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Lube Ingredients to Watch Out For

Talking ingredients can be pretty tedious. But if you’re reading a blog all about lube, you probably want to know what's in it! So get ready, because we’ve got lots of slippery territory to cover.

Photo by Sarah Takforyan on Unsplash

But before we start unpacking those lube labels, here’s a little story for you…

Girl Meets Lube

When I was 19 years old, my best friend Krista told me about lube. She showed me her bottle of “Vagisil”, and suggested that I try it. I trusted Krista (she also bought me my first vibrator!), and so I went out and got myself a bottle.

I'll forever be grateful to my friend for introducing me to lube and for her wise recognition of its fundamental advantages. But unbeknownst to us both at the time, "Vagisil" was not without its problems. If you’re thinking “the name” – yes, there’s definitely that. But I’m specifically talking here about some of its ingredients.

Fast-forward 20 years, and you won’t find Vagisil in my lube drawer. While its ingredients aren’t off-the-charts terrible, like many other lubes out there it contains glycerin and propanediol, which most likely account for its high osmolality (measuring in at between 1200-1400 mOsm/kg*).

*If you don't understand this number and why it's not ideal, read my post about the connection between infection and lube concentration levels, a.k.a. osmolality!

Getting to know your lube

Below, I’ve compiled a list of potentially problematic ingredients to help you navigate lube labels. Many negative physical reactions to lube – be it yeast infections, itching, redness or inflammation, burning sensations, bacterial vaginosis, UTIs, or something else you'd rather avoid – could very well be linked to at least one (if not more) of these ingredients.

And even if a lube that contains some of these ingredients seemingly works well for you, you may want to reconsider using it based on some of the available information related to its possible long-term or less obvious side effects.

Disclaimer alert

In case you don’t already know it from falling down your own Google wormhole, there’s a ton of info out there about these ingredients (mostly from subjective media sources – and even the scientific studies don’t usually refer to human subjects and leave much still to be confirmed). I’ve tried my best to synthesize the more reliable info and to draw on scientific data where possible.

Ingredients commonly linked to infection:

Propylene Glycol

Propylene Glycol (also referred to as PG) is derived from petroleum and is a very common solvent and humectant used in lube. PG has been linked with high concentration levels (a.k.a. high osmolality) in certain lubricants, with studies showing damage to epithelial mucous membranes, resulting in irritation and increased susceptibility to STIs and other infections. Most other health risks associated with PG are generally said to be higher with repeated exposure and in large quantities. However, allergic reactions and skin irritations are apparently quite common even with smaller doses.


Derived from corn, this is the natural equivalent of propylene glycol. While it’s generally only used in small quantities in lube, propanediol can nevertheless increase the osmolality of a lubricant, thereby increasing the permeability of mucus membranes, leaving you more vulnerable to bacteria, viruses, and other nefarious chemicals.


Glycerin is a sugar alcohol that potentially increases a lube’s osmolality (again, this refers to the lube's particle density), resulting in damage to mucous membranes that can leave the area feeling irritated and more susceptible to infection. Read my full post about glycerin here.

Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)

PEG, also called polyethylene or polyoxyethylene, is a petroleum-based ingredient that is often used as a thickener in lubricant. Like glycerin and propylene glycol, PEG has been shown to be particularly damaging to the vaginal and colorectal lining in studies looking at lubricant osmolality, since it can increase a lube's concentration levels, resulting in damage to mucous membranes.


This is a family of chemicals represented by numbers, such as Polyquaternium-1 or Polyquaternium-15. These chemicals are used in lube as a preservative and also to create a gel-like consistency. Polyquaternium has been linked to an increased risk of HIV infection and inflammation to epithelial cells. This chemical group can also release formaldehyde, causing skin irritation and allergic reactions.


Chlorhexidine, also called Chlorhexidine gluconate, is a disinfectant chemical and antibacterial agent. It can also be added to lube as a cheap preservative. Chlorhexidine has been shown to kill multiple strains of lactobacilli in the vagina, which are bacteria that produce lactic acid and keep the vaginal ecosystem in balance. Without enough lactobacilli, the risk of bacterial infections, yeast overgrowth, and STI transmission are significantly higher.


Sometimes used in flavoured lube, sugar might make your lube taste nice, but it can also feed yeast, potentially leading to infection.


Nonoxynol-9, also called N-9, is an extremely harsh chemical compound and microbicide found in some spermacides. Because of its harmful effects, it's no longer used as commonly as it once was, but it's worth being on your radar as it's still sometimes added to lubricants and lubricated condoms, vaginal foams and creams, diaphragm/cervical cap jelly, contraceptive sponges, and sex toy cleaners. Nonoxynol-9 is not safe to use as it facilitates the transmission of infection, including HIV, by causing tearing in the vaginal and anal tissues.

Petrochemical-based oils (e.g. Vaseline, baby oil)

When used as sexual lubricants, petrochemical-based oils have been linked to a greater incidence of yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis. For more about these oils and their risks, check out my post on oil-based lube.


L-arginine is one of the "building blocks" of proteins known as amino acids. It’s commonly used in topical stimulating products - and occasionally in lube - because it increases blood flow to the genitals thereby enhancing sensitivity. But L-arginine has been shown to increase the frequency of outbreaks of the herpes virus (both cold sores and genital lesions). If you want a stimulating cream/lube without L-arginine, you could try similar types of products that contain peppermint or menthol instead, which have a similar stimulating effect.

Ingredients described as allergens or irritants:


Benzocaine is a numbing ingredient found in various pain relief products, such as oral anesthetic gels and hemorrhoid creams, and is also sometimes used in lube (most commonly in anal lube) to dull the sensation of pain during sex. While allergies resulting in contact dermatitis are not uncommon, the main worry with Benzocaine in lube is that, because of its numbing effect, it doesn’t allow you to feel when something is painful and put a stop to it before more serious harm is done.

Menthol/Peppermint Oil

Sometimes used in stimulating or warming/cooling lubricants, menthol and peppermint oil can increase blood flow to the genitals. But it can also dry out mucus membranes, possibly causing irritation or infection.

Diazolidinyl Urea

This is a synthetic antimicrobial preservative that works by releasing formaldehyde. It’s a common allergen and skin irritant.


Used as a preservative and stabilizer in lube, phenoxyethanol is a synthetic chemical often found in body care products. It is deemed safe in concentrations under 1%, but because lots of products contain this ingredient, overexposure is possible without realizing it. The main risk with phenoxyethanol in lube is irritation to the skin and allergic reactions. It's sometimes advised that people who are pregnant/breastfeeding and children under 3 years old avoid products containing phenoxyethanol due to concerns over nervous system interaction in infants.

Triethanolamine (TEA)

Used as an emulsifier and pH-adjuster, this chemical is unlikely to cause skin irritation in concentrations under 5%. Because levels of TEA in body care products shouldn’t exceed 3%, there doesn't seem to be a big cause for concern. That said, if you’re experiencing issues with your lube, TEA should at least be on your radar.

Isothiazolinone Preservatives

These preservatives aren’t commonly used in lube, but you might find them in intimate products, like genital wipes or washes, so I’ve included them on this list. Methylisothiazolinone (MI) and methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI) are the two most common of these preservatives, and are known allergens that can cause irritation and itching.

Potentially carcinogenic ingredients:


Parabens are chemical preservatives and antimicrobials. The most common types used in lube are methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben, and butylparaben. The main concern is that they can be absorbed through the skin, and stored in the body, especially in reproductive organ tissues, such as breasts and ovaries. However, the extent to which they mess with the body’s endocrine system and their relationship to breast cancer is still under investigation. Even though there has yet to be concrete evidence that parabens in body care products are unsafe, many people want to reduce their exposure, opting for paraben-free lubes and other body products.


Phthalates are chemical plastic softeners. Maybe you’ve heard of them in relation to PVC drink bottles or sex toys - but they can also be found in personal care products, like lube. Phthalates pose serious health risks, and have been linked to endocrine system disruption, breast cancer, infertility, birth defects and liver cancer.


“Fragrance” or “parfum” is not as simple an ingredient as it sounds. On an ingredients label, “fragrance” stands for a mixture of undisclosed chemicals, some of which can be potentially toxic and carcinogenic. Synthetic fragrances can even contain phthalates. Possible negative health effects also include allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and effects on the reproductive and central nervous systems.

DEA and DEA compounds

DEA stands for diethanolamine, and its compounds usually indicate “DEA” within the ingredient’s name, such as Linoleamide DEA or DEA-Cetyl Phosphate. DEA and its compounds are used in lube as a pH adjuster, surfactant or emulsifier. The main concern is that DEA can react with other ingredients, forming extremely carcinogenic nitrosamines. This is why DEA and some of its compounds (not all) are banned in the EU and Canada for cosmetic use. Meanwhile, U.S. Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel determined that DEA was ok to use specifically in rinse-off products as long as these were formulated to be non-irritating and avoided any nitrosating agents.

Congratulations - you made it to the end! This isn't to say that there aren't more problematic ingredients sometimes used in lube, but these are some of the most common ones.

If you want more info about the ingredients in your lube, try searching the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) database of ingredients found in personal care products.


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