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Lube 101: A Slick Little Primer

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Maybe you've asked us what to do about intercourse that's been painful or uncomfortable. Or perhaps you've expressed that intercourse or masturbation feels really good, until it doesn't at all, and starts to feel like you're being rubbed raw. You might want to know how to use condoms properly to reduce the risk of pregnancy or STI transmission.

Part of the answer to all of these questions is usually lubricant, and you may have already noticed our tendency to shout this from the rooftops. LubelubelubelubeLUBE!

What is lube?

Lube is lubricant. In this case, we’re talking what’s often called “personal” or “sexual” lubricant, aka a water-based, oil-based or silicone-based substance not meant for fixing cars or keeping your bike chain working, but rather for making things slicker, slipperier, comfier, and even safer with many kinds of sexual contact.

The primary purpose of lubricant is to reduce possible irritant effects of the friction that can come along with certain kinds of sex, and to make sexual contact feel and be more fluid, and just generally better.

At Scarleteen, we think lube is awesome. You'll hear us singing its praises from the rooftops (well, maybe not the rooftops) and we know it can solve a lot of problems for people and typically increases people's sexual pleasure and enjoyment.

That's not to say that it's going to make everything magically perfect, nor that if sex with yourself or someone totally sucks, lube is going to somehow make it instant amazement. There's a lot that goes into an enjoyable sexual encounter: being adequately lubricated is just one ingredient of many.

While we'd love to be able to offer lube as the ultimate panacea to every sexual concern or problem, we can only offer it as one tool: a tool that can help take good sex to great, and may take substandard sex to pretty okay. If you think that you or a partner couldn't (or worse still shouldn't!) possibly need lube, or that there's something wrong with you for needing, or even wanting, lube, or even that sex is really awesome right now, so why should you try anything else, here's something Heather recently had to share that may well give you some food for thought.

"If I'm having breakfast and it tastes way better to me with a few shakes of hot sauce, it's not because my potatoes must be deficient: it's because I find they're even better with hot sauce and it pleases me." Same goes with your body and lubricant."

We're hoping that the fact that this article exists gives you a sense that lube is something for everyone, not just something for the rare people who have problems or issues.

Lube isn't just for one kind of sex, people with one kind of genitals, or people whose bodies don't create a lot of lubrication for medical or life cycle reasons. The FDA may label lube a "medical" item, but no one has to have to have a medical reason to use it, and many people who do use it don't. A 2009 Indiana University study showed, for example, that 65% of women surveyed enjoyed sexual activity more when lube was involved. People often report inviting lube into their sex life for no other reason than that it makes sex more fun.

The Land before Lube

We're not actually sure that such a land, or such a time, ever existed. From at least as far back as 800BCE, we know the ancient Greeks were touting olive oil as a lubrication and sexual aid.

Over at least thousands of years, people have invented or used all sorts of concoctions to help with sexual lubrication. One such ancient lubrication recipe included plant oils w/ water, animal fat and cactus juice. Unfortunately, the history of sexual lubrication apparently wasn't all that important to most historians (we don't get why not!), so many ancient ways of adding lubrication were lost in the annals of time.

The first official, commercially available lubricant we know of was born in the 1800s. It started with a waxy, goopy substance that oil rig workers would use to heal minor injuries when at work. This became what we now know as petroleum jelly, which was for a time considered to be a “cure-all” ointment. (Although later, it turned out that petroleum jelly has ZERO medicinal properties.)

The Vaseline brand was released in the 1870s as an ointment purported to have many healing properties. It did not take long for everyone to figure out what else they could use it for. Just five years later, jars of Vaseline were selling like hotcakes.

In the early 1900s, the first owners of the Johnson & Johnson company released the first K-Y jelly product. This version of the product was created for the purposes of a surgical aid as well as awkward-and-physically-uncomfortable medical procedures. If you have ever purchased KY Jelly, and found that it dries up quickly, this is why; it was formulated to give a lot of slipperiness, but only for a short period of time.

It took another eighty years for the company to give in and officially market K-Y jelly not only to doctors, but to its widest accidental consumer base: the people buying up K-Y Jelly to use it for sexual purposes. And the rest is history: now, there are hundreds of different brands and many kinds of lubricant, used by millions and millions of people every year worldwide.

Why do people use lube?

More lubrication during different kinds of vaginal sex, like manual sex or intercourse. Putting anything comfortably, and certainly pleasurably, inside the vagina requires at least some lubrication. While the vagina lubricates itself, not everyone's vagina will always lubricate enough, or lubricate the same way all the time. If vaginal sex feels rough, dry, or irritating, often times lube is the answer!

Anal sex. Unlike the vagina, the anus and rectum do not naturally produce any lubrication, and that's necessary for safe, healthy anal sex without injury. The skin at the opening of the anus (on the outside of the body) and in the rectum (on the inside of the body) is thin and sensitive. It's far easier to get little tears (fissures) in your skin during anal sex, which not only don't feel good, but also increase the likelihood of transmitting or acquiring sexually transmitted infections, or any sort of more general bacterial infection. Lube makes any anal sex with entry, be it with fingers, sex toys or a penis, far more comfortable and safe.

Fun flavors for oral sex. Flavored lube is designed specifically for oral sex. It can be used on a penis, vulva, anus, or any other body part that you want to lick it off of or have it licked off of. Flavored lube can make oral sex taste like strawberries or vanilla (or almost any other flavor), and, when barriers such as condoms or dental dams are used, can mask the taste of latex or non-latex materials, which isn't a taste everyone enjoys. Keep in mind that using barriers is the best way to prevent sexually transmitted infections during any type of sex, including oral sex.

Masturbation. Lube is not just reserved for sex with a partner. Lubricant can enhance solo sex, or masturbation, for with vaginas or penises. In addition to reducing friction, using lube during masturbation can make the experience more fun, comfortable, or just provide a different type of sensation.

Extra slip’n’slide! Even if you feel comfortable with you or your partner’s level of lubrication during sex, adding additional lube to the mix can just feel really nice. As some people like to say, “The wetter, the better!” (Feasibly, you could even use it for a real Slip N'Slide if you wanted, it'd just be a whole lot more expensive than using water from the garden hose.)

Doesn't the body make its own lube?

It depends on what body part we are talking about. Let's break it down:

  • The Vagina: The vagina does make its own fluids. There are glands located just to the side of and below the vaginal opening, called the Bartholin's glands, and glands just to the side of and below the urethra (the urinary opening) called Skene's glands. These glands produce fluids that lubricate the vagina. The levels of fluid produced by these glands, though, vary from person to person, and also can change over time, or from day to day.
  • The Penis: The penis also makes its own fluid. There are a few different fluids that come out of the penis. "Pre-come" or pre-ejaculatory fluid can come out of the penis at the beginning of arousal or erection, during sexual activities or before ejaculation. Another fluid that comes out of the penis is ejaculate, or semen. For those with a foreskin, additional natural oils are part of the picture.  But just like with the vagina, these fluids aren't always enough to make masturbation or partnered sex that involves the penis feel either comfortable, or as good as a person may like.
  • The Anus: The anus (or butthole) does not make its own lubrication. The skin around the opening of the anus and up inside of the body (into the rectum) is very thin and also very sensitive. The combination of the lack of lubrication, that thin tissue, and a lot of sensory nerves means that without a lubricant, anal sex is far more likely to cause tears in the skin, and just not feel good.
  • The Mouth: The mouth produces saliva; for many people, in truly impressive quantities. This can make oral sex as wet and slippery as both partners want it. However, using barriers for safer sex means that saliva will not come into contact with the genital involved. Therefore, some lubricant to make the contact between genital and barrier - - placed beneath or inside that condom or dam -- more comfortable is often helpful.

Why do some people have less vaginal lubrication than others?

When it comes to vaginal lubrication, or “wetness," we're all pretty different. Some vaginas produce more lubrication than others, and folks with vaginas will tend to find that their levels of wetness fluctuate throughout the month -- and a lifetime -- based on changes in the fertility and menstrual cycle, general health and well-being, and more.

In addition to just being a part of your natural biology, vaginal lubrication is affected by hydration (if you’re not drinking enough water, your vagina isn’t going to release as much fluid, just like your mouth won't tend to salivate as much), stress, sexual desire (or a lack thereof), diet, medication, your method of birth control (methods like the pill, patch and ring often result in increased vaginal dryness), and other factors. These factors might not make a vagina totally dry up, necessarily, but can, and often do, change the texture or amount of lubrication, or the amount of time it takes to become lubricated during sexual activity, or how long a person stays adequately lubricated throughout sexual activity.

For these circumstances, using lube is a great way to have more comfortable, pleasurable sex. Some people also have medical issues that are related to chronic vaginal dryness that should be discussed with a medical professional, and lubricant is typically one thing their healthcare provider will advise they use.

What kinds of lube are there?

Just like there are many different brands, kinds and styles of condoms out there to meet people’s different needs, there are also a variety of types of lubricant. We all have different texture and ingredient preferences when it comes to lube, based on how sensitive our skin is, what type of sex we are taking part in, and just generally whether we think a certain type of lubricant feels good! Below are the main types of lubricant, and what you need to know about each to decide what might work best for you.

  • Water-based: The most common type of lubricant that you might see on the shelves is water-based lube. “Water-based” means that the lubricant is primarily composed of water, with additional ingredients to give it texture and thickness. Water-based lubricant comes in three main consistencies:
  • Liquids: Liquids are the thinnest, and are clear. There is more water in liquid lubricant, so they tend to dry up the fastest.
  • Creams: Creams have a consistency that tends to feel the most similar to the natural vaginal lubrication (depending on the person, of course). Creams tend to be whitish in color, like a thin lotion. There is usually a little bit of silicone added to creams, which also makes them last a little bit longer when using them. Creams do tend to taste more bitter, which is worth considering if you plan on integrating oral sex in after applying lube.
  • Gels: Gels are clear like liquids, but have less water. Therefore, they have a much thicker, gel-like texture. Gels are great options for anal sex, because they provide a little more “cushion”-y feeling, and also last longer than other water-based lubricants.

Pros: Water-based lube is easy to clean up,  and doesn’t stain sheets.  For those who want to use the most natural ingredients they can, they may prefer water-based lubes to those which are silicone-based.

Cons: Water-based dries up faster than other types, is not useful for shower/water sex or masturbation (it will wash right off), leaves residue when water is absorbed, and can contain certain preservatives that might irritate skin.

  • Silicone-based: Silicone-based lube have, perhaps obviously, silicone as their base ingredient, rather than water, and feel oilier than water-based lube. Many people enjoy silicone-based lubricant because it has a silky texture and because it can last a long time without drying up or becoming sticky.

Pros: Silicone lube does not dry up or get absorbed into the skin, so it lasts longer. Some people prefer the texture, and it's hypoallergenic.

Cons: Silicone-based lube potentially stains sheets, is not compatible with silicone sex toys, is more expensive than water-based (but lasts longer, so it's a bit of a wash when it comes to cost), and can be harder to clean up. We also advise being especially careful when using it near hardwood floors, as it will make anything it comes into contact extremely slippery. If you're going to get a sex injury, we figure you at least deserve a more interesting story than having slipped on the lube on the floor.

  • Oil-based: There are not many commercial lubricants that are oil-based, as oil breaks down latex and can cause latex condoms to break. Some people use massage oil, baby oil, olive oil, coconut oil, Vaseline, or other oil products as lubricant, and there are a few oil-based lubricants marketed specifically for sex. There are also some oil-based "masturbation creams" that are specifically geared towards people with penises.

Pros: Oil-based lube is good for people that want to avoid some of the preservatives in water-based or silicone-based lube. Folks might have a texture preference, and it lasts longer. Some people also find some choices of oils mean they get skin benefits they like. For these reasons, oil-based lube can also be a good masturbation option for people with penises.

Cons: Oil-based lube breaks down latex. It might potentially cause infections in people with sensitive skin, as it is suspected to trap bacteria in the vagina for some people.

What about natural oils for lubricant?

There seems to be some debate about whether some natural oil lubricants, such as olive oil or coconut oil, can be irritating for people with vaginas. Some folks find that they prefer the texture and natural quality of oil-based lube, whereas others find that it can cause irritation. Everyone is different when it comes to how our bodies react to different ingredients, but it is worth nothing that some people find these lubricants to work well for their bodies, and others prefer to use lubes with different ingredients.

  • Flavored: Flavored lubricant is a tasty option for someone who is looking to add flavor, or something a bit silly, to oral sex. Flavored lube comes in a variety of different flavors, and is typically water-based with sugar or synthetic sweeteners added to it. We will go into more details about different ingredients below, but an important thing to note is that the sugar present in flavored lubricant helps to make the lube taste sweet, but can also make some people more inclined to yeast infections. Because of that, it’s often best to reserve the flavored lube just for oral sex/outside of the body and not use it for inside the vagina.

Pros: Flavored lube can be a fun way to spice up oral sex, can be used with condoms or dental dams for extra protection, and washes off easily.

Cons: Flavored lube is not ideal for vaginal sex, and you might not find it tastes good.

  • Warming, cooling, or “This will make sex OFF THE RAILS!”: Certain lubes are marketed to have an extra something that will "spice up" your sex life or make everything feel so much better. This might be warming lube, cooling lube, his and hers lube, among others.

Pros: These lubes provide additional options for lube, and are typically safe to use with condoms if they don't contain oil.

Cons: The added ingredients to cause additional sensations might also irritate your genitals or those of a partner. Cooling or numbing lubricants or sprays, of any kind, can also make people unaware of when they may be injuring themselves, because they can't fully feel what's actually going on.

  • Lube on condoms: Pre-lubricated condoms come with a little bit of lube on them. However, it's often not enough lubricant for vaginal or anal sex for most people, so using additional water-based or silicone-based lube with a condom (oil-based lubes are a no-no with latex condoms, as they degrade the latex) is advised. Even if the friction of using no extra lube with the condom feels good, it's sound to make that condom more slippery rather than less, as this decreases the chances that such friction will lead to a condom break.

Ingredients to keep in mind: As you now know, there are plenty of different types of lubricants, each of which have their own lists of ingredients. For some people, the specific ingredients within the lube don’t pose any issues. However, some people might have more sensitive skin, particularly around their genitals, and understanding what types of ingredients might cause irritation or infections can be a total lube game-changer!

  • Glycerin: Glycerin is an ingredient that's added to many water-based lubricants. It is a preservative, and also helps lube maintain its moisture. However, the body treats it like a sugar, which can be problematic for people who have sensitive skin or are prone to yeast infections.
  • Parabens: Parabens are another common preservative some people don't do well with. There are many different kinds, but you can tell if an ingredient is a paraben if it ends in the word “paraben”, like “methylparaben” or “propylparaben”.
  • Botanicals and extracts: Some lubricants are marketed as having organic botanicals or additional ingredients like aloe, Vitamin E, or flower extracts. This ingredients might make your skin feel moisturized, but if your skin is sensitive they might just be unnecessary additions that can cause irritation.

If you're a sensitive-skinned lube-seeker, have no fear! There are some great options out there for you, including lubes by Sliquid and Slippery Stuff (online or in the US). If you are looking for lube that you can get in a drugstore, check out Astroglide Glycerin and Paraben Free or K-Y Sensitive Jelly. And when in doubt, just check the label! You can also always ask your sexual or reproductive healthcare provider about lubes for your sensitive-self, too.

How do you choose?

If you shop for lube where you've got a wide variety of lubricants to choose from, it can seem impossible to know which lubricant to pick out at first, and what might be a great lube option for one person might not be the best for someone else. If you know you have sensitive skin or are prone to yeast infections, that can help narrow the options down, but trying out different types of lube can be a fun “experiment” by yourself or with a partner! And chances are that finding the lubes you and partners like best is going to be a lot like finding out what kinds of condoms -- or what kinds of sex -- you like best, where you'll just need to try a few kinds or brands to find out.

If you are in a store that lets you try out testers of lube -- this is the case if and when you can buy lubricant in sex toy stores, for instance -- or if you have lubes you want to try out at home, you might pay special attention to the following to figure out what you do and don't like:

  • Texture/Feel: Does it feel nice on your hands, or does the texture gross you out? If the texture of the lube freaks you out on your hands, you might not enjoy it on your genitals either. Does it get tacky when you rub it between your fingers for a long time? If you have sensitive skin, how does it feel on your hands?
  • Taste: If you plan on using lube before or with oral sex, taste really is important. Does it taste sweet, like nothing, or bitter to you?
  • Smell: Does it smell pleasant, neutral, or does it make you want to plug your nose? Again, you will want to be okay with the smell of the lube, especially if you plan on getting up close and personal where it is applied.

Some of the places listed below will offer either small sample-sized lube packets that you can buy individually, or you can buy a lube sample pack that has a variety of lube samples. That way you’re not committed to a larger bottle of lubricant that you might not like.

Where can you get lubricants?

Depending on how old you are and where you live, lube might be easier to get for some of us than for others.

  • Drugstores or grocery stores: Drugstores, grocery stores, and pharmacies are probably the most accessible places to get lubricant. Some drugstores have a wider variety of lubes than others. Just like with condoms, there aren’t age restrictions when it comes to buying lube.
  • Adult stores: Adult stores or sex toy shops often have a wider range of lubricant options than drugstores or grocery stores do. However, you must be 18 (or perhaps older, depending on where in the world the store is located) to enter them.  If you are over 18, and do have a sex toy shop near you so you can shop in person, the staff at many of such shops have training to also be sex educators, and are people you can ask for help in choosing a lubricant.
  • Online: If you have a credit or debit card, you can order any type of lubricant you want online. Some adult stores have online shops -- and they often  have ambiguous names on credit card statements and packages they send, to even if you still live at home, you don't have to worry about your folks seeing a box that says THIS IS FULL OF SEX THINGS! on it. You can also order from online drugstores as well.
  • Doctors office: This is a great option if purchasing lubricant is not possible for you. If you have a trusted health provider that you feel comfortable talking about sex with, you can ALWAYS ask for condoms and lube when you go in. Your provider should have lube samples in his or her office.
  • Health centers: Regardless of whether you have a specific health provider or not, most community or school-based health centers also offer lubricant for free. If you don't know of any health providers near you, check out our Find-a-Doc for a healthcare professional near you.

Some Last Lines on Lube

Each person's body has its own natural thing going in its own way, so "natural" lubrication is just that: a natural body function that exists the way it does independent of anyone else. Just like all of people and our bodies vary, so it goes with how much or little, how often or infrequently, when and how we self-lubricate in the ways that we can.  And just like people vary in that way, people also will vary with when they want to add lubricant, how much, and how often.  If you or a partner ask for or want some extra lube, all that is is a desire for something you, or they, know or suspect will make something that can already feel good feel better.  We know, from listening and talking with users that may people have some funky ideas about lube, and some hangups about when they, or partners, want or need it.

We suggest you think of it like that business about potatoes and hot sauce up there, or maybe about when and if a partner, or you, asks for a pillow during sex, or a blanket.  It's just something people want sometimes that means they want things wetter, not any kind of giant testament to how sexy or not someone thinks you are (or is themselves), how much they do or don't like the sex you're having, or about how womanly, manly or anything else-ly someone, or you, is or isn't.

Simply put, lube can make sexual activity smoother, easier, safer, and even, if all the other ingredients are there too, better. Even when something is already mighty good.

written 19 Jul 2013 . updated 20 Jul 2013

Information on this site is provided for educational purposes. It is not meant to and cannot substitute for advice or care provided by an in-person medical professional. The information contained herein is not meant to be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, or for prescribing any medication. You should always consult your own healthcare provider if you have a health problem or medical condition.