Let’s be honest. Putting anything on — or in — your vagina should make you hesitate. And you’re right to worry. The vagina is an amazing, and pretty delicate, microbiome. Anything you put in your vagina — or for that matter, in your body, can affect your vaginal health.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of shame when it comes to talking about lube, vaginal dryness, and discomfort. If we don’t talk about it, how are we going to learn? The short answer is that we can’t. And we end up just grabbing whatever we find in the pharmacy aisle.
The thing is, not all lubricants are the same. In fact, many of them (especially over-the-counter or novelty lubricants) contain harsh chemicals or additives that can make vaginal dryness worse.
To understand how to pick the best lube for you, you need to know the differences between them and how they affect the vagina. Keep reading to learn which lubes to use, when to use them, and how they can make sex even better.
When a person with a vagina is aroused, their vagina self-lubricates. However, hormones, medications, birth control, age, smoking, and stress can lead to dryness. When you have sex without sufficient lubrication, pain, itching, burning, and tearing are likely to occur.
Lube is designed to replicate the natural lubricant that the vagina produces during pleasurable intercourse. And apparently, it does a pretty good job, since the personal lubricant market is set to reach over a billion dollars of revenue. That industry spans a variety of types of lubes, including silicone, water-based, oil-based, all-natural, flavored, and more.
First things first: let’s go over the difference between vaginal moisturizers and lubricants.
Vaginal moisturizers are creams, gels, or suppositories that are meant to improve your vaginal moisture and tissue quality. Also known as vulvar moisturizers, these are to be used routinely (2-4 times per week) depending on the severity of symptoms — not just before sex.
Vaginal moisturizers contain bioadhesives and help to form a protective barrier. Some bioadhesives include hyaluronic acid, aloe-based products, and coconut oil.
The vagina is at its healthiest when it’s acidic. That means it should be lower than 7 (pH neutral). The optimal range is between 3.8 and 5.
Why is that? A lower pH protects the vagina (and the body) from pathogens (bugs that can do harm). On the other hand, it’s a pretty welcoming environment for both sperm and good bacteria, like lactobacillus (which promotes vaginal health). An imbalance of these bacteria can lead to overgrowth (bacterial vaginosis) or yeast infections.
For that reason, vaginal lubricants should be at the same pH as the vagina. Sometimes lubricants will list the pH on their product, and sometimes they do not. You can look up the pH of many popular lubricants here.
There are other ingredients that can affect the health of the vagina, so read the packaging carefully. You can always ask your ob/gyn questions if you’re not sure about the best types of vaginal lubricants.
Lubricants are only used at the time of sexual activity. They can be water-based, silicone-based, or oil-based.
Water-based lubricants are great because they do not stain and they do not break down condoms. On the downside, some water-based lubes contain glycerin (sugar alcohol), which can be drying. Glycerin can also increase yeast infections. If you’re prone to yeast infections or taking antibiotics, you may want to keep this in mind.
Silicone-based lubricants are overall tolerated well by human skin, and aren’t likely to cause irritation. However, they shouldn’t be used with silicone devices such as vibrators or vaginal dilators. Silicone lubes can degrade silicone sex toys with repeated use. In addition to breaking your toy, you’ll create tiny holes in the surface (an ideal place for bacteria to hide).
Oil-based lubricants include baby oil, petroleum jelly, coconut oil, hand creams, and other common products. These are often well-tolerated by the skin, but may stain clothing or sheets. Oil-based lubes can also break down latex condoms, making them less effective and more likely to tear.
There’s some things to keep in mind — but lubes are meant to be fun, and manufacturers have certainly run wild with them. In addition to the base compound, lubes often have other additives included with your sex life in mind:
Visit your local sex shop and they’re likely to stock a wide range of flavored or scented lubricants. These may be fun for you and your partner, but they can also cause irritation. For that reason, anything flavored or scented might not be the best lubricant for penetrative sex.
CBD is popping up in everything else, so it’s not surprising that it’s made its way into lube. Because CBD can reduce pain, some studies indicate a potential benefit for pelvic pain or pain with intercourse. THC lubes are said to increase arousal, but these reports are mostly anecdotal.
You don’t have to use lube, but it’s a good idea. Lube reduces friction, so it can help prevent condoms from tearing. It can also prevent chafing and soreness.
Of course, not all trysts are made equal, and some might require a little more help than others. If you’re having anal sex, you and you partner will likely need a bit of lube to get things going. And if you enjoy shower sex, keep some silicone lube nearby. Water can wash away natural lubricant, and silicone lasts longer in water.
You may not always need — or want — to use lube, but it’s a good idea to keep some in your nightstand just in case.
Doctors often recommend lube on an as-needed basis for people with vaginal dryness. Everyone experiences it at some point. For example, natural variations in hormone levels throughout the month can impact your natural lubrication. The same goes for various kinds of prescription and over-the-counter medications. Your doctor can help assess why you’re experiencing dryness. They can also recommend the best lubes for you to use.
Those with chronic dryness, genitourinary syndrome, menopause, perimenopause, or in the immediate postpartum period may require vaginal hormones. These vaginal hormones are both absorbed locally in the vaginal mucosa, increasing blood flow, moisture, and tissue integrity. If you’re undergoing hormone therapy, gender-affirming procedures, or have a history of breast cancer, discuss the use of hormones with your provider before use.
If hormones aren’t ideal, there are alternative therapies for vaginal dryness available. Your doctor may recommend radiofrequency devices or laser treatment in place of hormones.
In order to choose the best kind of sex lube, you’ll have to have an idea of what your needs are. Chances are, you’ll want to buy one or two types and keep them on hand for different situations. Here are some suggestions and questions to keep in mind when choosing a lube:
Best lube for sensitive skin: choose a water-based lubricant, since they’re unlikely to irritate. Skip anything with scents, flavors, or parabens.
Best lube for anal: go with silicone-based lubes, which last longer than water-based without damaging latex condoms (as oil-based lubes often do).
Best lube for sex toys: water-based. Silicone-based lubes can degrade silicone toys. If your toys are made from glass, plastic, or another material, feel free to use silicone or oil-based lubes.
Best lube for trying to conceive: look for a lube marked “fertility-friendly,” since certain lubricants can be more detrimental to sperm than others. The FDA has actually created a special category for “sperm-friendly” lubricants. These typically have a pH around 7, and are paraben-free, glycerin-free, and iso-osmotic.
Not every lubricant or vaginal moisturizer is the same. Unfortunately, many people don’t feel comfortable asking questions about lube. Let’s keep talking and take the shame out of this topic. No one should feel embarrassed to ask about their sexual health.
Research, comfort, and self-knowledge are a priority in your medical care. If your provider doesn’t bring up these questions, you should.
Medically reviewed by Dr. Lisa Parsons, DO.
While we hope you’ve found this helpful, we can’t give you any medical advice without knowing your situation. Please reach out to a healthcare provider if you have specific questions or concerns. Nothing on this site is intended to diagnose or treat any illness, and no statement is intended or should be construed as medical or legal advice. Please utilize your best judgement and the support of your doctor when making any decisions about your health.