Friction, while pleasant sometimes, can also be the bane of sexual activity. Too little of it and all that sexual machinery starts to break down. Too much and there’s not a good slide-to-sensation balance.
Add to this the fact that everyone’s lubrication preferences are a little different, as well as that everyone also has different levels of natural lubrication, and you’ve got a whole bunch of fun to explore. Fortunately, there’s a masterful wonder product that can save us from all our friction woes. It’s a hero in all its slippy-slidey glory; yes, we’re talking about lube.
In the words of erotic educator Taylor Sparks, “Lube makes everything better.”
What is lube?
Lube has been around for a looooooong time. For example, in roughly 350 BC, ancient grease from Ancient Greece was used for anal sex by both heterosexual and homosexual couples. In 600 BC, ancient Chinese folks were using a seaweed-based lube, and in the 17th century, people in Japan had lube made from mashed yams.
In other words, human beings have found ways to slide appendages into orifices for a very long time, despite some prominent cultural and/or religious desires to stave off the sexual sides of self-expression.
At its most basic, lube for sex is any body-safe substance that allows penetrating objects to get all nice and slidey in order to more easily slip into an orifice, or across a body. Lube can be made from all sorts of different materials, and those materials will have an effect on the sexual experience you so desire.
What to look for in a lube
Depending on the type of sex you’re having, whether you are experimenting on pegging positions (see “what is pegging” here), vaginal sex, or other types of sex, different lubes make more sense. One thing to keep in mind is that the pH balance of your lube is important, especially for vulva-havers. For vaginal intercourse, you ideally want your lube to have a pH of around 4, and for the best anal lube, a pH between 5.5 and 7 is good.
Lubes that fall outside these brackets can be used in vaginal or anal play, but you run the risk of ending up with a pH imbalance, which can cause problems like skin irritation, and can also lead to a greater risk of STI transmission. There really isn’t a best lube for all occasions; you’ve got to pick and choose based on your desired play and sexual activity to alleviate whatever anal or vaginal dryness you don’t love that much.
Sometimes, lube can be advertised as vegan or organic lube, which, depending on your values, can be a plus. Really, the most important thing is that the ingredients list is small and doesn't have anything concerning in it — for example, lubes with sugar products (or anything that acts like sugar) in them can contribute to yeast infections in people with vaginas.
“When it comes to vaginal sex,” says sexpert and columnist Zachary Zane, “you want a lube with natural ingredients that won’t irritate [your own] or your partner’s vulva. The last thing you or your partner wants is a UTI.”
Also, if you have sensitive skin, other than knowing how to use lube, you should be extra cautious about your product choices when it comes to lube. Look for calming agents like aloe vera, and avoid products that can be stimulating in a less-than-fantastic way. For example, warming or cooling lubes can sometimes cause issues for people with sensitive skin, as well as products with propylene glycol.
Water-based lubricants tend to be the easiest to recommend because they don’t come with extra complications. They won’t have any negative effects on barriers (like condoms); they won’t damage your favorite silicone adult sex toys, and they’re safe for vaginal lubrication. They do tend to be thinner in feel and they dry out quicker, so reapplication of water-based personal lubricant during sex can be more frequent. The quicker-to-dry issue could come into play more dramatically during certain sex acts, like butt play, for instance. If you’re gearing up for anal sex, it’s a good idea to grab a specialized anal sex lube.
Speaking of anal sex, remember that the rule of thumb is that more lube is always better. If you don’t use enough lube for anal (or vaginal, for that matter) sex or toy penetration, you run the risk of creating micro-tears in the tissues, which you really don’t want. So feel free to throw a lube party over here!
A note of caution:
Be sure to look at the ingredients list in your water based lube, because things like glycerin, which is often contained in commercial vaginal lubricant, can make it more likely that a vulva-haver will get a yeast infection. And unless otherwise advertised, some vaginal lubes can have a high osmolality (amount of chemicals saturated in a fluid), or high pH, which can throw off the pH of the vagina, possibly leading to other issues like bacterial vaginosis (BV). As an unhappy vagina means no vaginal sex for a while, you want to make sure to get this right, since that’s probably not the vibe you’re going for.
It’s also worth noting that between pH balance and osmolality, osmolality is usually the bigger culprit when it comes to causing problems. High osmolality in lubricant can pull water from the surrounding tissues (e.g. the cells of the vaginal wall), prompting a shrivelling effect that can cause the tissues to become irritated. And having an irritated vagina or anus puts you at higher risk of contracting or passing on sexually-transmitted infections (STIs).
Products in this category can vary widely, but it’s important to know that they have the potential to degrade barriers like the latex condom and dental dams. They, therefore, aren’t the right choice if that’s the type of protection you’re using to guard your sexual health; unwanted condom breakage during sex is a big downer. They’re also not a good lube to use internally, which means if you’re planning some penetration, you should also plan to skip the oil.
Some examples of lubes in this category are natural lubes like coconut oil (a great, natural choice for solo play or partnered play if you’re not using a barrier like condoms), olive oil, though olive oil isn’t easily absorbed by your skin, so if you’re acne-prone you’ll want to avoid it (plus clogged pores can irritate your skin and leave you more vulnerable to infections), baby oil, mineral oil, petroleum jelly and sometimes oil-based hand cream (some people use this in a pinch, but probably don’t do this if you’re having partnered sex).
The nice thing about oil-based lubes is that they can play double duty and serve as a nice easing agent in fun, sexy massage time. The not-so-nice thing about oil-based lubricants is that they tend to stain fabrics such as sheets and clothing, they don’t play nicely with barriers, and since they’re oils they don’t wash away easily, which can potentially create a breeding ground for bacteria.
One nice thing about silicone based lubricants is that they don’t have a direct impact on the pH levels of the body, since there’s no water in the product. They’re also safe for barriers, so no issues with condoms or dental dams.
On the sex toy front, depending on the quality of the silicone toys (and lubes) you’ve got, using silicone based lubricants can degrade them over time. Basically using silicone lube with a silicone sex toy will make it more porous, and porous anal sex toys are more likely to give you infections since it’s easier for them to host bacteria. Now, medical-grade silicone toys are another matter because of the quality of the material, but as a best practice, it's best to keep silicone toys away from any silicone based lubricant.
Depending on the occasion or the partner, it can be really sweet to have someone’s sexy bits taste like vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, or a juniper latte — especially during oral sex (who doesn’t love going down on juniper-latte-infused ladybits?). If private parts tasting like other things is your jam, these lubes are the right fit for you.
Flavored lubes are mostly water-based, which makes it easier to get the flavor in there. Now, that said, the quality of the flavors tends to be more on the cough syrup level of the taste spectrum, so if you’re hoping for a gourmet meal, maybe get a gourmet meal first before having sex.
Hybrid lubes tend to be a water-silicone or water-oil mix. They can bring together the best qualities of each of the ingredients, which is great. For example, silicone lubes on their own can have an oily or greasy feel to them on the skin, and are also hard to get off things — which is good in that’s the kind of protection you want … but are also hard to get off of things, which makes cleaning toys, etc. more of a procedure.
Hybrid lubes, on the other hand, can mitigate that greasy feeling; when you find the right blend of ingredients, you get that happy medium that will make penetration super smooth.
The best thing to do, really, is experiment. Try different lubes and see how they feel, especially if you’re engaging in different kinds of sex acts. The whole point of sexual exploration is to be smart about what you’re trying out and to have fun at the same time. Sexy fun times await. :)