What can you tell me about lubricant? I’ve never given it much thought until I was out with friends a week ago. One of them was telling us all about the slippery, slidey sex she’s been having with a new brand of lube. And then everyone started talking about what kind they use, and how much, and how great it can be. Someone said something about flavored lube, and then someone jumped in about lube for sex in the shower, and it was like a family reunion or something. I’m over in the corner thinking, “Well, damn, I’ve never even used lube. Could sex actually be even better?” Help me out? What have I been missing?

Slip Sliding Away

Dear Slip Slide,

Welcome to the wonderful world of lubricants! For a lot of people, lube is a super fun addition to all kinds of sex play. And for some folks, it’s absolutely necessary to use lube for sex that is pleasurable and satisfying. Lube-coated bits slide better, and feel great! The reduced friction means less chafing and irritation, and less chance that a condom will break during sex, both of which reduce the risk of contracting STIs or developing yeast infections.

There are several types of lubricants out there, and the first thing to do is figure out which you’ll need at different times. The most basic lubes are water based. They’re great because they’re condom safe, and you can use them for all kinds of sex, with all body parts, and with sex toys. There’s only one slight downside to using water based lubes: they dry out fairly quickly. The friction from sex makes the water in the lube evaporate, and some of it gets absorbed into our bodies. It’s easy to just re-apply it, though. Even adding a little more water will reactivate it, and you can just keep on…trucking.

Silicone based lubes are different because they last for a really long time. These are the lubes that are great for having sex in the shower and under water, because they’re not water soluble. As a matter of fact, you can often feel them on your skin even after you’ve washed up. Like water based lube, they’re also condom safe. Unfortunately, they’re not compatible with silicone and many elastomer sex toys. If you use toys frequently, make sure to have a water based lube handy, too.

So, let’s say you want something that lasts longer than a water based lube, but you also want to be able to grab your favorite dildo or cock ring on a whim? Ah, then you should check out hybrid lubes. Most hybrids are technically water based (making them condom safe *and* sex toy compatible), but they have just a little silicone (typically 15 percent or less) added to prolong the slipperiness.

A lot of folks suddenly realize that they want to make sex wetter, and will reach for something they already have around the house, like vaseline, baby oil, vegetable oil, or coconut oil. Those things will definitely make things extra slippery! Unfortunately, there are only a very few situations where oils and oil based lubes are a good choice. They’ll eat holes right through any latex condom, gloves, or dental dams. And they’re not safe inside the vagina. Most oil-based products are difficult for the vagina to clear out, and they increase the risk of yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis. However, they’re really great for stroking a penis, and they’re safe for anal penetration if there’s no latex condom involved. (A caveat for people with vaginas: If you already use oil or oil based lubes without any health issues, there’s really no reason to switch.)

For people who are looking for new adventures in sex, there are a couple of options to liven things up. Flavored lube can be super fun for oral sex by either masking or enhancing your partner’s natural flavor. Lubes that cause a warming or cooling sensation can be a fun, novel experience, too. Warming lubes in particular can enhance sensation for folks who have decreased sensitivity due to age, pelvic trauma, nerve damage, or medications. While it can be exciting to try new things, you definitely want to avoid lubes that use benzocaine to numb your bits (often marketed for use during anal sex to eliminate the pain that is inaccurately thought of as unavoidable). You want to be able to feel the sex you’re having, so you know when to stop if things aren’t going well. You’ll also want to avoid any lube or cream that claims to tighten the vagina or anus. They work by irritating the really delicate tissues of the genitals, causing them to swell considerably. While this will typically produce a tighter orifice, it can also lead to all kind of tears and abrasions during sex.

Of course, there are hundreds of lubricants on the market, and not all of them are going to work for everybody or every body. There are some ingredients you should try to avoid:

• Glycerin is a fairly common lube ingredient. It’s a sugar alcohol that can increase risk of yeast infections. Similarly, avoid any lube that has sugar, honey, or maltodextrin for the same reason.

• Petroluem oils aren’t water soluble, and are the perfect environment for bacteria to grow and thrive.

• Propylene Glycol is a petroleum product, and can increase the risk of irritation and allergic reaction for some folks.

• Nonoxynol 9 (a.k.a. spermicide) can irritate vaginal and anal tissues, increasing the risk of STI transmission

If you’d like to really dig in and learn a lot about the science of lubricants, check out this flyer, written by the staff at Smitten Kitten, a sex toy store in Minneapolis.

Curious about cunnilingus? Anxious about anal? Do you have questions about queefs or problems with your prostate? Lucky Tomaszek is the education coordinator at The Tool Shed: An Erotic Boutique, Milwaukee’s only mission-driven, education-focused sex toy store. Send her a question at [email protected] and she’ll get back to you with an answer.

About The Author

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Lucky Tomaszek, LM, CPM, is the education coordinator at The Tool Shed: An Erotic Boutique, Milwaukee's only mission-driven, education-focused sex toy store. Most mornings you can find her balancing her cat and her keyboard in her lap, working to make the world a smarter, safer place for people of all genders and orientations.