Of everything in my toy chest, if I had to choose one item to take with me to a desert isle, it would be basic; I'd grab my lube.
I'm a connoisseur of fine toys, fine single malts, fine shoes, and recently one of my passions has become lubricant. I consider lube the essential item for everyone's sexual experience. I can make do with fingers, tongues, toes, lips, palms, nails, teeth, but lube is not an option. The right lube for the right job can make or break my very good time.
Choose Lube According to Play
There are a wide variety of lubricants on the market because there are so many variables and not all of these are health issues. There are better lube consistencies for different sex acts. If you're using a lubricant for vaginal sex, your preference may be for a thinner lubricant that mimics a woman's own secretions. For anal lubrication, a thicker lube that sticks to the walls of the rectum is usually preferable. If you are a male looking for a lubricant for doing hand jobs, something creamy and possibly petroleum based, which isn't compatible with latex condoms, may work better. It's a matter of preference and experience to find out what works for you or what is just darn frustrating.
Try it: Test Before You Buy
The essential lubricant test is how it feels during friction. In a store buying experience, if you can put a tester sample drop on your forefinger and rub it with your thumb you can feel the thickness or thinness, how long it will remain nice and slippery, whether it becomes gummy, and how soon you will need to reapply.
A Passion for Lube
Two incidents began my focus, research and renewed devotion to lube.
The first was a friend's experience. After years of undergoing x-rays and ultrasounds to try and find the problem with her digestive tract, she finally had the right doctor ask the right question. She was diagnosed with a weakened involuntary sphincter muscle and it was attributed to the 10 years she'd had anal sex before she knew about lube. Fecal Incontinence is a lack of control in your rectal muscles. Its side effects include the inability to tell when you have a bowel movement in your rectum pushing on your sphincter muscles. That often leads to accidents, which many times for a woman also leads to yeast and bacterial infections. It's usually considered an unfortunate after-effect of an episiotomy, but in my friend's case it was an unfortunate after-effect of sex feeling so good that she didn't care that it burned at first.
The second was when I began presenting seminars to industry insiders alongside the Sales Director of ID Lubricants, Todd Carter. These presentations brought up lube facts and questions that store clerks might need to know. Topics such as: how use of lubricant helps stimulate a woman's own vaginal gland secretions; how silicone lubricants, though newbies in the sex store isles, have been used in lubricating condoms for over 20 years; whether silicone lubricant melted silicone sex toys; how glycerin causes yeast infections; and whether silicone lubricant was appropriate for anal sex.
As the panel expert on silicones, I explained the phenomena of silicone lube to silicone sex toy bonding; the only thing silicone can stick to is silicone. Nothing melts, but with lesser grades of silicone (either in the toy or the lube) the lube will bond to the toy, creating a gummy mess.
Eros Pjur and Tantus Silicone have each conducted of experiments on this problem. We've never had any incompatibility with the other's products, but that hasn't always been the case with other silicone toys or of other silicone lubes. It's easier to explain a hard fast warning than to start trying to figure out the exceptions.
Try it: Patch Test
You can do a patch test on the bottom flange base of most dildos or plugs to see if a reaction occurs between your toys and your lube. The reaction is immediate. The only way you will be able to clean the silicone lube off the toy if it begins to bond, is by scraping it. If there's no reaction and the lube stays slick, you can feel free to use that brand of silicone lubricant on that toy.
Chemicals and Health Concerns
A question that often came up was exactly how glycerin in lubes could cause yeast infections. As well read industry people we'd heard the fact that it did, but no one really could explain why this happened. That led me to other questions about parabens. I have a girlfriend who can't use anything with those in her personal lubricants. I hadn't heard anything about paraben sensitivity until I played with her. I wondered what other ingredients might we be reacting to. Eventually I sat down and transcribed eleven different lube formulas reading off the ingredient lists for those I had in my bed stand and dresser at home (I told you I had a passion for it).
Glycerin, parabens, proplene glycol, sorbitol and of course dimethicone, dimethicanol and cylomethicone are some of the topics I began to study. For every question I answered, five more seemed to pop up. This is hardly going to be definitive, but at least it will be a start.
First and foremost, many lubes are FDA approved and all lubricant ingredients are FDA approved. That doesn't mean that no one has any negative reactions to some ingredients - but the reactions are usually minimal (such as rashes, swelling, discharge or chemical reactions that overstimulate yeast populations) and don't affect the majority of the population. I haven't heard of anyone going into anaphylactic shock (as some do with some toys) because of a lubricant.
The FDA has deemed all the ingredients safe for topical application. How does a lubricant, which goes inside your orifices fall into topical use? Only the FDA could view your digestive system as an external tube. Your mouth, stomach, intestines and genitals have a dermal covering that the FDA has categorized as topical.
So what actually happens with glycerin? After looking up everything I could find online and reading completely conflicting accounts, I ended up finding the toxicity report from the government. Glycerin is a by-product of fat; it's really an alcohol and while it has a neutral Ph balance with no sugar, glycerin is 60% as sweet as sugar cane. The reason it's a main ingredient in so many lubricants is that it is so effective at remaining slick and slippery; it doesn't gum up. That sweetness, not sucrose nor fructose per se, seems to feed the yeast population that is natural and healthy in a vaginal canal.
Ten years ago it seemed Liquid Silk and Maximus were the only glycerin-free lubes available. Because yeast infections are so prevalent for women in this society, lubricant companies have made many glycerin-free formulas including Good Lubrications Liquid and Hydra-Smooth.
Glycerin is also being studied in Galveston, Texas at UTMB's Department of Microbiology & Immunity by Dr. Samuel Baron for its anti-HIV activity. While this sounds amazing (and an online lubricant page actually sent me to his abstract), the study is hardly definitive. Glycerin is being studied in the upper intestine, which isn't the rectum or lower intestine where lubricant may be used. Also what happens in a petri dish may be wonderful, but if the skin is irritated by an ingredient it might actually serve to weaken the immunity rather than boost it.
Methyl, butyl, ethyl and propyl parabens in lubricants act as preservatives, bonding agents and antiseptics. Considering the potential bacteria contamination, having an anti-bacterial agent in my lube seems wise. I also don't want to shake my lube vigorously like oil and vinegar dressing to rejoin the ingredients. But parabens are known to promote allergic sensitization. And allergens grow with exposure. One study on parabens actually questioned if sensitivities attributed to oral antibiotics or corticosteroids weren't actually that of methyl paraben.
Parabens are much more difficult to avoid in your water based lube than glycerin. Beware, many lubes made for people who are sensitive to lubes, have parabens. No one has really brought up paraben sensitivity until now. O'My Natural Lubricant with Hemp has no parabens, nor does For Play Lube de Lux or Sensua Organics.
In researching lubricant ingredients, propylene glycol had the most inflammatory online reputation. It also had the most information available on toxnet. Reading the whole story is imperative. Propylene glycol isn't just used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, though it's used as an emollient (a thickening agent) and a preservative within these. It is also used in several industrial applications within paint and as a de-icing fluid. While it may cause contact allergy, it has also been used to hydrate and soften skin for burn victims. It has been studied extensively and found to have no effect on fertility and reproduction, unlike most other ingredients that may work to hinder sperm.
I do a lot of online community work within websites like myspace.com and live journal. Often I show up and give advice on anal sex. One of the issues that is brought up again and again is the reaction in many bodies to defecate immediately following anal sex, sometimes as a very liquid and not a healthy solid movement. So when I found sorbitol or sorbitol stearate was used in many lubricants, which is also used within the medical community rectally as a laxative, I immediately took note. Sorbitol is found naturally in apples, plums, pears, cherries, dates, peaches and other fruits. It's a simple sugar alcohol and tastes again 60% as sweet as sugar, so it may feed yeast populations as well.
Water or Silicone?
I've tried a lot of water based lubes. My body isn't reactive with the parabens, glycerin or propylene glycol, but let me tell you I'm aware that others are - two of my play partners in fact. I've yet to find a perfect water based lubricant. When the consistency is perfect for me, it tastes horrible, gets gummy or reapplication is difficult. Still I continue to try more water based lubes and to understand what it is I'm looking for. So far, my vote is abstained - I prefer silicone.
First published in Good Vibrations Online Magazine
Metis Black is the Founder and President of Tantus, Inc. The realization of her sex toy manufacturing company in 1997 helped to change the profile of sexuality products by mainstreaming silicone products and educating the industry on material safety and sexuality.
Metis' success has brought her accolades inside and outside of her industry. Her articles on material safety standards in sexual products and the chemistry of personal products such as lubricants have been widely published. Some of her publishing credits include American Journal of Sexuality Education, Good Vibrations Online Magazine, On Our Backs, Adult Novelty Business, XBiz, and The Free Speech Coalition. In 2015, she was also elected onto the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance's Board of Directors.
Over the last decade and a half, Metis has proven to be a champion for sex educators and a mentor to other small business owners.