Lubescouting: How to Find the Good Stuff

This #lubescouting adventure took me to drug, grocery, and discount stores, where I found lube that comes with a meal voucher and movie rental, $1 lube, and lube that promises “unmatched” and “supercharged orgasmic” pleasure as well as “pure sexcitement”. Sadly though, I found very few lubricants that I would actually feel safe using. Good lube is lube that will be more beneficial than harmful. With some of the main ingredients in a lot of lubricants producing effects that can be harmful, irritating, or cause allergic reactions, it’s important to find the good stuff.

At the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit, I attended Sarah Mueller’s session on lube, where I sponged up the mass of information she has researched and compiled. I then went home and reviewed session notes and citations, and analyzed every lube label I came across. It was more of a personal education than something I thought I’d write about, since there are other, wonderful resources on lubricants and Sarah’s findings, like Badvibes and Dangerous Lilly’s Big Lube Guide. However, I found that lube talk was working its way into a lot of conversation in my life, where I needed to express what made certain types and specific ingredients potentially harmful in an easy-to-process, lube-elevator-speech kind of way.

I am lucky enough to live near a body safe sex shop, but previously living in a town where it took 45 minutes to reach any type of adult retail store, I know that’s not the case for everyone. Thus, my #lubescouting goal was to see what the selections are in easily accessible, often visited stores, in an attempt to find formulas that are gentle and have the least potential of harm or irritation.

As someone who’s been scorn by lube before, I found that last part very important. It wasn’t until I experienced a lube that burned my asshole that I began looking into the ingredients. Even then, I assumed what was happening was because I am a sensitive snowflake. I didn’t think, “maybe this isn’t good for lots of bodies, and that’s why it feels like fire!” When I learned more about the chemicals that many lubricants use and their effects on the body, I realized that I am not a snowflake and my asshole is not unique because many, many other people have similarly uncomfortable and unhealthy reactions to any number of junk that comes in many popular brands.

My problem with the lube I found most stores carrying is not simply a judgement of good and bad, it’s a matter of representation. Most common businesses like chain grocery and drug stores carry brands of lube that share many of the same ingredients. To stand out, brands use packaging and buzz-words: telling you that their lube is much better and sexier and lubier than all the other lubes in the land. Meanwhile, studies are saying, “Hey, some of the stuff you’re putting in there can hurt people.” NOT very sexciting.

My main grief is with Propylene Glycol (PG). It’s often the second ingredient in water-based lube, examples being: KY, Astroglide, ID Glide, and Liquid Silk. In studies, it’s been shown to cause skin irritation. While results show a relatively low number of people being effected, PG is a sensitizer, which means the longer or more often you use it, the more likely you are to have a reaction. The PG clincher, however, is that concentrations over 10% (which all of the above lubricants have) indicate that a lubricant can cause epithelial cell death and leave a person more susceptible to contracting an STI. That’s a very condensed explanation, but it’s evidenced by studies on osmolality, which is used to measure equilibrium in the skin. When the body’s osmolality is thrown off, such as by highly osmotic lubricants *points above*, it can damage cells and dehydrate mucus. Caitlin Murphy does a great job of recapping osmolality and what is means for lube and the body, if you want to delve more into the science of it.

My second vote of weariness is for Glycerin, a sugar alcohol that’s often the second or third ingredient in lube. People tend to connect Glycerin with yeast infections, but this has never been proven. However, Glycerin is linked to hyper-osmolality like PG, so the combination of PG and Glycerin are bad news on multiple levels.

A lot of products we use on or in our bodies contain potentially irritating ingredients, and it often comes down to our individual reactions, but there are ingredients with more irritating properties. An example of this are Parabens, which are being phased out of a lot of cosmetic or self care products due to allergic reactions. Other preservatives like Sodium Hydroxide and Sodium Benzoate can be harsh on the skin as well.

Ingredient lists can be daunting, but having some knowledge of the potential harm of these ingredients and assessing how your body reacts to different formulas can lead you to better lube. A fantastic article that goes over these and more ingredients in personal hygiene products and lube is this paper by Wendee Nicole for Environmental Health Perspectives.

I’ve given you the elevator speech… I swear, as my fifth incarnation, this is truly the closest I could get to condensed. So, now on to tips for buying good lube!

1. Listen to your body. Many irritating ingredients that are in lube are also in cosmetic, hygiene, and food products, so if you know of an ingredient that doesn’t make you feel great, check for it in lubricant. And if you have a bad reaction to a certain formula of lube, check in other products you use for similar ingredients to eliminate some potential causes, then find a formula without one or more of the remaining ingredients to see if that’s better.

2. Avoid potentially harmful chemicals [huge neon sign to the stuff above]. I’m definitely one of those people who thinks, “Eh, how bad could it be!?” That’s why I sometimes don’t wash fruit or wear a mask when using spray paint [living on the edge!]. Life is not all about being paranoid of things that may harm you, but a product that’s generously applied to sensitive skin and mucus membranes to reduce irritation from friction, really is better off without chemicals that could cause other irritation and health risks.

3. Bullshit buzzwords lead to bullshit ingredients. When brands make grand statements about how they’re going to make your relationships mindblowingly better and infinitely more sexy, questionable ingredients are often afoot. This is by no means a science, nor does it apply in every situation, but in the Venn diagram of my experience, big promises rarely overlap with promising ingredients.

4. Search in different places. Some stores will put similar products in different sections to appeal to different types of people. Most places carry lube in the same aisle where you find condoms, but may also stock a different selection in the aisle with menstrual products or in an “organic” section.

5. When in doubt, silicone. A pure silicone lube is a good choice if your concern is irritation from the ingredients in water-based lube. Silicone lube is hypoallergenic and has a slicker texture and more staying power because it’s not absorbed into the skin like water. Since silicone can bond with silicone, it’s best to always to a spot test on silicone toys, to see if they’re compatible first.

Everyone deserves access to safe, quality lube, and in the next installment of this post, I’m going to show you what I found at the (U.S.) stores I visited. Currently, my top picks for lube are Sutil and Sliquid, but they are pretty exclusive to online shops and sex toy retailers, so I’ll be focusing on awesome brands at places like Target and CVS.

A huge thank you to Heidi at Sexy Time Toys (no longer in operation) for their dedication to education and for sponsoring this post.

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9 thoughts on “Lubescouting: How to Find the Good Stuff

  1. I am VERY excited about this! I had done some half-assed scouting in my area, and found the selection disappointing at best. I buy lube almost exclusively online, but it would be nice to know what the best options are if I have to grab something in a hurry!

  2. You might be interested in knowing that the EU has issued a warning against the use of products containing cyclopentasiloxane, which is a common ingredient in silicone lubes. A lot of chemists in Sweden (and other countries, presumably) are now removing products containing this ingredient. However, the initial report only states the following, so it’s still a bit up in the air: “The SCCS considers that the use of Cyclopentasiloxane (D5) in cosmetic products is safe except for use in body lotion and hair styling formulations and in those product forms that can give rise to lung exposure of the consumer through inhalation, e.g. aerosols, pressurised sprays, powders, etc. ” (from SCCS/1549/15), from this site http://ec.europa.eu/health/scientific_committees/consumer_safety/

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