How to Choose Lubricants and Vaginal Moisturizers for Pleasure and Safety

Water dropping into a pool of water David Becker/Unsplash

Edited by Our Bodies Ourselves Today Sexuality Content Experts, July 2022

This content is adapted from an earlier article by Our Bodies Ourselves “Sexual Challenges” Contributors

Vaginal lubrication often occurs naturally during sexual excitement and arousal. Women vary in how much lubrication they produce and the amount of lubrication desired for pleasurable sexual activity — this variation is totally normal.

Reduced lubrication is very common and can be the result of hormonal changes in a woman’s body  — during breastfeeding, perimenopause, and postmenopause, for instance — or caused by medications such as antihistamines, hormonal forms of birth control, chemotherapy, and medications for ADHD and depression. Also, you may have decreased lubrication if you are dehydrated, or if you’re not fully aroused.

Lubricants and vaginal moisturizers can be purchased online or at drugstores, many supermarkets, and sex-toy shops. Lubricants are applied during or right before sexual activity, while moisturizers are used on a regular basis, such as every few days, to heal and thicken the vaginal tissues and increase overall moisture. Whether you’re having vaginal sex with a partner or masturbating on your own, you may want to add lubrication in order to:

  • Decrease painful friction in the vagina and/or anus
  • Enhance sexual arousal by stimulating the flow of blood to the vulva, which encourages your body to create some of its own lubricant
  • Lubricate the clitoris; this can create more sexual pleasure and an easier route to orgasm
  • Change the way oral sex tastes
  • Keep vaginal skin soft and help maintain elasticity of vaginal walls

When it comes to choosing a lubricant or vaginal moisturizer, consider two things: your comfort and your safety.

Comfort refers to your pleasure. Lubes have different amounts of staying power, thickness, and slipperiness. They can feel warm, pleasurable, distracting, and/or irritating. They come as liquids, creams and gels. These and other factors can make a difference in how sex feels when you use them, so it’s worth experimenting until you find something that really works for you.

Safety refers to your health. For example, oil-based lubricants cannot be used with latex condoms, since they can cause condom failure. Less well known is that some of the contents of lube and moisturizer can actually be bad for our genital and anal health.

If you want to lubricate your vagina and vulva, it’s best to choose products that have pH and osmolality levels that are close to those of actual vaginas: between 3.8 and 4.5. High vaginal pH can lead to vaginosis and other problems. If you’re using lubrication for anal sex, you want lube with a pH between 5.5 and 7. While not all lubes and moisturizers list their levels on the package, you can usually find it with a little online research or by calling the manufacturer.

Osmolality–the concentration of ingredients that are not water–is another important consideration. Some of the big name vaginal lubricants in the U.S. have 4 to 30 times the osmolality of healthy vaginal fluid. Such high osmlality levels essentially pull moisture from your tissues, which may lead to discomfort, increased infections, and even tissue damage. Ideally, your lube or vaginal moisturizer will have an osmolality of 380 mOsm/kg or lower, which is compatible with both vaginal and anal levels.

Other common ingredients to watch out for include glycerine, glycol, parabens, scents, flavors, and dyes, any of which might increase irritation and infections.

For vaginal moisturizers, also look for products with hyaluronic acid, a molecule that helps with cell hydration and healing. Hyaluronic acid attracts and retains moisture in the vulva and vaginal lining, helping to repair and restore thinning and damaged tissue.

 

Product Type

Brands[1] 

How to Use

Pros

Cons

Water-based lubricant

Sliquid, Aloe Cadabra, AH! YES, Good Clean Love

Apply just prior to or during sex

Cheap, easy to find, gentle on skin, compatible with all safer sex supplies

Doesn’t last very long, can become tacky

Oil-based lubricant

Almond oil, coconut oil, olive oil

Apply during sex or as needed during the day

Cheap, easy to find, stays slick a long time

Will weaken latex condoms and cause them to break

Silicone-based lubricant

Uberlube, Good Vibrations Please Silicone Lubricant

Apply just prior to or during sex

Stays slick a long time, works underwater, can be better for people with sensitivities

More expensive; can damage silicone-based sex toys without a cover

Vaginal moisturizers

Replens, Bionourish, Reveree

Apply on a schedule, every few days or as directed

Soothes skin, inhibits e. coli (the bacteria that causes most UTIs)

More expensive, requires regular use over time

Local (vaginal) estrogen

Estring, Vagifem, Estrace, Femring

Apply twice weekly as a cream or change insertable ring every 90 days.

Prevent UTIs and yeast infections; rejuvenates atrophic tissue, is covered by most health insurance

Expensive, requires a prescription

 

[1] This list is not an endorsement of any particular brand.

 

Related:

See also Treating Vaginal Dryness in Menopause