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I lube you: the ins and outs of lubricants

Knowing the difference between types of lube is essential to long-term sexual health, yet how much do you know about it?

Personal lubricant, or lube, comes in many formulas and styles, each with its own unique pros and cons. Choosing the right one usually leads to more enjoyable sex, but what happens if you get it wrong? You might be familiar with some basic types – water based, silicone based, flavours etc. All of these impact on your health in different ways, both good and bad.

The tech specs on water-based lube

Water-based lube can be divided into two main categories; high and low osmolality. Now this isn’t something you’re going to read on the bottle but the differences are huge, and you may have noticed if you’ve used them before.

Water-based lube is made of two main ingredients; water and glycerine. The glycerine is what keeps the water where it needs to be. As a general rule, the more glycerine, the thicker the lube and the higher the osmolality will be.

A high-osmolality lube will last longer, but it has to go sticky when water starts to disappear. This will take longer than low-osmolality lube though, and it will draw water from body cells.

A low-osmolality lube is similar to body fluids and won’t draw water from cells, but it also won’t last as long as a high-osmolality lube because there is less glycerine keeping the water in place. This is fine if everything’s going to be over in a couple of minutes. But if things are going on for longer it means that you may need to reapply part-way through.

Which is better?

Well that depends on several things including vaginal environment, personal preference, what you’re doing, and desired outcomes.

Every woman’s vaginal environment is different and produces different amounts and kinds of fluids. A condition called bacterial vaginosis will tend to produce a whole lot of watery fluid, making a high-osmolality lube more effective because lower-osmolality lube gets too diluted. Conversely, after menopause vaginal dryness can be problematic, so a lower osmolality lube, or silicone-based lube, may be more appropriate so as not to draw too much water from the cells.

An important point to note is that vaginal conditions do change so keep in mind that what works best for you and your partner(s) may change due to this, as well as with your personal preferences and activities. Which brings us to our next topic:

Silicone-based lubricant (SBL)

SBL has no osmolality, meaning it doesn’t draw water from cells and it doesn’t evaporate at the same rate either. So, some don’t disappear anywhere near as quickly as water-based lube. Instead, it either gets absorbed into the skin or you wash/wipe it off later.

SBL is ideal for anal sex or for someone wanting more constant lubrication. Moreover, some silicone lubricants are being designed to change their feeling over time; sex will start feeling one way and slowly shift in sensation. This can be very effective, particularly when combined with condoms. I should note here that SBLs are completely safe to use with latex condoms.

A couple of other types of lubes involve a mixture of silicone and water bases, or cream bases. They can get a little complex and niche but are worth a try, particularly for anyone into kink.

Which lubes break condoms?

Another group of lubricants, the mineral oil-based ones, are known to contribute to dysbiosis, break condoms, stain sheets, and are more likely to cause irritation. Only go there if you’re comfortable with that, or, if you’ve used it before and for some reason it works for you. There are so many better products on the market.

Impact on women’s health

What effects do lubricants have on the vagina? What do they do to overall sexual health? Well, it’s complicated. It’s known that inflammation or irritation leads to an increase in sexually transmittable diseases, so a lube that can minimise this would be a good thing; but that’s not the only important point.

Different lubricants affect different people in different ways. A key factor in this is thought to be the vaginal biome or environment we talked about earlier. Some lubricants claim to have antibacterial properties, which on the surface sounds great, but it’s not.

Antibacterial means it’s going to kill bacteria indiscriminately. Preservatives can also have this effect on vaginal bacteria. Vaginas need certain bacteria to stay healthy and keep irritation and inflammation low.

Simply using a lubricant can have effects on vaginal health, both positive and negative, so perhaps keep this in mind next time you shop for a new tube of lube, and take your time finding one that’s right for you.

Author: James Spiller

James is a Masters of Research student at WSU and is researching the health aspects of lubricants. He is also a registered nurse.