Uncomfortable. Painful. Raw. Dry.
If you’ve used one of these words to describe sexual intercourse then you may benefit from learning about lubricants. In fact, even if these words aren’t what you would use to describe intercourse, you, dare I say, need to learn the what, why and how of lubricants.
This blog post will provide you with the quick (did you know that according to famous sexologist Alfred Kinsey , the majority of men ejaculate in two minutes or less?) and dirty (okay, messy, because yes lubricants can be a bit messy) on lubricants.
What is a lubricant?
Lubricants (often labeled as “personal lubricants”) are over-the-counter products that can be used to make intercourse more comfortable by reducing friction.
Should I use a lubricant?
The science on lubricants is slim, which makes it difficult to make a highly informed recommendation about them. These products are not evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration with the rigor used to evaluate prescription medications. And, yet, many women and their partners find benefit.
But – I never needed one before?
Women of all ages, with and without cancer, use lubricants. In a study of 1,559 women in the U.S., 65.5% of all women surveyed reported previous lubricant use. The most common reason for using a lubricant was to “make sex more comfortable” and 85% of women agreed that lubricants do in fact make sex more comfortable.
Often times, sex feels uncomfortable because of vagina dryness. Problems with vaginal dryness can occur for any woman at any age however, the problem is especially common:
- When a woman does not have sufficient sexual arousal (more foreplay please!). Partners might interpret lack of lubrication as lack of interest, but this is not necessarily the case. Communication is key.
- During and after menopause (the body produces less estrogen, a hormone that is primarily produced in the ovaries that helps to keep the vagina moist).
- After chemotherapy, radiation to the pelvis or removal of the ovaries (less estrogen).
- When breastfeeding (again, relatively less estrogen).
- In some women taking oral contraceptive pills with estrogen (but wait…you JUST said something about less estrogen! I know…a blog post coming soon).
- When taking systemic antihistamines like Claritin or Zyrtec for allergies (what dries out the nose will dry out the vagina!).
You keep mentioning estrogen. Can I just use some of that?
Great question… to ask your health care provider! Vaginal estrogen products (creams, tablets, rings) are the best-studied treatments to address vaginal dryness, but not all women are eligible to use estrogen. A new study comparing estrogen tablet in the vagina to an over-the-counter moisturizer and placebo suggests that neither the estrogen tablet nor the moisturizer is better than placebo. A health care provider must prescribe estrogen and if you have a history of cancer, your cancer doctor should be included in the discussion. Women using vaginal estrogen may still benefit from using a lubricant during intercourse, although scientific evidence about lubricants is limited.
So which type of lubricant should I use? What are my options?
There is not good scientific evidence to suggest that one type or brand of lubricant is better than another. Even if there was, what works well for one woman might not be the preferred choice for another.
- Aim for fewer ingredients and avoid glycerins and parabens if you have sensitivities
- Check for expiration dates
- Avoid colors, flavors and labeling with “warming” or “tingling” (they can be irritating)
There are three major types of lubricants:
*Note: Names of specific products or places to buy products should not be considered as endorsements. We provide examples to help make this information easier to understand. WomanLab does not have funding or sponsorship from these products or places.
This is the type of lubricant your gynecologist most likely uses during your pelvic exams because it comes in bacteriostatic form (stops bacteria from reproducing) which gynecologists use to examine pregnant women. However, water-based lubricants can dry out quickly (water evaporates!) and feel sticky, which can lead to more friction.
The good: Inexpensive and easy to find. Compatible with latex condoms and with silicone products (e.g. vibrators/dilators)
The not-so-good: Sticky, tacky, may need to reapply
Silicone-based lubricants are less sticky, more smooth and slippery. A little bit goes a longer way and they will not dry out like a water-based lubricant.
The good: Won’t dry out, can be used in water, compatible with latex condoms
The not-so-good: Cannot be used with silicone products, slightly more expensive than water-based options, can be messy and stain your sheets or clothes
All-natural, food-grade (read: can be used for oral sex!) products such as coconut oil, olive oil, vegetable oil and vitamin E oil are common choices. There is no good scientific evidence to prefer one oil-based lubricant over another.
The good: Inexpensive, a little goes a LONG way, discreet
The not-so-good: Not compatible with condoms, messier than silicone- and water-based lubricants (if you’re worried about your bedsheets, we recommend putting a towel down!)
Examples: Check your kitchen cabinet! Coconut oil seems to be a crowd pleaser among the women I work with in the PRISM Clinic. Hate that tropical, coconut-y smell? Then avoid the jars that say “virgin” or “unrefined” and look for a label that says “organic” and “refined” which will have a lighter or non-existent smell. Some coconut oil products are labeled as “no-odor.” Note, coconut oil is solid at room temperature but will turn to liquid quickly if you rub it together in your hands.
Okay, I’m intrigued…Where can I buy a lubricant?
- Online: Try your local drugstore’s website, Amazon.com or buy directly -from the lubricant company’s website.
- Grocery store, pharmacy: Water-based and silicone-based options can typically be found in the same aisle as the condoms, tampons and pregnancy tests. If you’re going for an oil-based option, head for the cooking oils aisle.
- Your local sex shop: Also called ‘adult toy stores.’ One benefit of going to a sex shop is that they may have samples that you can try (both in store, e.g. just to feel with your fingers) or to take home. G Boutique is an online resource run by knowledgeable women who also operate a well-stocked, well-kept shop in Chicago that is friendly to women of all ages and identities.
And how exactly do I use a lubricant?
Lubricants should be used immediately prior to intercourse (hint: keep the lubricant close to the bed, or wherever you typically get intimate). The amount to use will depend on the type of lubricant, but aim between the size of a dime and a quarter. The lubricant can be applied to a woman’s vulva and the opening to the vagina, and/or directly to the penis or vibrator/dilator. The lubricant may feel cold so you might want to rub your hands together to warm the lubricant up before applying. NOTE: Lubricants can be used for anal sex as the anus does not self-lubricate. Remember: if you are using latex condoms make sure a water-based option is available.
Are lubricants my only option to address vaginal dryness?
As mentioned above, vaginal estrogen is an option for some women. There are also non-hormonal products such as over-the-counter vaginal moisturizers. Like lubricants, there is not high-quality evidence that one type is better than another. Unlike lubricants, moisturizers are used for maintenance (a couple times a week) instead of during sexual activity. Even if you choose to use a moisturizer, you may still need or want to use a lubricant during sexual activity.
So what now?
Now is the fun part! If you didn’t already know about the important role of lubricants, now you do; if you already knew about lubricants, hopefully you learned a little more about the role they can play in sexual intercourse. If you’re considering incorporating lubricants into your sex life (with or without a partner), remember: what works best for you may not be the same thing that works for others. Be patient and have fun experimenting.
Have questions or comments? Tweet us @WomanLab_ — we would love to hear about it!