It's time to start asking serious questions about the safety of lube

The stuff you use to make sex a little more smooth might have some serious drawbacks. Nothing has been proven yet — most of the data comes from disembodied cell cultures and animal testing, which doesn't necessarily give you an accurate picture of what's happening in humans — but several studies over the last few years have drawn connections between lubricant use and increased rates of STD transmission. (It also looks like some lubricants might kill off natural vaginal flora — the good bacteria that live "up there" and make the difference between a healthy vagina and, say, a raging yeast infection.)

Some of these studies have provided evidence suggesting that the ingredients in lubricants damage the cells lining the vagina and rectum — which would explain why those lubricants might facilitate STD transmission.

At Chemical and Engineering News, Lauren Wolf has a really well-researched, well-written story that will give you the low-down on this research without hype and without fear-mongering. Her story is easy to understand and explains what we know, what we don't know, and why this matters (besides the obvious, lubricants have been proposed as a possible means of applying topical anti-microbial STD preventatives).

Right now, the Food & Drug Administration doesn’t typically require testing of personal lubricants in humans. The agency classifies them as medical devices, so the sex aids have to be tested on animals such as rabbits and guinea pigs. Rectal use of lubricants is viewed by the agency as an “off-label” application—use at your own risk.

Questions about lubricant safety arose nearly a decade ago when micro­bicide developers were testing whether the detergent nonoxynol-9 could block HIV transmission. Manufacturers had been incorporating the compound into spermicidal lubricants for years because of its ability to punch holes in the cell membranes of sperm. In 2002, however, a Phase II/III clinical trial of a nonoxynol-9 vaginal gel failed to protect women from HIV infection. Not only that, but the detergent actually increased the risk of HIV infection in the sex workers tested—women living in countries such as South Africa and Thailand who used the product three or four times per day.

Lab work eventually revealed the reason for the paradoxical increase: Nonoxynol-9 is so good at punching holes in cell membranes that it not only bores into sperm but also into the cells lining the vagina and rectum. The mucosal lining of the vagina is a good barrier to infection all by itself, says Richard A. Cone, a biophysicist at Johns Hopkins University. But if that barrier gets compromised, all bets are off, he explains. After nonoxynol-9—still used on some condoms today—went from promising microbicide candidate to malevolent cell killer, scientists like Cone began to question the safety of other supposedly innocuous spermicide and personal lubricant ingredients.

Read the full story

Via David Kroll

Image: Beer Lube?, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 28096801@N05's photostream


    1.  Actually, considering it’s an edible product, it would probably be OK for anal sex.  However, when combined with vaginal yeast infections, you might end up with biscuits.

  1. I usually understand the need of animal testing, but using little critters to test lube sounds nasty. Tell me mr scientist, how can you sleep after a day dildoing a poor defenseless (but well lubricated) bunny?

      1. This lab bunny escapes from the laboratory and after running all night, finds himself with a bunch of wild bunnies.  The wild bunnies take him around and feed him wild carrots, wild cabbages and then run around all night.  When the lab bunny thinks it can’t get any better, the wild bunnies introduce him to the girl bunnies.  And the bunnies — as bunnies do — shag themselves silly.
        After a while the lab bunny says, “This is great guys.  Ladies. But I have to get back.”

        “Don’t you like us?” Say the girl bunnies.

        “Well, sure I do!” Says the lab bunny.  “But I’m dying for a cigarette.”

  2. “Rectal use of lubricants is viewed by the agency as an “off-label” application—use at your own risk.”
    Wtf? I mean they DO know that to have anal sex kinda demands lube of some sort right? Whats the point of having a government- run testing if they have their heads so far up their moral asses they don’t even want to bother with one of the products main uses? 

    1. Perhaps in getting their heads up their asses they should apply some lube. Might as well make some direct observations while they’re there.

      Seriously though, I’m sure it’s political. Some Republican hears that there’s government money being spent to research “the homo sex” and there goes the whole FDA budget…

      1. For how many years were they required to sell vibrators as “back massagers” before that fight was given up?

        That should be your benchmark to generate an estimate of how long it will take Americans to quit wringing their hands over people having fun with their pooper.

    2. “Whats the point of having a government- run testing if they have their heads so far up their moral asses they don’t even want to bother with one of the products main uses? ”

      To erect [sic] artificial barriers to entry for startup competition against the entrenched interests.  Either the FDA is full of nincompoops who can’t prevent this or it’s full of people who are accomplishing their goals.  Considering the revolving door between the FDA and Big Pharma/Monsanto, there’s no available evidence for incompetence.

      Thank goodness the insurance industry got the jump on the government regulators with electrical goods (UL Labs).  Coincidentally (ya, right),  the electrical/electronics industry exploded in the 20th century while medicine only makes small incremental gains and drugs can take over a decade to make it to market (preventing upstarts all while never testing drug-drug interactions before approval).

      Marking WONTFIX / works-as-intended.

      1.  nah, spit is for lust, it dries out too fast for proper lengthy love sessions. for serious pounding action, go for the silicon-based stuff, it washes of with a bit of soap and water

        1. I produce copious quantities of thick, glassy drool, somewhat like Ripley’s alien. It’s a nuisance when I go to the dentist.

          1. Sounds like you might have a new career as a medical test subject in your future, or at least a homegrown industry bottling the stuff ;-)

  3. Rectal use of lubricants is viewed by the agency as an “off-label” application—use at your own risk.

    Really? Knock me over with a feather, but I thought that’s at least part of what it was intended for, and a standard use.

    Of course I can also now hear several readers shrieking, “TMI! TMI!”

  4. Well, OK, consider the entire below as “TMI” if you will, but it seemed relevant:

    I spent a short time reviewing lubes for a blog. It was a sex blog for women having sex with women, so I was reviewing them from that perspective. I gave up after about 6 reviews because once I started examining them closely- looking into ingredients and actual function- all lubes started to look pretty bad. The “less bad or more bad” decision spectrum became too depressing to continue.

    You could go the generally-recommended, high-selling water-based lubes path, or as I came to think of them, the “watered-down hair gel/high-glycerin-content” category. They taste sugar-sweet, stop functioning after about 10 seconds of steady friction, and (anecdotally and in some research findings) encourage yeast infections.

    Or you could spend more money and get silicone lubes, which lacked the creepy flavour but had a bad habit of destroying any (expensive!) silicone toys they came into contact with. I discovered, to my horror, that quite a few brands of condoms are packaged pre-lubed with silicone lubes WITHOUT LABELING. Would you like some dildo decay with your smart, safer-sex use of condoms with your toys?

    Or, there was the spectrum of plant-based goop, based on aloe, kiwi fruits and other things, none of which released enough product information to convince me that they wouldn’t have the same sugar problems as most of the classic glycerin water-based lubes.

    I gave up before I got round to examining the oil-based branch (recommended for butts only), since that was a bit of a side-road away from the main focus on reviewing things that were designed for vaginal use, and oh my god, I never even went near the “warming”, “tingling”, “flavoured”, “scented”, “genital cellular damage is so erotic” varieties.

    The lack of clearly good options and the incredible abundance of bad options for things designed to go INSIDE VAGINAS AND BUTTS, ie places that people have a strong vested interest in keeping healthy, was seriously upsetting. What was with the general pharmaceutical indifference to something so essential, that when done badly can produce seriously terrible health outcomes? Where are the clinical trials and the lab-testing so that there is information to make good choices? Especially considering how awesome lube as a concept, is, for promoting safe, healthy, non-injurious good times, the wilderness of expensive, pretty-crappy options on the market is an awful thing.Which is to say: I agree strongly with this article. Lube is a good, fun-and-health-enhancing thing, but it should be better. And tested on people, not goddamn lab rabbits.

    1. Thanks for sharing, we have been on a similar path. 

      My frustration rises when I see moral laws and prejudice pushing these issues underground, leaving a monopoly share of the “adult toy” industry to be managed entirely by the Chinese toy manufacturers.

      thanks for the article!

    2. I rarely nitpick, but it’s silicone, not silicon. Silicon makes glass. Silicone makes rubber. A bit different.

      1.  It’s also important to remember that silicone is used to make both lubricants and adhesives.  It’s important never to confuse the two!

        (I’ve seen it happen, thankfully not in a bedroom.)

    3. Yeah, I’m with you. After a bout with a yeast infection, I thoroughly researched lubes and became really unhappy with what I found. 

      Surprisingly, the lube we finally settled on is coconut oil. It has to be organic and virgin – some extraction processes are bad news and leave chemical residues. Other oils are a no-go, as they can feed bacteria, but CO has minor anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties plus, it’s got a slightly lower pH than most lube (and, for that matter, semen) which helps keep the vag more toward it’s natural acidic range. ‘Course, you’ve got to put a towel down to avoid staining the sheets, but so far, we’ve been pretty satisfied with it.

      EDIT: oh yeah: and it never gums up on us either… BONUS!

      1. Organic + Virgin + Coconut Oil… is there a widely available brand of this that you’re happy with, or do you live down the road from a Coconut grove?  :-)

        1. No, not too many coconut trees in New England ;)

          There are actually quite a few brands now out there. Spectrum, Dr. Bronners, and a Whole Foods house brand come immediately to mind, as well as a Trader Joe’s slightly cheaper option. Despite the ever-present nuttiness, I like the Doc Bronners as it is also Fair Trade.

          One other nice thing about CO is that it’s super shelf-stable, so feel free to order off the internet too.

      1.  Eesh, okay.

        I wonder if this is part of the reason America has such high HIV rates compared to Europe, given that it seems to use a lot more lubrication overall.

    1. Among other things, it contains glycerin – which feeds yeast and bacteria thus is often a fast track to a yeast infection – and parabens, which are ‘officially’ GRAS, but evidence is mounting that they cause various hormonal disruptions.

    2. Also, KY contains chlorhexadine. Chlorhexadine is used as a surgical scrub because it’s great at killing bacteria. It’s also used to wash your nose and mouth if you’ve been colonized with MRSA. If it’s used very rarely (as it’s “surgery” descriptor implies) it’s probably not bad. But it most assuredly mess up the natural flora anywhere it’s used. Not good.

  5. “besides the obvious, lubricants have been proposed as a possible means of applying topical anti-microbial STD preventatives”
    … Not sure if you were pointing that out as a hopeful kind of thing, or as a point of irony. I would think this kind of application would only further increase the risk of damage within the microflora in our sexy bits. I know there is good science into a lot of this that I will never understand, but I also know there are good flora in me that scientists will never understand.

    1.  Dries out too fast.

      IMO the best lubricant is the naturally occuring stuff, often related to arousal level, however there is of course a high demand for extra help for people who like to go for extra time, or who (receiver including) are rushed for time and just want a quickie. And then there are various medical reasons for reduced natural lubrication.

      1. Perhaps I’m naive about such things, but what would qualify as naturally occurring stuff for the Liberace set?

        I know of a substance that occurs naturally in that area, but its quantity and rate of release is more dependent on fibre consumption than level of arousal.  

        1. Perhaps I’m naive about such things, but what would qualify as naturally occurring stuff for the Liberace set?

          Dead people can get quite gooey, although they usually dry out after a while.

  6. so let me get this straight, they did a clinical trial on sex workers trying to determine if they can get infected with HIV ?!

    So instead of providing them with condoms they gave them the lub and said, go f yourselfs and see what happens?!!

      1. ” In 2002, however, a Phase II/III clinical trial of a nonoxynol-9 vaginal gel failed to protect women from HIV infection. Not only that, but the detergent actually increased the risk of HIV infection in the sex workers tested—women living in countries such as South Africa and Thailand who used the product three or four times per day.”

        perhaps I did not, but would you straigten this out?

        1. They were going at it without condoms anyway probably because it pays better. Just like HIV vaccines are tested on promiscuous individuals who don’t use condoms. It’s not because they don’t have access or don’t know the risks, it’s because they choose not to use condoms.

        2. This was not a randomised controlled trial, lube and condoms or whatever were not assigned. They did not tell people to use it, rather they got infection rates of those who did, and compared them to a control group which did not use it. 

  7. What is the alternative to using lube?  Don’t say foreplay and spit, and oils are too greasy in the sheets.  Believe me, when you get to be of a certain age, you don’t much want to have sex without lube there with you till you’re finished.

    1. I talked to my gynecologist about this. He’s a specialist with girly skin disorders. He recommended coconut oil. He had a very dim view of most lubes on the market. 

      I’m of that age where it would be nice to be able to buy a lube and know it’s safe, but the ph on most of them conflict with vaginal flora, to my  understanding, and the ingredient list seems to be a hodge podge of whatever is cheapest. 

      I believe Smitten Kitten looks a little more seriously at their sex products, but can’t say for sure about the lubes in particular. 

  8. Seeing all the suggestions of oils:

    Please be aware that oil is totally incompatible with latex condoms. It degrades the latex very very quickly and will cause the condom to break.

    If you use non-latex condoms, then oil is okay from a condom-integrity standpoint. (Of course, if you’re choosing to go condom-free in a monogamous relationship where both partners have been tested and are STI-free, then this isn’t an issue for you.)

    I do not know about the safety of oil-based lubes with other latex prophylactics, like dental dams and gloves. But personally I wouldn’t risk it.

    1.  There’s actually not much info out there about coconut oil and condoms. (I did a pub med search on this recently for one of patients…)  We definitely know that petroleum-based oils degrade latex, but most natural vegetable oil hasn’t been tested.  I’m trying to convince some of my residents that it would actually be a good research project to blow up some condoms and test the effects of coconut oil, crisco, etc….  Anecdotally, I have several patients who use the combination and have not had any noticed condom breakage or “whoops”.  Given that it seems ok but isn’t tested, I tell people not to do the combo if STD protection is a concern, but if it is birth control and they think the benefit of using coconut oil (like, they react badly to EVERY commercial lube they try) outweighs the small risk of pregnancy, then go ahead!

      1.  I would very much like to see such a research study, actually!

        I mean, one could do a small-scale experiment at home by just blowing up some condoms, applying vegetable oils, and rubbing them for some fairly long amount of time to see how many break (and comparing un-lubed condoms, water-based lubed condoms, and petro-oil lubed condoms). That’s the demo I’ve seen sex educators do to illustrate why you shouldn’t use oil-based lube with latex condoms — but fair enough, I’ve always seen that demo done with petroleum-based oil products like Vaseline. My hypothesis is that vegetable oils would still degrade latex, but maybe not as fast as petroleum oils.

        Myself, I’d still take the cautious route and avoid using any kind of oil with latex condoms. But I can see why you made the recommendation you did.

        1.  It sounds like a pretty simple and obvious obvious experiment to do, perhaps if everyone on BB tried it and submitted their data to the thread, perhaps with a few videos, we could some up some data that could kick off a serious study?

          1. ahahahhahha!

            I didn’t mean it like that, I meant so that the method could be checked, based on blowing up condoms, lubing them up and seeing how long it took them to fail.

            But your idea is good too :D

      2. RESEARCH. THESE THINGS SHOULD BE RESEARCHED. Like, why are people still making good-enough educated guesses about whether it’s safe to put coconut oil on their genitals in combination with X, Y & Z well-known-and-documented prophylactic or sex toy? This should not be terrains of mystery & guesswork.

  9. So, TL;DR:

    the lube with the lowest osmolality (and closest to human intracellular fluid) on their chart, has ingredients that are mostly aloe Vera barbadensis gel and agar, and similar low osmolality (and closeness to your own juices) can be had from carboxymethylcellulose and hydroxypropylmethylcellulose (sometimes listed as cellulose gel, or just cellulose) solutions, although they can be in practice somewhat hypo-osmolar (causing cells to fill with water, which can also be damaging – but with one or two orders of magnitude less difference from Intracellular fluid as the K-Y and Astroglide).

    The upshot being, if it’s good for using to culture cell samples in vitro, it’s probably going to cuddle your cellular samples in vivo (less likely to damage the cells you’re rubbing against).

    Another paper:

    1. You might have missed part of the discussion. That recipe is rather restrictive age, gender , and um … locale wise.

      Unless you’re suggesting mass production of such for universal use. Although if that product is artificial, it won’t be tried and true. And if natural, I …  I don’t know what to say.

      1. I apologize in advance for this comment.

        To be fair, assholes do produce their own juice if you warm them up properly.

          1. I’m certain Rush would provide his own grease, but a hair dryer would not do it. Being Hawaiian, I would recommend a traditional imu, as one might use in the preparation of kalua pig, a salted pork very similar to BBQ-sauce less pulled pork. 

  10. * TMI warning *

    I had brain surgery almost a month ago, which introduced me to the wonderful world of the Foley catheter.
    For at least 3 days post-op, a glob of lubricant would emerge every time I urinated.  Whatever it was, it survived a fantastic voyage, apparently intact.

    Flashbacks to a Simpsons episode: a barbecued pig stuck in a dam until the water pressure fires it out like a cannon.  

    1. It’s called surgilube. At least that was the kind that came in the cath kits back when I was cathing people. 

  11. No surprises in this article. Parabens are notoriously toxic, and propylene glycol is a well known chemical that’s often used to make skin more permeable, much less what it does to destroy sensitive mucus membranes. Both are routinely present in mass marketed personal lubricants. There is another safe, water-based lube that you can mix warm – it’s called astrolube, currently marketed principally for wrestling, it’s the same chemistry that makes high end lubricants slippery, without the added toxic cocktail.

  12. All this discussion about why your standard lubes are awful… but no discussion on beer lube.  I am disappoint.

    I always thought that sign on 51 outside of Madison was… strange.

  13. Thanks for having the courage to post about this topic Maggie.  Lubes/lubricated condoms have always caused yeast infections for me… I understood that it meant disruption to the vaginal flora PH, but wasn’t still fully comprehending the science behind it.  I have NEVER met a female friend who doesn’t get a yeast infection from lube/lubricated condoms.  We just usually suffer in silence and accept it as a female consequence/punishment to practicing safe sex. Society makes us feel humiliated for having yeast infections, and yet lubricants are a for-sure trigger of such.  Us women have been and continue to be in a lose-lose situation when it comes to the necessity of practicing safe sex without friction from the synthetic latex.  Poor women who rely on free condom handouts from Planned Parenthood have no option but to accept their latex lubed condoms.  The more expensive non-latex condoms are never provided by these clinics, but even those are lubed, if they were an available option.  Also, birth control pills disrupt vaginal flora and cause yeast infections, too.  It’s kinda shitty that if one is a sexually active female using condoms and/or the pill – then she is for sure going to suffer from regular yeast infections.  I’d say that the federal government’s refusal to adequately research safe lubricants for women constitutes yet another example of complete sexism in the medical and government establishments. 

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