
Types of Lubricants
Personal lubricants are typically divided into three main categories based on their composition: water-based, silicone-based, and oil-based.
Water-based lubricants are the most accessible lubricants in the market. Water-based lubricants are mainly composed of water and water-soluble molecules. They come in various consistencies such as liquid, jelly, and gel. These lubricants have great compatibility with all kinds of condoms and sex toys. Water-based lubricants tend to dry out. Reapplication is recommended when using water-based lubricants. Also, they can be easily rinsed off by water, therefore they may not be suitable for environments containing water such as the bathtub, shower, or pool. Make sure to rinse off any excess lubricants afterward, for some ingredients in water-based lubricants, such as glycerin, can cause irritation in some individuals.
Silicone-based lubricants are made of silicone oils. They are water-resistant which provide long-lasting lubrication with little need for reapplication. Their liquid consistency allows them to have a light or silky feel. Typically, silicone-based lubricants will not cause any allergic reaction or irritation; they are non-toxic to cells, thus safe for contact with the genital and rectal tissues.2 Silicon-based lubricants are compatible with common latex and polyurethane condoms. Although they are not as easy to clean as water-based lubricants, they can be cleaned by wiping or washing with body wash and warm water. Some brands of silicone-based lubricants may stain fabric with a light color to some degree. Please keep in mind that silicone-based lubricants are not compatible with silicone sex toys. Silicone oils may damage the toy.
Oil-based lubricants can source from vegetable oils or petroleum products. They are waterproof and easy to spread out. Oil-based lubricants tend to last longer than other kinds, making them ideal to double as massage oils. Unfortunately, oil-based lubricants can degrade latex rubber, polymers commonly used to make condoms, and plastic sex toys. We do not recommend using oil-based lubricants with condoms because they could cause the condom to break.
The chart below can help you find the kind of lubricant that fits your needs:
|Types of Lubricants||Water-Based||Silicone-Based||Oil-Based|
|Common Ingredients||glycerol/ glycerin,|
|silicone oils||plant oil,|
|Consistency||Liquid, gel, jelly||Liquid||Liquid, jelly, balm|
|Condom Compatibility||✓ Latex|
|Sex Toys Compatibility||✓ Latex|
These following lubricants belong to the three main categories of personal lubricants. However, due to their specialty or novelty, they are worth mentioning.
Warming or cooling lubricants are mostly water-based lubricants that have peppermint extract or a similar ingredient which creates a heating or cooling feeling. They are suitable for people who are looking for extra stimulation and heightened sensations. Warming and cooling lubricants can bring novelty and excitement to different sexual experiences. People may have different reactions to these kinds of products, so it is recommended to test the lubricant before using it. Apply a small amount of product to the skin on the wrist, stop using if it causes irritation or redness.
Massage Oil and Personal Lubricants
Some personal lubricants mix water-based lubricants with a variety of plant oils. They double as a massage oil and lubricant, can be used for sensual massage or other intimate foreplays.
Edible Lubricants/Flavored Lubricants
Edible lubricants are safe to digest during oral sex and are often flavored. Flavored lubricants contain fragrances that are meant to create a more pleasurable oral sex experience. They can be enjoyable to experiment with. Note that fragrance might cause irritation for some people. Not all lubricants are safe to eat, so make sure to check the information provided by the manufacturer; do not ingest lubricant unless it is labeled edible or safe to eat.
Desensitizing/numbing lubricants have added anesthetics which will have a desensitizing effect on the area applied. They are often advertised to prolong sexual intercourse by reducing the stimulation to the penis.3 They are also used to reduce pain during penetrative sex by numbing the vulva region or anal region. Numbing lubricants are often used during anal sex or deep throating. It is not recommended to use desensitizing lubricants to ease pain during intercourse. If the individual is desensitized, they may not be able to tell when the pain indicating the need to cease penetration. Although desensitizing lubricants might prevent users from discovering wounds during sex, there have not been enough studies that correlate desensitizing lubricants with increased STIs.3
Powder lubricants are water-based lubricants that come in concentrated powder form. They can be mixed with water to form the ideal consistency before use. Powder lubricants are easy to travel with and suitable for multi-purposes.
What to Pay Attention to When Using Lubricants?
Osmolarity & pH
When choosing water-based lubricants, their osmolarity and pH should be the first two aspects to concern about. Iso-osmotic (having similar concentration as body cells) and pH balanced (neutral or slightly acidic) lubricants are favored in most cases. Some studies suggest that hyperosmotic (having a higher concentration than cells) lubricants can cause cell damage.4 More research has shown that using hyperosmolar or low pH lubricants may increase the likelihood of STIs.5 WHO advises avoiding using lubricant products that are hyperosmotic or low pH/too acidic.6 However, the manufacturers do not necessarily provide information about the osmolarity or pH of their products. We advise you to stop using the product if itchiness or other forms of discomfort occurs.
Some lubricant products contain spermicide such as nonoxynol-9 (N9). This ingredient has shown a high level of cellular toxicity.7 Lubricants containing spermicide should always be used along with other contraception methods, as spermicide is not a sufficient form of contraception.
In some porn or erotic literature, people are often depicted using semen or saliva as lubricants during penetrative sex. However, they are not ideal for lubrication because of two main reasons. First, body fluids tend to dry out quickly, thus unable to provide proper lubrication. Lacking proper lubrication may cause wounds or abrasions during sex, which leads to a higher risk of STIs. Second, semen and saliva may carry bacteria, viruses, or parasites that could cause STIs. Although it might sound sexy to use semen or saliva during sex, personal lubricants made specifically for sex is recommended.
Soap or body wash should never be used as lubricants as well. Most traditional soap or body wash may damage tissue and disturb the pH level of vaginal or rectal environments4, which can lead to irritation and discomfort. Silicone-based or oil-based lubricants are much better options for water play.
Any food or drink should not be used as lubricants. They could provide nutrients for bacteria or fungus to grow.
Personal lubricants are a really good tool for improving and creating novelty to sexual experiences. There is a wide variety of lubricants to choose from depending on your needs and preferences. Always remember to clean up the site of application after using personal lubricants. If a lubricant product is causing discomfort or irritation, stop using it immediately and find an alternative. Always check the expiration date and instructions by the manufacturer before using the lubricant. Lastly, be aware of lubricant ingredients that are known to cause problems or allergic reaction with your body.
- Cooper, Benjamin G., Stacy L. Chin, et.al. “Friction-lowering Capabilities and Human Subject Preferences for a Hydrophilic Surface Coating on Latex Substrates: Implications for Increasing Condom Usage.” Royal Society Open Science.
- Dezzutti, Charlene S., et.al. “Is Wetter Better? An Evaluation of Over-the-Counter Personal Lubricants for Safety and Anti-HIV-1 Activity. ” PLoS One.
- Gorbach, Pamina M., et.al. “The Slippery Slope: Lubricant Use and Rectal Sexually Transmitted Infections: A Newly Identified Risk.” Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
- Sundaram A Vishwanathan, Monica R Morris, et.al. “Rectal Application of a Highly Osmolar Personal Lubricant in a Macaque Model Induces Acute Cytotoxicity but Does Not Increase Risk of SHIV Infection.” PLoS ONE.
- Begay, Othell, et.al. “Identification of Personal Lubricants That Can Cause Rectal Epithelial Cell Damage and Enhance HIV Type 1 Replication in Vitro. (VIROLOGY).” AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses.
- “Use and procurement of additional lubricants for male and female condoms: WHO/UNFPA/FHI360 Advisory note. ” WHO.
- Wilkinson, E.M, M.M Herbst-Kralovetz, and R.M Brotman. “Clinical and Personal Lubricants Alter Cell Viability, Cytotoxicity and Mucin Production in Human Vaginal Epithelial Cell Culture Models.” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Last Updated: 28 October 2019.