When Sex Lube Goes Bad: What’s Safe, What Works, and What to Avoid

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It ought to be gospel by now that any sex can benefit from using lube. For women experiencing dryness, whether due to age, the use of contraception or another medication, anxiety, a lack of sleep, dehydration, or a host of other reasons, it’s vital to prevent painful sex. For men using condoms, it decreases the risk of breaks — and for men suffering from erectile dysfunction issues, it can actually help you stay harder longer. For everyone else, a little extra wetness never hurt.

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Unfortunately not all lubes are created equal. Some are better for certain purposes: Silicon lube lasts longer and works underwater, but messes up silicon sex toys and takes forever to clean off. Oil lubes are thin and simple, but break down latex condoms and can, if not well cleaned out, cause vaginal infections. And because of how little we know for sure about the risks associated with certain ingredients, it can be hard to pick out a lube that’s definitely right for you and safe.

In order to learn a bit more about what to avoid or look for in lubes, we recently caught up with Wendy Strgar. Back in 1999, as a 37-year-old mother of four, Strgar decided she needed lube, then discovered that everything readily available on the market irritated her tissue. So she started making her own organic lubes, eventually launching the brand Good Clean Love and rising to prominence as an expert in the field — and strong critic of traditional lubes. Below, she chides some brands, recommends others, and tosses out some useful lube buying guidelines.

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Is there anyone who shouldn’t or couldn’t use lube for any reason?

We recently did a study of kids aged 19 to 22 at six college campuses nationwide about their use of lubricants. We found that young people use lube less than rarely. One [reason may be] that lubricants have performed poorly historically. [Common glycol propylene-based lubes are] such an unsatisfactory experience that the re-purchase rate on those products is often just 1.5 percent… Partly because [many old, common] lubricants are made with petrochemicals that have all kinds of other toxic effects and that just don’t feel very good when you use them. There are scientists now who say it’s better to use nothing than to use a bad personal lubricant because of the high risk that it creates [of causing irritation and even increasing infection risks].

How did we wind up with so many bad lubes on the market?

I don’t know what crazy guy thought of propylene glycol as a base for lubes. It’s in so many things. We use it as break fluid and an internal product. It’s cheap. They might’ve been thinking about their bottom line. Certainly female physiology never came into the conversation. These companies are just looking to make money, and for a long time they could do it by using petrochemical products. And because the FDA uses poor models to evaluate those products, they’ve proliferated.

You call out stuff like propylene glycol and parabens. But either because of insufficient or inconclusive studies, for many people the jury’s still out on those products. 

Actually, even our scientific advisor will often chastise me about my ingredients thing. The truth is that we don’t know about ingredients. So really what’s more important than a single ingredient is a concentration of highly concentrated petrochemical ingredients that we know is unsafe.

Do you have any guidelines not on what to avoid, but on what to look for on your average drug or sex store shelf today?

Look for products using things that sound less like chemicals and more like ingredients. There’s a high consciousness about reading body wash ingredients. So if you apply that common sense to the most sensitive tissue in your body, it becomes pretty clear what to use, especially if a company has gone through all the trouble to be an organic brand. Organic is a more meaningful term than natural. Even if there are ingredients in the bottle that are non-organic, they’ve passed a board that says it’s at least organic compliant, which is to say that it’s not going to be harmful. It’s not required, but the best companies, the ones that I would buy, are all organics.

Some [extra sensitive] people really opt for coconut or other kitchen oils. I’ve even seen online recipes for flaxseed lube that people mix up in their own kitchen. You have to be careful. You wouldn’t want to mix something like that up and have it lying around for days.

But we’re trying to come up with another line for super-sensitive people that will probably be aloe free [, as some people react to that]. I think a lot of companies are continually looking at improvements. And like you said, the choices are way better today, and largely affordable too.

Many people who care about ingredients will still use non-organic lubes because they feel they last longer, or have a higher viscosity. What can you say about the versatility and variability of organic lubes?

There is a certain range — Aloe Cadabra tends to be a more liquid, watery experience than ours. But silicone [and silicone-water hybrid] lube is one that many people still prefer. We’ve used silicone as filler in breast enhancements and been told nothing bad would ever happen. But we don’t know until we’re doing stuff if something bad is going to happen. It’s basically like a coating. It doesn’t really wash off, so it sloughs off over time. I don’t know if there’ve ever been any health issues about that, but that’s one of the reasons that I haven’t gone to that product. But certainly there’s durability to that product that’s hard to replicate in water-based organic lubes.

So for anal, I get it. And I don’t know if there’s really something in the natural space that could replace that with the same performance. I know there are some people who use our products for anal. The only caveat with that is if you’re using a water-based lube then you just have to be able to introduce some moisture.

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